I am very fond of attending theatre productions when I can, particularly performances of Shakespeare’s plays (I am a total Shakespeare nerd, judge me all you want I don’t care). So when the opportunity presented itself in the last few weeks for me to attend two different performances of Hamlet I seized the opportunity to do so. However, the two experiences were vastly different, one a live stage performance by the Bell Shakespeare Company and one a film screening of a recorded live National Theatre production in London.
Theatre, particularly plays, often seem like cultural experiences far from the reach of most. They are expensive and exclusive, and alienate people based on an idea of pretention that permeates the very idea of attendance at such events. However, the landscape of the theatre world has been undergoing a dramatic shift, particularly in regards to staging and access to canonical and popular plays. Small theatre companies are staging performances with tickets available at a more affordable price for audiences, with many larger and perhaps more well-known theatre companies offering discounted ticket rates for mid-week evening performances. This particular venture into discounted ticketing has allowed me to see more plays than I personally would have been able to afford otherwise, as I anticipate it has allowed for many others.
Beyond these discounted or cheaper tickets however is the venture into streamed versions of live performances, led almost exclusively at first by the National Theatre in London. Live performances of popular shows running at the National or its associate theatres are filmed live and then cut into a film-like version of the play to be streamed worldwide. I have personally viewed a number of such streamed performances, including Frankenstein, Coriolanus, Treasure Island, and now Hamlet. Viewing these plays in a cinema is a slightly strange experience, as it renders the performance as somewhat distant, not only because it is staged halfway around the world, but also as the viewing audience is separated from the action by a screen, unable to gain the same sort of atmospheric experience as the audience of the live production in London.
Yet, if the National Theatre Live production of Hamlet could be described in one word, it would be ‘atmospheric’, a feeling that most certainly is not lost for the audience who views it on the cinema screen. The set is large and seemingly endless, the darkness of its boundaries creating a deliberately vague sense of divide between the stage and the audience, despite the otherwise clear divide between characters within the play itself. The space is cleverly constructed, and whilst very open, is sectioned off from scene to scene with smaller set pieces and props, varying from the comical children’s castle to the colossal dining table of the early wedding feast scene. Perhaps one of the most powerful moments of the play however is the opening scene, with Cumberbatch’s Hamlet sitting on the floor of a smaller part of the set, an old jazz record playing as he hugs his late father’s coat. This moment sets of the play’s strong sentimental tone, playing into moments of familiarity such as Ophelia and Laertes playing piano together or Horatio and Hamlet’s easy and brotherly friendship. Whilst large scale and impressive, it is these small moments that really make the production for me.
In a truly impressive artistic choice, moments before the interval, a colossal blast of wind rips through the set, pouring in dirt and leaves as though a storm has completely changed the landscape of the play space. And indeed it has. The play loses some of its humourous and familiar light and moves ever deeper into the darkness of the set, actors balancing precariously on mounds of soil and gravel as they navigate the second half of the play. In the cinema, this blast of change is felt just as shockingly as if we were in the theatre space itself, the interval punctuated with people chattering about how splendidly theatrical that moment was on screen.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance lends itself easily to the screen, and as a fan favourite, Cumberbatch doesn’t disappoint. He is equal parts humour and sadness, commanding the audience’s attention even with the smallest of lines or gestures. His particular acting choices and decision to take on the role of Hamlet is discussed in an interview with him that opens and hugely framed the streamed performance, a common National Theatre Live device with which they give the cinema audience access to the actor’s choices and behind the scenes experience of the role. With a phenomenal stage space, well filmed and edited recording, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and other strong performances by the rest of the cast, this production does not leave any room for disappointment.
It is hard to place a smaller, more intimate production alongside the National Theatre production, which clearly had a larger set space and generous budget. However, the Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet had its own particular atmosphere, the smoky set and dim lighting immediately throwing the audience into the world of espionage that the production focuses on. Whilst it sometimes felt that the surveillance room and listening devices planted across the set distracted the audience from the plot, almost overdoing the running theme of duplicity and mistrust in the play, the production was largely a success.
The set was beautifully constructed, dividing the set in two, the back half of the stage off limits to the audience except when lit, the large glass doors perfectly demonstrating the constant doubling in the play, immediately focusing on the inside/outside divide. Whilst the theatre space itself (The Playhouse Theatre in Sydney) is smaller than its counterpart in the London production, it lends itself to an intimate performance, no matter where you sit in the audience, you are just as much a part of the action of the play. At one point in the performance, in a fit of insanity and rage, Josh McConville’s Hamlet runs down into the audience, sitting amongst them, leaping into the aisles. The audience can’t escape his performance, nor do they want to. He is less a prince, and more a dishevelled and worn punk rocker. Even on the quiet periphery of the stage, he grabs your attention. You can’t look away.
What really grabbed my attention however were two particular artistic choices: the use of more female roles on the stage, and the use of multiple languages. The deliberate choice to rename and re-gender some of the supporting roles, whilst allowing more female representation on stage (something I am very passionate about), did, in places, undermine the importance of the two central women in the play, Ophelia and Gertrude. For me, these two women on stage are central in understanding the play and its theme of vulnerability and female power. However, in a scene where we are meant to focus on a singular woman on stage and her questionable power, it is hard to ignore the fact that she stands among other women – not just female actors in male roles, but roles that have been deliberately altered to be female. I don’t mean to undermine these other women and their acting – in fact it was brilliant – but I can’t help but think that perhaps this was not the play to change some gender roles and not others, especially without a clear purpose in mind. Perhaps this choice may have been more powerful had other roles also been re-gendered. It is difficult to discern (although I would love people to share their thoughts and challenge mine in the comments below).
Despite this, the use of multiple languages throughout the play, English, Italian, Danish and Norwegian is cleverly done. With some lines injected into the play, almost as justification for this choice, the multi-lingual dialogue plays well into a modern production of the play.
Whilst it may not be my favourite production of Hamlet, the Bell Shakespeare production does have its own power. Where the National Theatre Live screening only allows its audience the point of view decided by the camera, the cinema audience all sharing the same point of view, the Bell Shakespeare production allows each member of its audience a different perspective, not only by their proximity to the stage, but by whose eye they catch on stage, how close McConville’s Hamlet dances to them, how they have to turn their heads as the action unfolds, where they choose to look in a scene overloaded with actors on stage. The intimate experience of seeing the play in such a small venue has its own kind of magic, the kind that the filmed production achieves in its large budget, well-known actors and hugely impressive set.
Hamlet, when staged, can be dramatically altered in the way it is staged and performed by the company. However, I would argue that ultimately it is the atmosphere a certain production creates, whether in a cinema or on a live stage, that ultimately decides its success. To be able to experience both these productions was a gift, and whilst I do favour one over the other, it is only due to my own particular interpretation of the play and its themes. Both productions create amazing and unique experiences for their audiences, and I encourage anyone who is able to experience theatre productions, live on stage or in a more affordable screening event, to do so. As theatre becomes more easily accessible and affordable, the opportunity to see such productions is one that cannot be missed.
© Hayley New 2015