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Hamlet on the Big Screen by Zephyr Zink

Posted by on Wednesday, October 28, 2015 in News, , , , , .

Hamlet by William Shakespeare has recently come into greater accessibility and renewed life on a grand stage. Lyndsey Turner directs a star-studded and extremely talented cast in a production performed at the National Theatre in London and shown around the world on movie theater screens through the National Theatre Live Program. The process certainly gives a slightly different meaning to “all the world’s a stage”. The viewing I saw was played in a movie theatre, rife with subtle art deco touches and the overwhelming smell of buttered popcorn, in the outskirts of Lexington, KY. Although is seemed to be a slow night for the theatre in general, the Hamlet had great appeal, as just about every seat was full. And this was despite the immensely popular University of Kentucky football game, a purportedly sold out event, that was happening simultaneously just down the road.

As I sat through the time that would have been filled with previews of the latest blockbusters in a more traditional movie screening, it occurred to me that there was a greater mission at foot. Before we got to see the stage or the curtain or even the live audience we were thrust into a behind the scene interviews and extras. Perhaps, these were consolation prizes for not seeing the performance in person but, more likely, these were meant to draw the audience in and extend the appeal to not only those who thrive on Hamlet’s ordeal and Shakespearean English.

The interview in question was especially noticeable as it featured the star of the show, Benedict Cumberbatch. Known for wildly popular and ranging roles such as an eccentric Sherlock Homes in a modern adaptation and a dangerous and deceitful villain as Kahn in the Star Trek reboot, the versatile actor is also now stretching his talent to the professional acting arena.  Cumberbatch in not the only big name as the cast includes several high profile actors undoubtedly drawing in a broader audience wanting to see their favorite actors perform in a Shakespearean classic.

This production doesn’t rely on its actor laurels, however. The set is a magnificent representation of a luxurious mansion with an incredible depth of field, aided by balconies, recessed hallways and trap doors. It’s as if the production team pulled out all the stops and felt a need to do right by the masterpiece that they were working with. A giant feast table is laid out to be walked on by Hamlet during one of his more sour soliloquies only to be whisked through one of the on stage doors at the end of the scene. During the intermission the stage was filled with large piles of a dark dirt like substance that vividly reflects the apparent feelings of the characters as they are driven to madness as well as providing context for outdoor scenes. Overall the attention to detail and the production value was immense.

It’s hard to determine if the play was placed in a specific time period as it draws props and costumes from ostensibly anywhere in the last few hundred years. The inclusion of some modern elements certainly makes the play more accessible to a modern audience. This does not take away from the production at all, however, as it is done in a subtle way that does not distract the audience with the choice of adaptation but instead allows the audience to focus on the drama and the pain of the characters.

Regardless of the directors choices though the acting is what shines though. There is no easy way to play Hamlet or any character in this play for that matter and these actor did not shy away from the monumental task. It became incredibly clear as the play progressed that this production was an incredible labor for the actors every time it was performed. Siân Brooke’s performance of Ophelia was especially poignant as she descended into madness after the loss of her father. It was a performance that can be appreciated no matter what your previous experience with theater is.

This production clearly demonstrates a push by the theatre industry to increase access to world-class performance and have the fruit hang a little lower. Shown in a movie theatre, headlining Benedict Cumberbatch, and with the household name of Hamlet this viewing pushes closer and closer to the mainstream. Theater of this quality now does not have to be only for those who are able to go to Broadway and see the latest show with the best actors. It even brings up the question, does this mode of appreciation taint the high brow display of culture that theatre is generally seen as? Maybe to some, but evidently not to anyone who was in that cinema that night. During the intermission, conversation about other performances that the audience wanted to see or had already seen filled the room. It became evident that there was a wide range of theatre experience and interest around me. And what greater purpose could this screening have had than taking those on the fringes of theatrical culture bringing them in to the conversation.


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2 Comments on “Hamlet on the Big Screen by Zephyr Zink”

It’s pretty cool that you saw the play in a movie theater and that you actually had a very positive experience. I have seen the ads for Fathom events before and I always assumed that there was no way that anyone actually went to those events, apparently I was wrong. I can see how people in the community that do have strong interests in theater would be drawn to an event at the theater like this, especially since it seems like you had a great experience. The behind-the-scenes and interviews before the play seem like it helped set the stage and gives the viewers a virtual backstage pass that makes you feel exclusive. Though I haven’t seen Hamlet, your characterizations of the stage were rife with solid descriptors that really brought the stage to life in my imagination. The sets sound like they were of grandiose size and were quite the spectacle to see when entering the theater with few expectations. Not knowing the play you have definitely piqued my interest in seeing the play, and seeing it in theaters!

fitzgec2 on November 6th, 2015 at 7:46 pm

I agree with the argument that bringing a classic play like Hamlet into movie theaters all across the country allows it to be accessed by a much larger audience. Selecting actors that are well known and generally beloved by the American public and putting lots of resources towards the production value of play additionally increases the appeal of this performance beyond typical theater goers. Based on the closing paragraph however, it seems as though the majority of the audience falls into the category of regular theater goers- or at least people who have seen live performances in the past and/or plan to see upcoming pieces of theater. Though I am sure there were fledgling theater enthusiasts and complete new comers scattered throughout the audience, could this performance have done more to increase this proportion of the audience? Perhaps if the director had instead done a complete modern adaptation of Hamlet in which more current language was used and scenarios modified so that they could conceivably happen in our society the play would have reached an even broader audience. This approach would have made the play more easily relatable and potentially reduced the apprehension some may feel towards sitting through two hours of Shakespearian language. On the other hand, the “Shakespearian-ness” of this performance was most likely a major draw to many of the people who did attend the movie theatre showing. Depending on the goal of the director and the production team, preserving much of the integrity of the original script could have been necessary to expanding appreciation of Shakespearian theatre to a larger audience. It seems as though this objective was certainly reached, but in a broader sense of increasing the accessibility and appeal of theater in general, this production potentially could have done more.

Carson Hedberg on November 11th, 2015 at 12:02 am

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