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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

Town Hall Broadcasts Hamlet Live

On Thursday, Oct. 15, the Town Hall Theater was one of 1,500 venues around the world that participated in the National Theatre Live broadcast of the Barbican of London’s much-anticipated production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

For four hundred years, new generations have plumbed not only the intricacies of Shakespeare’s text, but also the depths of the spaces between the words for contemporary interpretations that speak to modern audiences. In trying to appeal to a younger generation, this production needed to craft a show tailored to shorter attention spans, greater aesthetic expectations and more cultural awareness than ever before. In all three of these areas, the show succeeded with stunning clarity.

Cumberbatch is an unlikely superstar whose pale complexion, narrow eyes and self-conscious propensity for clever babble did not gain international recognition until his appearance as the title character in the BBC’s 2010 television production of Sherlock, a role which came 15 years into his career. The Barbican production came under significant scrutiny for casting the current “hot star” as a ploy to sell tickets to female and younger viewers.

Regardless of if it was a ploy or not, the three-month live run at the Barbican Theatre was quickly labeled “the most in-demand theatre show of all time,” nearly breaking online ticket vendors with queues of over 30,000 interested fans after the sale opened.

Over 225,000 international viewers watched the live broadcast or encore presentation on Oct. 15, more than the show’s live audience, and more than have ever seen a single National Theatre Live broadcast in the program’s history.

It’s difficult to remain cynical about the casting of Cumberbatch if his immense talents introduce thousands of viewers to a Hamlet who glitters in his whimsical grace, charismatically bounding across the stage in fluid fits of carefully coordinated choreography as he descends into a madness marked by the tragic loss of youthful hope and wonder.

This is a translation of Hamlet for today, led by Cumberbatch’s invigorating stage presence and a spectacular supporting cast, including acting legend Ciaran Hinds as Claudius and a moving Sian Brooke as Ophelia.

Students in many Department of Theatre classes attended the screening, opening the opportunity for a shared, external theatrical experience.

“Seeing outside work is great because it gives us all a common reference point, so we’re talking about the same production instead of relying on the abstract or trying to tell people about things we’ve seen that we think are important or impactful,” Associate Professor of Theatre Alex Draper said.
The production announces its modernity immediately, opening not with the traditional interaction with the ghost of King Hamlet, but instead with a solitary Hamlet as if he is a beat poet, Cumberbatch relaxing on the ground in an autumn sweater as Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ spins on a record player.

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is constantly in identity crisis, exhibiting layers of adolescent playfulness, sharp intelligence and overwhelming narcissism as his fairytale castle falls to pieces. This, of course, is what makes Hamlet so real, especially for a generation paralyzed by an array of unparalleled opportunities, responsibilities and commitments (or lack thereof). There is no longer a monarchy or a pervading propensity for sword fights, but there is something about Hamlet’s flailing attempts to discover his moral center which resonates today.

Students in the Literary Studies Department also attended the screening, allowing the three-dimensionality of the written word to supplement their usual academic pursuits.

“Seeing a performance makes you have a different perception of the work and inherently changes how you will approach it in the future,” Abla Lamrani-Karim ‘16 said. “By making this show modern, you forget that you’re listening to a very hard language that you’re not used to, and that makes you realize just how much Shakespeare is still today’s topic. That’s the beauty that this production was able to portray.”

The Barbican’s Hamlet is easily swallowed, with careful reductions and alterations of the original text – near the play’s middle, Hamlet’s inner conflict is mirrored by his amalgam of clothing, complete with a David Bowie graphic t-shirt, military pants, Converse sneakers and a tailcoat crudely painted with the word ‘King’ on its back - that pare Shakespeare’s longest play from four to three hours long.

Certainly, removing segments of Shakespeare’s original – coupled with the appearance of a tattooed Horatio in double-cuffed pants - has irked purists to no end. Regardless of its finer details, the production captures the core beauty of Hamlet in a manner which is engaging and provocative whilst maintaining the integrity of the text.

“This production managed to make Hamlet relevant and exciting and palatable for our generation,” Acting II student Nolan Ellsworth ‘17 said. “There was kind of a rock star vibe to the show at times which worked well with Cumberbatch’s personality and the tone of his performance.”

In a humor-infused take on a monologue exploring Hamlet’s possible decline into madness, Cumberbatch marches onto a table in his uncle’s study dressed as a toy soldier with a snare drum strapped to his chest, the rhythm of his movements fluidly matching his nonsensical language. The scene is delightfully playful, but undermines a suggestion of the turmoil in Hamlet’s head. At the same time, it’s plausible that emphasizing Hamlet’s joyful behavioral overcompensations capture an increasingly popular culture of pretending to be okay.

As is true with any theatre that explores rather than explains, either interpretation could be true.

Forgetting outside criticisms of performance or textual interpretation, the play offered a production backdrop so bold, so visually and atmospherically stunning in the unabashed, epic grandeur of its ambition, that it was nearly impossible to tear one’s eyes away from the constant crystallization of light enveloping its sumptuous visual articulation of innovative design.

Part of what makes live theatre unique is that each viewer is able to direct their own experience, freely changing focus from individual performances to the broader scene. In their revolutionary endeavor, National Theatre Live makes executive decisions for the audience, choosing when to establish a wide shot, zoom to an actor’s face or pan to follow a character’s movement from one side of the stage to the next.

This leads to the notion that certain nuances outside a chosen camera frame are lost to the film audience, but in the hands of the National Theatre Live crew, viewers from afar are gifted a version of the production seen from the balcony and the front row all at once.

“I was very suspicious of the live taping at first, but when it’s done well – and I think this was done incredibly well – it’s incredibly effective,” Draper said. “I don’t think it should happen all the time, but this was a really great example of why to do it because the size of the production, the technical feats of the set and his [Cumberbatch’s] sheer talent are the kind of forces that gather together so rarely on this scale.”

The Barbican production’s accessibility – both thematically and technologically – firmly foreshadows a new era of high-quality theatre that allows a much broader audience entrance into its formerly exclusive sphere. Through the unique initiative of National Theatre Live alone, more than 3.5 million people have viewed over 20 productions in 1,500 venues around the world, numbers far exceeding the reach of the theaters themselves.

In 2016, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. is marking the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death by sending one of 233 known copies of his 1623 First Folio to every state. The College has been chosen as the Vermont host site, and there will be festivals, lectures and performances throughout February 2016 to celebrate the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

The next Town Hall Theater broadcast of National Theatre Live will be an international encore presentation of David Hare’s Skylight with Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan on Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m.