Review: ‘Hamlet’

Madness. Murder. Suicide. Sword fights. Revenge. The movie production of the live play “Hamlet” has all this and more. The National Live Theatre screened a new contemporary version of the famous play at the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Nov. 7-8, and will have an encore showing Nov. 12.

Benedict Cumberbatch, better known for his role as Sherlock Holmes in the TV series “Sherlock,” plays the main character, Hamlet, for National Live Theatre’s production. National Live Theatre is an initiative operated by the Royal National Theatre in London that broadcasts live performances.

“Hamlet” is a play written in 1601 by William Shakespeare. Through 400 years of production, “Hamlet” has undergone multiple interpretations. Some productions focus more on the madness captured in the play and less on the grief. Most plays use traditional costumes as well as traditional Elizabethan language. “Hamlet” has even had multiple people playing the title character to show how fragmented Hamlet’s brain is when he goes mad.

National Live Theatre’s production of “Hamlet” keeps traditional language but updates the era of the clothing so as to make the story more relatable to its contemporary audience. The contemporary clothing gives the play a more modern feel, even if the language is from the 1600s.

“Hamlet” is known for its many soliloquies – long monologues meant to be inside the character’s head. Soliloquies or monologues tend to be marked as one character standing amid a harsh spotlight, the room around that character going dark, and all other characters freezing in place.

The producers of National Live Theatre’s “Hamlet” did something quite different. The character of Hamlet began his soliloquy, and the lights dimmed around the other characters. A faded blue light shined on him as he paced the stage and gave the audience his thoughts. But in this production of the Shakespeare classic, the characters around Hamlet did not freeze, but moved in slow motion around him, as he addressed the audience.

The themes of the play are madness and grief. Hamlet first goes mad when his father dies, during which Hamlet reverts to a childlike stage. Cumberbatch uses frequent eye movements and jerky body language to portray Hamlet’s descent into insanity. In an instant, Cumberbatch changes his blank look for a look of madness, mimicking Hamlet’s unstable emotional state. His performance makes the audience feel as though they are watching a man fall from a strong leader into a shadow of his former self. However, Hamlet is not the only character to struggle with sanity throughout the course of the story. His beloved Ophelia (Sian Brooke), after the loss her father, also descends into madness.

The play’s themes take the audience on a journey of sorrow and pain to show how the human mind handles tragedy. Hamlet and Ophelia both suffer the loss of their fathers, and both struggle to let go of the past. “Hamlet” shows that a person does not truly value a parent until that parent is lost.

The theme of grief paired with madness forms a more complete picture of the human condition when dealing with loss. Cumberbatch illustrates Hamlet’s internal depression using a variety of facial expressions and voice inflections. As Hamlet descends further into his grief, the more intensity Cumberbatch brought to his role, shouting, scowling, and speaking more rapidly.

National Live Theatre’s performance of “Hamlet” is a unique presentation of Shakespeare’s classic. Though four hours long, the play may be worth every minute.

The Little Art Theatre will be airing an encore performance of the production 6:30 p.m. Thursday Nov. 12. Tickets are $20 at the door or $15 in advance online from Brown Paper Tickets.

Allison Sapp is a senior English major and an arts and entertainment reporter for Cedars. She has a love for dogs, book editing and Tim Horton’s coffee.

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