Review : Benebatch Cumberdink’s Hamlet

Sorry, I should probably spell the man’s name correctly if for nothing else than the SEO I might get, but it just amuses me to no end to spell it differently every time.

Last night, after months of waiting, I got to see the encore performance of B.C.’s Hamlet, presented by NTLive.

While I have some major issues with many of the directorial choices and was often making my Picard “WTF have they done to my Shakespeare?” face, I think that old Ben himself might individually be the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen.

Should we cover the good first, or the bad?  I’ll start with the opening, and you tell me.  We open with Hamlet, sitting in what I presume to be his room (although it felt like it could have been an attic), listening to old records and looking through photo albums, presumably of his father.  I *loved* this.  When I try to relate the play to people I always start by saying, “Hamlet is about a man whose father died.” Here we actually get a glimpse of him in mourning, not just in his inky black cloak, but actually going through the motions that you could expect anyone to go through that lost someone dear.  Before the scene is over he will go into a trunk of his father’s clothes and don one of his father’s blazers – but not before smelling it, once again to remind him of his father.  It’s about 30 seconds into this 3+ hour play and you already know exactly what’s going on in Hamlet’s head.  Ever wonder what his relationship was like with his father? No questions here.

I figured ok, awesome start, lights out and we start the show, right?

Nope.  Knock knock knock.  “Who’s there?” says Hamlet.  Says HAMLET.  SAYS HAMLET.  “Answer me, stand and unfold yourself!”  And I’m in bizarro world because Horatio enters and we’re catapulted briefly to … scene 5, was it?  Horatio’s original meeting with Hamlet?  But but but but but but…. where’s the ghost?  So confused.

It’s a bold move to do stuff like that because you have to follow up with it and have it make sense and flow smoothly.  I don’t think that did.  First of all, there’s no reason to introduce Horatio there at all.  He doesn’t do anything.  Second, we’ll later be treated to Marcellus and Bernardo entering with, “My lord I saw him yesternight.”  It’s like they just cut the context and shuffled it around and didn’t even attempt to smooth it over.  Boo.

Couple words on casting?  I hate hate hated Horatio.  If I could think of a way to blend the two words together I would. Horhatio maybe.  Imagine five minutes before showtime, somebody runs up to the director and says, “Bad news, our Horatio’s been hit by a bus!”  “No problem,” says the director, “Run down to the local Starbucks and grab the barista, he told me this morning that he played Horatio once in college.”  Boom, done.  Checkered flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a backpack that he never takes off, which gives him this hunched over sort of snivelly, groveling sort of character like he’s afraid to look Hamlet in the eye. All of his lines are delivered with a constant shaking of his head.  He’s also got some sort of speech impediment or something going on, which becomes more pronounced at the end of the play, where he sounds like he’s got something in his teeth.  It became grating after awhile.

I also hate the ghost.  They deliberately cut all the dialog about describing the ghost’s warlike appearance – I was waiting for the line about “wore his beaver up” because I like to see how Hamlet plays the “Then saw you not his face?” line.  But that’s all gone.  When we eventually see the ghost he’s dressed in normal kingly attire, not any sort of armor.  Fine.  But then he starts talking and oh dear god out comes this heavy accent….Irish, I think?  It was so horribly distracting I didn’t know what to do with myself.  No attempt to make it booming or ghostly or anything.  Or regal for that matter.  He sounded like a cross between somebody’s crotchety old grandfather, and the school janitor yelling at kids for running in the hall. I found it just laughably out of place.  Bardfilm liked it and suggests that he was channeling Olivier.  I don’t remember Olivier’s ghost well enough, so if he was, I missed it entirely.  He sounded entirely like he was chastising his son. Didn’t get much of a loveable father/son relationship, as I think about it.  Remember this is a Hamlet who was smelling his father’s scent on his old clothes a minute ago.  Now he’s getting yelled at.

