National Theatre Live: The Expressionist Hamlet

Lyndsay Turner’s Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is strikingly different from other recent Hamlets.

Rory Kinnear ‘s Hamlet directed by Nicholas Hytner, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 self-directed Hamlet, and Greg Doran’s 2009 David Tennant Hamlet all evidenced the influence of John Barton’s magisterial elucidation of how Shakespeare’s language needed to be played. Barton insisted on a detailed investigation of the words, insisting that every word and punctuation mark be understood – why the character needed to select that word at that moment. All words and phrases, no matter how old, needed to be what he called “fresh-minted” at the moment of utterance:

“Until we love individual words, we won’t love language and if we don’t, we won’t be able to use it properly.”

“Each new word, each new word in a sentence qualifies what has gone before or changed the direction of that sentence. The principal is the same with antithesis – if you don’t set up one word, you won’t prepare for another to qualify it.”

“I don’t believe that most audiences really listen to a complex text unless the actor makes them do so.”

Director Turner has an alternative way of capturing her audience’s attention. Her actors handled Shakespeare’s language with the broadest possible of strokes, as they instead focus their energies on a very rare theatrical event, an expressionistic production of Shakespeare.

“Expressionism” flourished as a dramatic style in the 1920s, and moved into the cinema primarily through  F. W. Murnau films such as Nosferatu and Faust.  Expressionism used the means of theatrical production to turn plays into “dream pictures” and “vi­sionary abstracts of reality.” Turner’s expressionist Hamlet expresses the play’s action through the lens of the main character’s “ego”. As with symbolism, her stage presents Elsinore as seen through the eyes of Hamlet. Consequently, Es Devlin’s expres­sionist stage is, characteristically, a black void in which flashes of light illuminate fleeting scenes. This expressionist Hamlet finds the world distorted into gigantic cinematic effects – strobe lighting, slow motion- as well as exagger­ated lines, masses, colors, and garish techno-industrial sounds, created by Christopher Shutt, sounds revealing the heroic character’s “distorted” view of the world. Reality is here presented as something that exists only in Hamlet’s mind.”[i]

Expressionism ala Murnau seems a legitimate production choice, especially since Professor Harold C Goddard identified Lucifer as the archetype of all tragic heroes. Lucifer fell, and before his fall, he lived as the light-bearer, as does Hamlet. Hamlet is, according to Goddard, “a divided man won to the side of violence only after a protracted struggle.”[ii] 

To show that struggle, Turner gives Mr. Cumberbatch a variety of seemingly random activities to perform – from listening to old Nat King Cole records, trying on  a Native American headdress,  parading around in the scarlet tunic and peaked helmet of a 19th-century infantryman, dragging on a miniature fort from which to take potshots at the court, strutting about Elsinore in a jacket brazenly adorned on its back with the word “KING”, and sporting a David Bowie T-shirt. From this frantic collage we are expected to concoct our own rationale for Hamlet’s behavior.

As Ophelia, Ciaran Hinds exhibits the symptoms of advanced cocaine addiction – hyper-energetic talkativeness, running nose, poor judgement, delusion, and hallucinations, all  on her way to genuine madness. Meanwhile, the other woman in Hamlet’s life, his mother Gertrude, plays but one note throughout the action – annoyance. Everything annoys this Gertrude as played by Anastasia Hille. Matthew Steer, on the other hand, manages to breathe fresh life into a nifty portrayal of Rosencrantz. The troupe of players arrive and reveal themselves as, despite Shakespeare’s description, little more than hippie Actor Studio wannabes.

All the while the Danish castle, conceived as sort of a Miss Havisham mansion writ large, literally falls to pieces as the drama continues apace. Mounds of rubbish provide backdrops for gorgeous lighting effects and stunning entrances and exits. Murnau’s art directors, Robert Herlth and Robert Rohrig would be very impressed with this Hamlet’s visual life.

[i] Paul Kuritz. The Making of Theatre History. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-hall, Inc, 1988, p. 372.

[ii] Harold C. Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, p. 345.

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