Two Hamlets: A Very Short Review

HamletCumberbatchBy chance more than wit, in the past seven days I have contrived to see Hamlet twice. The first was the filmed version of the play staged by the National Theatre in London in 2015, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. And a few days later I scored tickets to Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and their annual Free For All event, which this year featured a reprise of their 2018 production of Shakespeare’s greatest play.


The trend these days, in Hamlet at least, is to shuffle the text. Both these productions had some startling interpolations, moving soliloquies here and there. It’s discomposing, to have the play begin with Hamlet assuring us that this too too solid flesh should melt. Purists cannot approve this, nor the addition (viewable in both these photographs) of cramming our poor prince into odd costuming to highlight his ‘madness’. That plus overly-creative staging and sets keeps both these Hamlets from being versions for the ages.

But seeing the same play through two directorial lenses does let you view different aspects of the play and its problems. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is clearly older and smarter. The actor’s unparalleled physicality (a standing broad jump onto the banquet table, wow!) allows you to believe that this is a future king of Denmark. Why on earth is this not in the forefront of the prince’s mind? As the only son of Hamlet Senior he is next in line for the throne. How did Uncle Claudius get cutsies in the queue?  Was it simply because Hamlet Junior was at college in Wittenberg, or because Claudius’s key move was marrying Queen Gertrude? There must be a reason why this bothers Hamlet tons more than the loss of his inheritance. And yet this production doesn’t explore this obvious hole in the plot.

Michael Urey stars in the DC production, and his interpretation brings other plot problems to the fore. Suddenly in Act 5 not one but two rounds of poison are served up. Surely it would have been better to at least mention the Danish readiness to resort to the chemical solutions in Act 1 or 2. This is the sort of thing you fix in the rewrite. Because his Hamlet is a much younger man you do realize he’s just a college kid (highlighted in the production by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turning up in the old college tee shirts). Possibly he didn’t inherit the throne because he’s simply too young; Gertrude is clearly too old to have another prince sired by Claudius and therefore Hamlet will inherit when he matures a little. The complications with Fortinbras (played, in this production, by a magnificent black woman!) show that a key task of Denmark’s king is to lead in war, and I would not trust this Hamlet to do any such thing.

But the main takeaway from seeing two Hamlets in a week is, you realize what legs this play has. A director can squeeze it from any direction and there’s juice to yield. Professional reviewers have seen many a Hamlet and they’re all different. A mediocre play would only allow of one, maybe two interpretations. That Hamlet is fresh every time shows you that it deserves its place in drama’s pantheon.




Two Hamlets: A Very Short Review — 5 Comments

  1. I thought the Cumberbatch version was interesting–at least until they blew everything up at the end of the first half (and what the hell was that?). I liked him, I liked Claudius. The rest… meh.

    So very many things are rotten in the kingdom of Denmark, that the break in the succession to the throne is surely just one more symptom. Hamlet idolizes his father, but I really wonder what kind of king/husband/father he was, and how much of what’s gone wrong began while he was still alive. There’s a novel in there somewhere.

  2. I am certain someone has already written a novel from the POV of Queen Gertrude. Everything hangs on how the succession in Denmark at that time worked. (Adjustable in fiction for maximal fun.) If, as in THE KING MUST DIE, it’s matrilineal, then Uncle Claudius has to marry the queen if he ever hopes to be king. And Hamlet, son of his mother, is sure to succeed him unless by any chance Gertrude has a daughter who would instantly push Hamlet down the line.
    Wait stop, stop plotting. Yes, what was happening with the truckload of peat moss in the second half? How the stage manager must have cursed. Many many shopvacs…

    • I’ve been that stage manager. Ow.

      But also, if you assume that every choice of that sort is deliberate and meant to say something about the place or the frame of mind of the characters… WTH? Denmark, Land of Peat Moss?

  3. The small but annoying thing that repeatedly pushed me (mentally) out of the Shakespeare Theater production was the steadily advancing push towards fascism in the costuming. First the sedate little arm bands, then the ersatz-German military uniforms as opposed to the guards in “Security” jackets, and onward….I felt like it was just trying too hard to be “of the moment” and making a political statement that the text was just not up to supporting.

  4. I also felt like the use of Olympic sport fencing equipment for the duel was a little too precious and too abstruse for a lay audience. It just made the whole duel too full of stage business, rather than the emotional impact of what was happening. I mean, I fenced for *years* and I knew what the point was of the reels and whatever material they were using for the piste, and what the ref was doing, etc. But for most people? And for me, it just made the idea of a poisoned blade seem even more implausible.