As part of an international encore of the original 2015 production in London, the Clark Art Institute presented a screening of Shakespeare’s Hamlet this past Sunday. National Theatre Live (NTL), which aims to to increase the accessibility of world-class theater, records live performances by carefully stitching together shots from multiple cameras to ensure that “cinema audiences always get ‘the best seat in the house,’” according to NTL’s website.
After announcing that Benedict Cumberbatch would star in the play’s title role, there was a frenzy of hype and excitement, and tickets sold out almost immediately. The English actor, best known for film and television works such as The Imitation Game and Sherlock, has a massive fan base that eagerly anticipated his interpretation of one of the most well-known Shakespearean characters. The production, however, was received with mixed reviews.
The dimly lit stage opens to reveal a moody Hamlet sitting alone and listening to music playing on a phonograph. Horatio, bespectacled and sporting a canvas knapsack and a plaid button-up, enters soon after. The audience is given little time to puzzle over what decade to place the play in before a vast banquet hall is revealed and Claudius and Gertrude enter, wearing ceremonial costumes reminiscent of an era a few centuries before the phonograph.
Confusing anachronism aside, the set – designed by Ev Deslin – is astonishingly rich in realistic detail and convincing grandeur. Scene changes take the audience to uniquely spectacular settings inside and outside the castle of Elsinore. The lighting and other atmospheric techniques successfully enhance the mood and drama of every scene. Just before intermission, a storm of debris blows in from every doorway, serving not only as a representation of Claudius’ evil, but as one of the most stunning visual effects in the play.
The kingdom of Denmark is brought to life onstage. Its inhabitants and the plotline they portray, on the other hand, are a little less believable. Director Lindsey Turner tweaks the characteristically dark story to add whimsical charm that, unfortunately, comes across as comical. These directorial decisions raise several questions: Why substitute the gripping first scene that introduces the ghost of King Hamlet with Hamlet brooding to the soundtrack of a Nat King Cole song? Why does Ophelia carry around a film camera, snapping close-ups of props on the ground? Is the wheeling out of a castle playset and giant wooden soldiers really the best way to convey Hamlet’s (who is also dressed like a toy soldier) “antic disposition?”
Despite the seeming prioritization of visual effects over narrative and characters, there are still a number of impressive performances. Ciaran Hinds makes for a compelling villain as Claudius, Sian Brooke fully embodies Ophelia’s distress and Jim Norton provides comedic relief as the sincere but gullible Polonius. Cumberbatch beautifully delivers as Hamlet, bringing both an energetic physicality and a deep introspection to his soliloquies. The intensity with which he engages with his role, in fact, makes the audience wish for a little more in other aspects of the play. Dazzling visuals can only do so much, and while there have been countless interpretations of this classic tragedy, it feels like Turner’s version susbstitutes too much substance for stage tricks and odd gimmicks.
Though it received a lukewarm reception, it is still worthwhile to consider the broader implications of productions such as this. Though hardly a smashing success, the excitement around this production of Hamlet is a microcosm of a wider, ongoing interest in Shakespeare’s 400 year-old works. The theatrical exploration of timeless themes such as loss, vengeance and uncertainty makes Hamlet relevant to the present. And while there are no substitutes for live theater, screenings at the Clark still offer excellent opportunities to engage with a time-honored form of entertainment that, while not always readily available, allows for deeper investigations of complex ideas.