Watching a HD
live broadcast of a Shakespeare play is a surprisingly intimate experience, even on the big movie screen. The camera zooms in and out capturing the details on set pieces, on costumes, and on the facial expressions of the actors, even capturing a wrinkle or two.
There was a wrinkle or two in the audience as well watching the encore screening
of London’s National Theatre
production of Hamlet
last Thursday night in Fairfield, Connecticut. National Theatre Live is the “groundbreaking initiative to broadcast theatre live from the stage to cinemas around the world,” via satellite to over 2000 venues in more than 40 countries.
Academy Award® nominee Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role of Shakespeare’s great tragedy in the National Theatre Live broadcast: http://ntlive.com/hamlet
The live and encore screenings of Hamlet allowed audiences in the United States access to one of the hottest tickets in London this season. The reason? Benedict Cumberbatch was playing the title role. Cumberbatch has made a name for himself in the PBS series Sherlock (2010) and in The Imitation Game (2014) which earned him a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
At 39 years old, Cumberbatch played a bellicose, mid-aged Hamlet.
But while Cumberbatch was the reason for the crowd, this audience had more in common with Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. While the character of Gertrude could have been a child bride (12-15 years old), the youngest she could be is in her early 30s.
Hamlet is at minimum 12-16 years old, an age indicated in the Q1 or “First Quarto” the short early text of the play. The Gravedigger provides information that Yorick’s skull has been in the ground a dozen years since old Hamlet overcame Fortinbras, and that Yorick used to carry young Hamlet on his back.
But in a later version of the text (Q2) the Gravedigger says that he has been in his profession since the day that Hamlet’s father defeated Old Fortinbras, on “the very day that young Hamlet was born.” He later adds that “I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.”That would mean that Hamlet could be at minimum 30 years old, placing Gertrude at over 60 years old.
Anastasia Hille plays Gertrude
In this production, Gertrude was played by the actress Anastasia Hille as a woman in her late 50s. 10 years older than her co-star Cumberbatch, Hille was regal in each scene, graceful and lithe, her muscle tone noticeable in a brief appearance in a satin undergarment.
The audience clearly enjoyed the broadcast, hinting at familiarity with each scene. There was appreciation for some of the comic staging by the director Lyndsey Turner, including the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with military play toys as set pieces.
By Act III, there was an detectable level of anticipation for the closet scene, the scene where Hamlet stabs Polonius hiding behind the arras. From Hamlet’s entrance, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” the audience seemed to tighten, eager to hear how these two would play the scene: he the accuser and she the astonished.
As scripted, Polonius had no sooner hit the floor then Hamlet turned to accuse his mother of murder:
“…a bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.” (III.iv.27-28)
HD cameras closed in on Hille’s astonished Gertrude looking past the bleeding body on the floor and deeply into her son’s face for answers. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet continued in a frenzy, pointing to a portrait of his father on the wall and to the reproduction of his Uncle Claudius’s face on a cheap souvenir commemorative plate:
“Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.”(III.iv.54-55)
The tension from this exchange was palpable as Hamlet’s accusation spilled out into the air;
“….Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment:”(III.iv.67-70)
Translation? “Mom, you can’t possibly be swept off your feet–or make decisions based on sexual passion-you are too old!”
Audience response was immediate…a round of snorts and chuckles, that gave way to a few loud guffaws. This over 60 crowd, with its disproportionately high number of females in the audience, was having none of son Hamlet’s logic:
A mother’s heydey? Not over.
Gertrude tame? No way.
“What Hamlet doesn’t know,” they sniggered, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Was it the venue that let them feel more free to laugh? Was it their way to express comfort with their sexuality? A response from a culture that celebrates “cougars”
? A reaction from the regular dose of TV ads promoting Viagra… for both sexes? I was struck at how this particular audience interpreted the line, disrupting the dramatic tension in so public a manner.
Their interruption was brief. Whatever empowered their response soon passed, and upon the entrance of the Ghost, the audience quieted. The play continued without interruption, and by the end of Act V, the stage was littered with bodies.
This Hamlet in HD beamed by satellite to audiences around the world did not lose any of the emotional impact, and proves that regardless of how the production is presented, Shakespeare’s statement that “the play is the thing” is true for audiences. The National Theatre Live experience shared with aging baby boomers proves that who is in the audience matters as well.