A Night of Theater at the Movies

Last night (Tuesday) we went to the movie theater for the one-time showing of the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch. It was a stage version, with multiple cameras. And my god, it made you wish you had been in the theater!

As we were leaving, a middle school aged girl we were with asked, When was this set? Was it supposed to be today, or Shakespeare’s time or what? When was it. And I smiled and said, “It just was.” Every Hamlet is different, brings something different to the stage. I am not and never have been one who adheres to the idea of an “authentic” interpretation of Shakespeare, that if it’s not done exactly like it was 400 years ago it’s wrong. Theater is live – it happens NOW, right in front of you, and good theater is, at root, about you.

A great cast. Cumberbatch is amazing – and far and away the funniest Hamlet I’ve seen. Just little things, a turn of the head, a different inflection than you’d have expected. That whole England thing. Really very good Claudius, solid Gertrude, Laertes, Polonius, Horatio. (Very nerdy Horatio, very different than I’ve seen him before.) Rozencrantz and Guildenstern – Rosencrantz is hilarious – very good. And the grave digger is always a highlight, just one of those little scenes where you get to see an old pro do his thing, almost effortlessly.

Ophelia? In the first half, she’s OK but very “acty.” You can see her acting, see her thinking. A little better after she goes nuts. She was the weakest character, but she always is. You DID really feel for how she was being used, caught in the middle, but that’s more about the people around her than her. Ophelia is always a problematic character. I’ve never seen one I really bought. So she was definitely the weakest link, but she always is so I didn’t worry about that.

But as good as the cast is, as amazing as the acting is, it’s really the staging that just blows you away. And it did. It just blew us away. The “slow motion” was really effective, pulling Hamlet away from the picture for his soliloquies while the action seemed to be continuing, creating the sense of this all being an inner monologue. And some of the big stage effects were really surprising. Not sure how they could do that every night.

One interesting choice they made. They cut the whole first scene, the “Who goes there?” “For this relief much thanks” scene. Started it with Horatio finding Hamlet for the “Thrift, thrift” scene. And it totally works. Turns out here’s not one thing in the first scene that you need as an audience. So there’s almost 10 minutes trimmed right off the top.

National Theatre Live brings some remarkable stage productions to 2,000 movie screens around the world. This was my first, but it won’t be my last.

Their production of Hamlet was really, really good, even better than you’d expect from such an institution. If you get a chance to see it, it’s awfully good.

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