Those are my two biggest casting complaints.  Claudius I liked – and I could swear I recognize him from other works?  Have to check that out.  Kind of doing that big, puffed out chest thing, like he’s “on” all the time and deliberately trying to present himself like a king.  Even in his delivery, which is why I mentioned above how different the ghost’s was, because the ghost was supposed to be a king as well.  Having said that, he’s pretty one-note the more I think about it.  I did like the paranoia that was coming off of him, though.  Especially after Polonius is killed, all his thoughts turn to “How do I make sure this isn’t pinned on me?”  I don’t recall that from, say, Patrick Stewart’s Claudius.  He was all business and had everything in control up to the end.  This guy seems like he’s always walking a tightrope with it all just falling apart.

I agree with Bardfilm that the first half of this production was significantly better than the second. Perhaps that’s because we saw all the tricks once and then they didn’t work multiple times. They do this cool “everything goes in slow motion” thing during Hamlet’s soliloquies, and the first time you see it it’s very neat.  But it’s not as shocking the next couple of times.  One scene I loved was the “chase” to capture Hamlet after he’s killed Polonius.  I don’t know that it’s always done this way, but this was a full-on “mobilize everyone in the castle, find Hamlet” manhunt, and it was awesome.  The lighting changed, the sound changed, everything.  You really got the feeling that, whether they loved Claudius or not, the whole castle jumped when he said jump.  More importantly, you realize that Hamlet was truly alone and that literally everyone in the castle was against him.  This was brought home (though perhaps accidentally) when he’s captured and I noticed that Marcellus and Bernardo are the ones holding guns on him.  Bardfilm wondered if that might not just be a case of doubling “generic soldiers” but I like my interpretation better, like they are soldiers forced to do their job because the king said so, whether they’ve got personal feelings about it or not.

So, let’s talk about Hamlet as a character. I absolutely loved it.  I believe that the key to understanding the entire play is to get inside Hamlet’s head.  His father’s died, his mother’s remarried, he’s had the crown stolen from him, his girlfriend won’t talk to him and won’t tell him why.  I think that there’s this gap that modern audiences often fail to leap between “I understand the words and know what they’re supposed to mean so I get what Shakespeare wants me to get”, and, “I feel something for that dude, I know what he’s going through.”   You *bought* everything Cumberland Bendybits was putting out there. You really felt like he was going through the anguish.  All of my favorite “minor” scenes hit just the notes I’ve always wanted to see hit:

* “Mother, you have my father much offended!”  It’s not “I’m exchanging word games with you because I’m a smartass,” it’s the tiniest of escape valves to let off the fury he has for her and his complete inability to understand how she could have done what she did.  This is where it’s all going to come out, and that’s just the start.  He’s not superior at this moment, he’s not going to put her in her place, he’s a son desperate to understand how his mother could have done what she’s done.

* The flute scene.  It’s a simple enough scene where he makes R (or is it G?) look like an idiot.  But you feel how truly alone he is in that moment.  These are supposed to be his friends. Sometimes I see R&G interpreted as schoolmates who weren’t really that close because Gertrude doesn’t really have a feeling for who her son’s friends are.  But here they really do look like old friends.  So when he asks “Then what makes you think you can play me so easily?” it’s not “Aha, caught you in a trap!” It’s a real question.  You were supposed to be my friend, but you too are in the employ of the guy that killed my father.

There are some overacted bits to be sure.  His emoting often comes out as screaming, particularly during Ophelia’s funeral.  I still bought it, I just wasn’t as sympathetic to it.  Sure, he’s mourning Ophelia’s death – but he’s also the guy that crashed a funeral unexpectedly and is now trying to story top everybody that he’s got more right to mourn than everybody else.

The ending is so rushed, it made me so sad.  I could have used another 15 minutes, easily.  It goes so fast you can barely tell when somebody’s been wounded.  Horatio’s the one to say “The drink is poisoned!” which was a little weird, I broke out my WTF face again, how does he know?  At least Gertrude (who is supposed to deliver the line) is in a better position to realize it.  But here, she dies as soon as she drinks it.  It’s all chaos.

