A Batch of Cumbers

On Thursday I saw Hamlet broadcast by National Theatre Live, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, at the Thornden Hall in Chandler’s Ford. It was the fifth acting role I have seen Cumberbatch in, and apart from writing my review about the play, Hamlet, I would also like to write about how actors are defined by the roles they play.

Thornden Hall ticket

I first became aware of Benedict Cumberbatch through Sherlock, of course. After that I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness, though I can’t remember much about the film as I’m not a Star Trek guy (give me Star Wars any day). Following on from Sherlock I saw the National Theatre Live version of Frankenstein last Halloween, again at Thornden Hall, then I saw the Imitation Game at the Hilt in Hiltingbury. Then on Thursday I watched the highly anticipating play, Hamlet.

Hamlet poster

Benedict Cumberbatch is a very versatile actor as he plays so many different roles. I can’t wait to see his version of Doctor Strange and hope he plays a Bond villain/Doctor Who guest role at some point.

I was interested in Hamlet not just because Cumberbatch was the lead actor, but also because I have wanted to watch a Hamlet production for a long time. Now, this Hamlet show has inspired me to watch the David Tennant Hamlet in full, purely because the Doctor is playing Hamlet. I often wonder why actors would play roles like Hamlet, which is a very challenging role. Is it because the actors have a fanbase (especially certain mothers) who will watch anything which stars the actors? I would have been equally excited for Doctor Strange anyway, but the movie stars one of my favourite actors, which makes me more excited than I already was. Maybe I could coax my mother into watching a Marvel movie.

Actors like Cumberbatch and Tennant have been lucky enough to be able to escape typecasting. After all, being famous for only one role can be damaging, as many actors struggle to find work as they find themselves typecasted. That’s probably why Christopher Eccleston left Doctor Who after one series, and why Cumberbatch is having roles in Hamlet and Star Trek to make his roles distinct from the unsociable, fast talking awkward and often rude genius role like Sherlock.

So is it bad that actors can only be known for a limited amount of roles? Well, I think that there are both pros and cons. An advantage is that an actor can take on any role and be guaranteed to have an audience. On the other hand, for some people it is hard to escape a specific role which has defined them, like Daniel Radcliffe with Harry Potter. He has been in other films, but he is always associated with Harry Potter. One of the hard things about being a successful actor is that some characters are so iconic that any other role they play pales in comparison.

So now I’ll talk a bit about Hamlet itself:

I’ve never read the play or seen Hamlet in full before, so this was the first full production that I’ve seen. This is a modern version of Hamlet, as the clothing and the sets are in a semi modern style. Cumberbatch wears a pair of track suit bottoms and T shirts. Horatio has tattoos all over his body, and he also carries a backpack. Throughout the play radios are used.

The modern style makes this version unique and refreshing to watch. I remember watching about half of the TV version of the David Tennant Hamlet, which had surveillance cameras and modern clothing too. Modernising the play makes it more relevant to the modern world, and the good thing about Hamlet is that the themes, characters and dialogue are timeless and can still have the same effect, whether it’s the 17th century, now or 20 years time. By 2030 there will be a version of Hamlet which is representative of that time.

The great thing about Shakespeare is that the language is refined, and the play can be set anytime and the setting can be anything from the Elizabethan original to the far future. Even though the language is old, the story still works within a modern setting, as the themes of Hamlet are still popular in storytelling, including madness, revenge, betrayal, and friendship.

The language was hard to understand, but I understood the story very well, thanks to the rich facial expressions and the actions of the characters. It was also quite funny, with many of Hamlet’s lines being very sarcastic. For example, Hamlet says to Polonius, “Excellent well; you are a fishmonger”, when Polonius asks Hamlet if he knows who Polonius is.

However, it is mainly a dramatic play, and I don’t think it’ll be a spoiler when I say that nearly everyone dies. It is a Shakespeare tragedy after all.

It was great that I could watch this play locally in where I live. Going to London is expensive and the tickets were all sold out. By having the play broadcast in cinemas around the world, more people can experience Hamlet than ever before.

One thought on “A Batch of Cumbers

  1. I think that Cumberbatch is somewhat over-rated. Yes, he was very good in Sherlock, but put him in a role that calls for more than an expression of supercillious superiority and he would struggle. Can you really see him as an action hero? Or in a slapstick comedy? I think your analysis is spot on. Actors like Cumerbatch are cast in plays like Hamlet because they are ‘flavour of the month’ and producers hope that they will bring their television admirers into the theatre.

    Your point about typecasting is well made but ultimately actors are no different from the rest of the population in that their two main drivers are money and ego – but not necessarily in that order.

    I completely agree with your thoughts on Shakespeare. His themes are timeless and that is why his plays are relevant today and will be in a hundred years time (unless the Silurian have taken over by then).

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