Film Review: National Theatre Live: Hamlet (UK, 2015)

Over the last couple of years thanks to the wonderful team at National Theatre Live they’ve been bringing some of the greatest theatrical plays from the National Theatre in London to cinema screens across the world. For those who are unable to see these plays in the flesh, seeing them via NT: Live has been a treat, and this one is no exception. With this production of Hamlet being the fastest selling show in British theatre history much of that due to its lead actor’s star power, getting to see this in the comfort of a cinema without having to scramble for tickets or be bound by the tyranny of distance is fortuitous indeed.

William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet ranks as one of his more popular and well known works, having been performed and adapted countless times over, both in theatre and film. For those unfamiliar with the work, set in Denmark it centres around Prince Hamlet who is called upon by the ghost of his father to seek revenge for his murder by his brother (and Hamlet’s uncle) Claudius, who subsequently went on to marry the queen (Hamlet’s mother). It’s all rather messily incestuous, somewhat scandalous and as with any of Shakespeare’s great tragedies results in a lot of death. Over the centuries Hamlet has been critically analysed for it’s dramatisation of melancholy and insanity, existentialism and philosophy. As with any artistic endeavour this is all subjective to the individual who watches the play as to what they will take away from it. I’ll admit to a small level of bias as this has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays mainly due to the themes mentioned. Then there’s also the fact that Hamlet is so quotable, “To be, or not to be, that is the question”, “To die, to sleep, perchance to dream” or “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”. And there’s also the many phrases we take for granted in today’s English “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it”, or “I must be cruel, only to be kind” that have continued on with just as much depth and meaning then as it does now.

But in this as with all theatre, it all rests so heavily on the performances by its actors. Benedict Cumberbatch takes the lead as our Prince Hamlet. For those who are fans of his work in the BBC TV series production Sherlock, you will see flashes of his Holmes in Hamlet also. Particularly during his lightning fast rambly deliveries or when he flies off the handle. But it’s in his quieter moments that you get to appreciate the intricacy and complexity of the character as he teeters on the brink of losing his mind and possibly his soul to the dark forces. Cumberbatch carries the weight of this production and does so with ease and grace. Engaging our sympathy by portraying an intelligent mind falling apart under the burden of grief and revenge. You’ll also recognise Ciaran Hinds (Above Suspicion tv series) as Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. Even though we are lead to believe that he’s committed such a horrible deed, he is full of nothing but care and concern for Hamlet in the first act. Hinds manages to ever so carefully build a portrait of a man seemingly innocent only to flip ever so casually to villainy. But it’s not all so bleak, there’s a few great little comedic moments delivered wonderfully by Jim Norton’s (Deception tv series) Polonius as he tries to school his daughter Ophelia (Sian Brooke) in the ways of love and courting Hamlet. Brooke’s Ophelia is probably not given enough onstage time to truly express her character arc but her connection with Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) is beautifully and in the end heartbreakingly played out. The scene where Gertrude realises that Ophelia’s life is in danger, after discovering her broken camera and ripped up photos truly does twang at your heart strings.

But aside from our human characters with a play the stage and the set are characters in themselves. The Barbican is clearly a large theatre and the set they utilise is enormous as it occupies floor to almost ceiling. The palace when playing its grandeur is strategically lit with chandeliers and portraits adorning the walls. The second storey of the staircase and balcony serves as both interior palatial hallway and exterior as battle ramparts of the castle. And at the end of Act 1 the doors on both the left hand side and centre are flung open and cannons fire dark paper confetti to improvise a storm, which then doubles as the forests and wilds of Denmark. In order to help with this, the camera switches back and forth from closer more intimate moments with our cast to pulling back to take in the whole scope, scale and size of the stage where necessary. This is one of the advantages of these filmed performances in that we’re not restricted to seeing it from our seats as a fixed “viewpoint”.

Director Lyndsey Turner has taken some creative license with the original play, so true Shakespeare fans may find it irksome that she’s edited it in such a way as to reassign some of the lines to other characters or remove sections altogether. Also her visual style seems a little mis-matched, having elaborate and ornate period costumes on our King and Queen but Hamlet sporting a Bowie t-shirt under his military jacket and pants. And you may want to keep in mind that yes this is basically a play being projected on a cinema screen, so the run-time is a butt-numbing 3 hours and 30 minutes including the approximate 20 minute interval to regain some blood flow to your legs. Also I’m not sure whether it was the recording itself or some random audience member in my cinema but we were plagued with a repeated-cougher and odd audio issues.

You could argue that seeing a live theatre production that’s filmed and played in a cinema is treacherous and a sin. That it detracts from the true “live” nature and it constricts and directs your view to what “they” want you to see, as opposed to having the freedom to look where ever and whenever you want. But on the other hand the fact that we get brought up close enough to see the actor’s faces and expressions can only add to our experience of the performance. When you’re allocated your seat that’s it, that’s your view for the entire duration, but with the filmed NT: Live shows we are moved all over the stage. Cumberbatch as expected delivers a great performance that does cast a shadow across some of his cast-mates but it is almost to be expected. And even though this version of Hamlet may upset the more nit-picky Shakespeare fans, those of us who are more interested in the themes that the story examines will still manage to enjoy it.

Running Time: 3 hours & 30 minutes incl interval

National Theatre Live: Hamlet will screen in Australian cinemas from 7 November 2015 through Sharmill Films. For more information about cinemas screening this event, go to their website.


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Carina Nilma

Office lackey day-job. Journalist for The AU Review night-job. Emotionally invested fangirl.