A Board Member Review of the National Theater Broadcast of Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

Most of the board, a bunch of ISC-SF support team members, and a murder of Upstart Crows took up seats in the balcony at the Lensic Performing Arts Center for the HD-live broadcast of the National Theater production of Hamlet from the Barbican Theater in London. The production raised some interesting questions that got hashed over at the Cowgirl restaurant later that night.

 Our young players loved it - because Sherlock + Shakespeare is going to add up to great joy for this crew. No question that Mr. Cumberbatch (A graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts) provided an energetic, bravura performance. Some audience members were frankly, bowled over by his interpretation.

For the rest of us, the after party was spent mulling over the downside of theatrical wizardry. One of us had seen the show in previews in London on a particularly bad night when special effects kept malfunctioning. The impression at the time (delivered to us via a long and passionate Skype conversation) was that the re-ordering of text, giving one character’s lines to another for no apparent reason, the rampant paraphrasing, and the burden of competing with the stage effects was not conducive to great performance. 

The NT Live Broadcast was, in this same member’s opinion, a great improvement on the previews. Some of the text was back in places that made more sense. Happily you could see more of the performance in the broadcast than sitting in the theater, as conflicts between the Barbican’s sight lines and the blocking were not an issue on film. Seeing the actors up close via camera meant that you could see what they were dong more clearly and there was some very good acting going on.

Having said that, the thrill of seeing a talented favorite in the lead was tempered by the distraction of directorial choices, and the fact that the pleasures of the language were still getting lost in translation. My corner of the balcony gave up counting paraphrases in the text at a certain point.

Which brings us to the main point of our conversation at the cafe around midnight. Why would such a professional company disregard the text to such a degree? Which would you prefer - a deeply nuanced performance that respects the author and the language, or a complicated set with hurricane force blowing dirt, piles of debris, and slow-motion sequences?

We believe in the author, we believe in the text. We don’t hate million dollar sound and light systems, but we’d rather see the play done with full focus on the magic of the language and what it can do to actor and audience. Special effects should not overshadow the power of Shakespeare’s words.

Or, as Hamlet instructs us: “suit the action to the word, the word to the action”.