Overall I loved it and I want  a DVD so I can watch again with my kids. I want to pick apart all the individual delivery of every line.  Many times they tweaked words here and there, which I suspect will make people insane, but for the most part, I was ok with it.  What frustrates me most about that is not always being able to tell when they’ve changed a line, and when I’ve merely forgotten the original line.  I think this was a very approachable production. People laughed in the audience. Often, and not in high brow academic chuckle when you’re the only few people who got the joke.  Everybody got the joke. Most of the time it came from Bibbityboo’s delivery of key lines.

Go see it if you can.  No question.  It’s one to discuss.  Will it become the standard for classroom learning?  Unlikely.  Too much stuff changed.  But will it be a popular choice among larger audiences?  I definitely think so.

3 thoughts on “Review : Benebatch Cumberdink’s Hamlet

  1. Good thoughts.

    First, a quick point to clarify. I thought the Ghost was channeling Olivier as a whole—not Olivier's Ghost (whose voice was, in fact, played by Olivier). He had some of the same mannerisms from an earlier age of playing Shakespeare, which I think is intriguing.

    Next, a few other points that struck me as intriguing:

    —The Gravedigger (who doubles the Ghost—did you like him more as a gravedigger?) turns on a radio that's playing "All of Me" ("You took the part that once was my heart / So why not take all of me?") when he turns to finishing up the grave.

    —He also picks up a hip bone and pretends its a microphone as he sings to it. Indeed, this Gravedigger is the least reverent with the skulls and bones that I've seen. He really does "jowl them to the ground" (with another little sideways pun in there).

    —Just before Hamlet declares Polonius to be a fishmonger, he sniffs the air. I had never thought that the smell of Polonius might also be in question in that line. And it pairs up with his sniffing his father's coat in the opening scene.

    Thanks!

    kj (Bardfilm)

  2. I thought the gravedigger was hysterical, and that accent of his definitely made this role better. But sometimes I saw little disconnects that ended up more jarring than anything else. For instance he takes two skulls out of the grave and tosses them, which is good for a laugh. Then he picks up a third and says "This is Yorick's, it's been here 23 years." How exactly does he know that? Has he literally been moving all these same bones around so frequently over the years that this one's got distinguishing marks on it that he recognizes? More likely, the director didn't really follow the scene through like I did in my mind. Makes more sense if he only ever touches one skull, because then he knows where he is and who he is digging up.

    This also came up at the dinner party. Switch to slow motion, Hamlet stands on the table and starts delivering a soliloquy. Neat. I like it. But in the background, Laertes and Polonius are now reaching across the space where Hamlet used to be. Eventually people get up and start leaving. That's weird to me. I understand slowing down the "reality" so we can get at the thoughts racing through his head — but if that's the case then keep the scene physically as close to when he got up as possible. Otherwise I'm left with unanswered questions about how all the people basically just forgot he was even there, like he's a ghost that appears and reappears.

    I was going to mention the smell thing, and starting the story with a "good" smell before the well known "rotten" theme takes over, but I thought it seemed a little too high school essay for my usual writing style :). Maybe they did that on purpose, who knows. I was too in the moment of a son clinging to the memory of his father to really dig into the symbolism.

  3. Interesting material!

    The stage direction does call for the gravedigger to "Throw up a skull" . . . which always makes me start to gag just a little bit . . . and then to "throw up another" before we get to Yorick. Branagh's Hamlet brilliantly dealt with that with a flashback that crossfades over the skull—which has distinctively bad teeth—to Yorick in his prime with the same bad teeth.

    The space issue didn't bug me at all. But the way B.C. played the madness did. I think I get the idea of marching around like the little drummer boy and playing with toy soldiers, but it seemed so easy to see through that I'm not sure the "antic disposition" trope really worked.

    kj

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