Managing Expectations: Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show

This above all, to thine own self be true.

Last week I saw two spectacular stage shows. Both of them came with baggage. Both of them met outrageous expectations with unabashed glee.Hamlet Skull

I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets over the years, both in the theatre and in the cinema. The first I saw on stage was the inimitable Steven Berkoff in 1980. It was a towering performance and his portrayal of the doomed prince was venal, brutal and formidable. Other Hamlets followed, including several ‘names’ who left me cold. Then, last week…

Came Cumberbatch.

Very few productions have been hyped so much as this one at the Barbican. The entire run was sold out in a matter of hours a year before the opening night. People didn’t even know who else was going to be in the cast. The maths was simple, however. Cumberbatch + Hamlet = Sold!

Given that this is my favourite play (beating Henry V by a hair), and Cumberbatch my favourite actor, you’d think I entered the Barbican with some trepidation. In fact, I was pretty calm. One of the things about Mr Cumberbatch is you always feel safe in his hands. On the rare occasions when you puzzle at his choices, he still manages to leave you with the impression that for good or ill, those choices were made intelligently and as a result of considerable thought. I was right not to worry. As Hamlets go, his was sublime.

For the first time in forty years, I saw Hamlet as a flesh and blood man. He was sweet, funny, and riddled with self-doubt. I had the sense that this was a Hamlet who stayed in university long after he would be expected to leave because he could not satisfy an innate hunger to know.

Know what, you ask.

Everything.

This Hamlet would plague his parents with questions like Why do stars twinkle? What is man’s purpose? What is truth? Mum and Dad were probably glad to let the professors deal with him.

The use of music, special effects, and setting all support the director’s vision. This Elsinore has all the cosy warmth of Hitler’s bunker. No wonder our hero would prefer to overstay his time in university, or sit alone listening to Nat King Cole records.

One of the other things that struck me about this production was how political it was. This is the first time I’ve seen Denmark depicted on the brink of war. This added a layer of possibility to the interpretation: Perhaps Gertrude married Claudius less for lust and more to have a stable leader for the country during a time of great unrest. Perhaps Hamlet, for all his personal beauty and charm, is a bit unstable, even without seeing daddy-ghosts wandering the grounds of Elsinore.  It gives a new layer of meaning to Gertrude’s behaviour.

Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude isn’t particularly warm. Instead, she is a shrewd politician. When Claudius mixes up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, she’s the one to make the correction, with a fleeting gesture of annoyance. Her new spouse is already leaving something to be desired. Likewise, she’s not exactly a doting mother. Hamlet is a duty, to be taken seriously, of course, but one does not coddle. There are certainly none of the oedipal undercurrents between mother and son that have run through other productions.

She is not without compassion, however, and seems to manage some sympathy for Ophelia. Too little, too late, alas.

Ciaran Hinds’ Claudius is a weak beast of a fratricidal king. He presents as a man who is far better at backroom plotting than actual reigning. His decisions go awry. Other reviewers seem to see this depiction as a weakness in the actor’s interpretation, but I think it’s a brave choice. He’s doing exactly what is right for this production. A love-sick Claudius would not have worked in this political setting. If I do have one quibble, though, it’s that Hinds’ diction is sometimes less than it might be. In short, he mumbles. Perhaps the mumbling reflects the king’s inherent weakness, but I know I wasn’t the only audience member to be frustrated by it.

One of the most striking moments of this production (there were many) is when Hamlet forces Gertrude to examine the difference between the brothers, his father Hamlet, and his uncle Claudius. The former is depicted in noble mien in a portrait; the latter is a face on a gaudy commemorative plate. A crushing indictment, not only of the character, but of a society that cannot distinguish between the genuine and the ersatz.

As Ophelia, Sian Brooke is adequate. The cuts to the production do not allow her full reign, so it may be unfair to say she is not particularly luminous. She has moments, though, particularly in her final scene, that are very moving. I never got a sense that she was conflicted by her love for Hamlet and her obedience to her father, though, nor felt that she had great affection for either man.

Also suffering from the cuts is Jim Norton’s Polonius. I read some negative reviews of his performance, but I was delighted at his interpretation. While he never had a chance to make the character as irksome as some others, he brought a lot of humour to the part. I’d like to have seen more of his relationship with Ophelia and Laertes. His interactions with Hamlet are comedy gold. Because  he is so wordy and a bit of a toady, you can understand why a weak man like Claudius would pay heed to his words. This alliance is something that always puzzled me in other productions. Patrick Stewart, for instance, seemed much too savvy to listen to the fabulously dippy Oliver Ford Davies in the 2009 production. But Hinds’ Claudius seems to have no such wit and their collaboration seems pretty evenly matched.

Other standouts for me were Ruairi Conaghan as the Player King (just exasperated enough with Hamlet’s advice) and Matthew Steer as a hilarious Rosencrantz.

