sian hill

Hamlet – A review by UCBUT

Well, a promise made is a promise kept! Here is my personal review of this marvellous piece of theatre that was Hamlet by Lindsey Turner. Because it really was fantastic. “Spoilers” ahead.

A foreword…

The play is really faithful to Shakespeare’s original text. No simplification or modernization! Only some reorganisation or cuts here and there. Nothing harmful. And all the more impressive when you think about the thousands of lines to learn and remember! (Especially in BC’s case, since his current predicament probably didn’t help, but that’s another story)

Set

As everyone has already stated, the set design was incredible. I’m not familiar with theatre at all, but I loved what Danny Boyle did with Frankenstein on the NT stage, and Es Devlin’s work is equally, if not far more impressive. The colours, textures, structure, props and decorations… everything was absolute perfection and created a warm, rich, incredible atmosphere, whether it be in the first 3 acts (palace interior, with a gorgeous banquet scene) or the last two (amazing post-bombing/apocalyptic look). Also… CONFETTIS!!! (reaching the audience only on the right side of the theatre, BTW)

On a negative note: if you’re sitting on the far left of the stage, you don’t see what’s happening upstairs, which is a shame for one main scene at the beginning (= Hamlet fighting with Marcellus and Barnardo when his father’s ghost appears) and little details afterwards (e.g. staff looking through Ophelia’s papers and letters); and if you’re sitting in the front row, you can’t see what’s happening just after the banquet scene in the main corridor behind the table (two guests playing cat and mouse, with little clothes on, IIRC!).

Lighting

A beautiful set means nothing without good lighting. And for Hamlet, Jane Cox’s work highlighted Es Devlin’s vision in a superb fashion. The banquet scene, as mentioned above, was the best realisation in that regard. I also loved the exterior scenes or those happening at night (e.g. Hamlet in England). Again, the atmosphere was incredible. There were real candles (you could even smell the smoke after they were put out), and special effects (strobe lights, steam visible in the projectors’ light…). Everything was smartly done and worked hand in hand with the set and movement on stage. I guess it’s a basic requirement, but nothing felt out of place or cheap. It really worked smoothly.

Sound and music

This Nat King Cole introduction still gives me shivers and makes me cry every time I hear it. So nice a choice for Hamlet – who he is, how he sees the world around him… and a choice which completes the enchanting vibe of the set that appears just afterwards for the banquet scene. The parade/military music was a very good choice too, and BC had real fun with it. I wish I knew what it is! But my love goes to the sad and dramatic tunes, which beautifully conveyed the emotional atmosphere of some scenes: an ethereal piano piece for Ophelia going to her death, muffled and rhythmic sounds like heartbeats when Hamlet is being chased or when a menacing Claudius plots his murder)… Hamlet’s father’s ghost had a nice grim echo too.

Movement/directing

There’s always movement everywhere. BC alone works the stage, standing still for some lines and then moving around. With other actors, he’s using all the space there is, which, for specific scenes (e.g. with Ophelia, Gertrude or Horatio/Marcellus/Barnardo), reinforces his wildness and excitement. Only one scene (= Ophelia singing) is mostly happening on the far left of the stage, and thus lacks dynamics.

The palace’s staff is often busy in the background during the main scenes, which was smart both visually and technically, as they are the ones who put in place or remove the various elements and props on or from the stage between scenes. The slow motion, used for every mind-palace-like sequences with Hamlet, was also a very good idea. A bit surprising and funny at first, but a really good idea.

A big no-no for me was the general choreography for the scenes where Hamlet is being chased (with actors bouncing before crawling (???) on the floor or simulating electric shocks to go with the probe lights) and when Hamlet stabs Laertes (with everyone dancing more or less gracefully around them both). I couldn’t help but laugh every time. The concept was interesting, but the execution was… let’s say sloppy and a bit weird, frankly on the verge of ridiculous.