Other cast members fair less well. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is undoubtedly talented, but his Laertes wasn’t given enough to do. I was also underwhelmed by Leo Bill’s Horatio. There just wasn’t any chemistry between him and Cumberbatch. It’s a shame, because that Hamlet–Horatio relationship is such a beautiful thing when it’s done right. Given there is much better chemistry between Misters Cumberbatch and Holdbrook-Smith, I think it might have worked better if the latter had played Horatio, and Bill had played Laertes.

As to Mr Cumberbatch himself, I’ve already used the word sublime. His was the most accessible, likeable and noble Hamlet I’ve ever seen. His interaction with the rest of the cast is stellar (with the exceptions noted above), and his monologues rank among the very best. The famous ‘To Be or Not To Be’ speech was simply breathtaking. As I said, I have seen a great many other actors play Hamlet, but Cumberbatch’s was the first to weep during that speech. His death scene (though a bit over-produced) was also deeply moving.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, then. Though not really ridiculous so much as irreverent.

Rocky. Baby.

Don’t dream it. Be it.

Richard O'BrienThe seats were rubbish, the theatre too hot, but who cares? We were there to witness pure unbridled exuberance and energy. After years of loving The Rocky Horror Picture Show on film, I finally got to see it on stage, and what a production it was!

The entire cast was fabulous and I was delighted to see David Bedella making Frank-N-Furter as much the rollicking frolicking sweet transvestite as my beloved Tim Curry. Bedella’s singing range is incredible, his comic timing spot-on, and he squeezed every ounce of joy out of the part. Likewise, Kristian Lavercombe seemed to be channelling early Richard O’Brien in his performance as Riff Raff. I never cared much for Ben Forster so I was surprised and delighted to see him deliver an utterly charming Brad. Likewise, Haley Flaherty may actually (whisper it) be a better Janet that Susan Sarandon. I know, I know, but trust me, she’s fabulous. They all are.

But for all the exuberance of the cast, there is really only one star. A man whose brilliance obliterates every other sun in the solar system: the one and only Richard O’Brien, this time playing the Narrator.

Snide members of the press feared that fans would not be able to contain themselves when Benedict Cumberbatch made his entrance for Hamlet. Obnoxious twerps reported that fans screamed like they were at a Beatles  concert whenever he appeared (an out and out lie). Such people should have been at Rocky on Friday night. When Mr O’Brien made his appearance there was a full five minutes of screaming, cheering and hysterical applauding. When the man at last raised his hand and said, “Please stop, you’ll make my mascara run,” the din just got louder. For some reason, though, it’s OK to scream at Rocky, just don’t dare do likewise at Hamlet. Hamlet is ‘Art’, you know. And Rocky is… I don’t know. It’s just Rocky.

Baby.

The audience were in their costumed, make-up-ed element. Even the dodgy stairs of the Upper Circle did nothing to keep the crowd from doing the Time Warp (again). Well, it is just a jump to the left…

Only one thing was puzzling. Immediately in front of me sat a real-life Brad and Janet. She was even wearing a twin set. He wasn’t wearing a bow tie, but there seemed to be an invisible one around his neck anyway. He was that type. At first I thought they were in costume but… no.

After their shocked reaction to the fishnet and push-up bra-wearing fans, they were bewildered by the entire spectacle. I imagined a friend with a wicked sense of humour giving them the tickets and saying, “Here, go see this show and you’ll understand why I always call you Brad and Janet.” They stayed to the end. And even if they didn’t take a step to the right, I’d like to think a little Frank-N-Furter will stay with them forevermore.

There was no ‘but’ to this production. It was everything a Rocky fan could wish. We were hoping for a lot of silliness, great songs, and a chance to see the lithe and lovely Richard O’Brien strut his stuff. And we got that, in spades. You’d never know Mr O’Brien is 73. If he’s a little slower, or his voice less powerful than before, well, no one minds. He’s the man who taught so many people to accept others just as they are. It would be churlish not to pay him the same respect.

Respect there was, but more, there was love. Loud and irreverent it might be, but love nonetheless.

Superficially, this reaction seemed very different from the audience at Thursday night’s Hamlet, yet in the fundamentals, they were the same. Both audiences were respectful, both had huge amounts of affection for the stars.

Is it weird that I loved both Hamlet and Rocky Horror in equal measures? Perhaps. But I don’t think the messages of either one is at odds with the other. Hamlet teaches us many things, one of the most fundamental of which is if you are true to yourself you cannot be false to anyone else. Rocky teaches us to embrace who we are with grace and courage.

Life lessons from Shakespeare and Richard O’Brien.

Who knew?

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About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Geri-Schear/e/B00ORWA3EU
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2 Responses to Managing Expectations: Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show

  1. Dick Gillman says:

    Loved the reviews, Geri. I haven’t been hiding since you mentioned the book signing in November…just looking for flights! 😉 x

    Like

  2. rycardus says:

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you, Dick.

    Like

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