Costumes

I really liked them, and especially their timeless feel – end of 19th century, 30’s, 40’s, 60’s, modern times… A lot of fashion periods were represented and sometimes mixed together in a fun way (Converse sneakers, BC and his Bowie T-shirt or his hoodie, etc.). Ah, and modern guns are used as props, adding to the timeless vibe.

On a negative note: I deplore the use of a headdress by Hamlet, even for a few seconds. They could have used anything else.

Performance

I knew BC was going to do a nice job with his Hamlet, and he was really, really, REALLY good. A bit OTT or unnatural/forced in some alone scenes during the first performance I’ve seen (only the first), but that’s the only and tiny negative point. Overall, he’s majestic. Hamlet’s sadness, loneliness, cynicism, anger (oooh, his anger…), excitement, playfulness, despair… Everything was beautifully played and nuanced. The man jumps, races around, climbs tables, fences all over the place. He’s incredibly energetic and sweats an awful lot. He often screams his wrath and disgust at the audience or other characters, which is very, VERY impressive. So impressive that I sometimes couldn’t even move or blink. He drowns himself in the role and gives his all into the performance, crying and trembling with a face red from anger. I don’t know how he manages not to lose his voice or collapse from exhaustion at the end of each show.

But the most pleasant surprise was the comical side of his Hamlet. This man is not only excellent in drama, but he’s pure comedy gold! The funny faces he makes, the high-pitched tone he uses (Martin Crieff-like), his toy soldier frenzy, awkwardly dancing with Rosencrantz… he’s HILARIOUS. I wish I could have told him that at stage door. He made the whole audience laugh hard, myself included. It was glorious to watch.

As for the vision of Hamlet – even though I’m not familiar enough with the play or the character, the way he regresses to childhood to feign madness (and also probably to protect himself and his own sanity faced with his impossible situation), felt right to me. Whether it came from Lindsey Turner or BC, it was a very good idea.

Performance-wise, my personal favourites aside from BC’s Hamlet were Jim Norton’s Polonius (very clear, natural and funny, totally comfortable with Shakespeare’s text which he delivers with excellence), Leo Bill’s Horatio (giving Shakespeare’s English a welcome modern tone), Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude (her scenes with a frantic Hamlet or after Ophelia’s death were just right, neither tame nor too much) and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes (wonderful resonant voice and range of emotions). I also liked very much Ciaran Hinds’ sly and nasty Claudius, Matthew Steer’s funny and nuanced Rosencrantz along with Rudi Dharmalingam’s also very right Guildenstern. Sian Brooke’s Ophelia only got my appreciation on the third night, when her performance was spot-on. Before that, it felt a bit over the top or weak. But her portrayal of Ophelia losing her mind was really good every time. (Her PDA with Hamlet is laughable though, especially when they sort of kiss near the chest from which Hamlet pulls out the headdress. I was like “OMFG, stop it, it reminds me of something!” LOL)

NOTE: For my last night on October 7, which began 5 minutes late, all were rushing their lines and gave the whole play another dimension, more vivid and way more emotional too. Especially BC, Anastasia Hille and Sian Brooke. I was very lucky to sit in the front row that night, as I could enjoy every emotion on their faces (and BC spitting and Gertrude crying – and drooling on her dress while screaming “Speak no more!”, hahahaha!)

BONUS: Look out for the “You’re a fishmonger” and “Thy loving father, Hamlet” scenes. He did them differently each time (a dance move/funny face/sniff for the former, an air kiss/funny face/flipping the bird (!!!) for the latter) and it was wonderfully comical.

BC’s appearance

Yes, he’s thin. There’s not an ounce of fat in that body! Only flesh and muscles. And yes, his face is gaunt. No surprise there. But he didn’t look unhealthy, thank God. He’s energized by the work, and looks dazzling on stage. Breathtakingly handsome. There’s a tiiiiiny bum coming back. But if his clothes (and mostly trousers) aren’t well adjusted, he’s swimming in them. For comparison: Kobna’s thighs and bum are roughly twice BC’s size! Anyway. A good rest after the run will do him good. ;)

Conclusion

I want to see it again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Well, you get it!

Congratulations to all the cast and crew.