NT Live: Hamlet – a flawed gem with a unique sparkle

NT Live: Hamlet, Greenwich Picturehouse, 9 December 2010

Despite some technical problems, the NT Live broadcast of Hamlet managed to convey much of what had caused audiences to rave about the production. Compared with the in-theatre experience it was still a poor second, but these mediated images of the stage did provide the occasional fresh perspective and elucidating beam of light.

Things got off to a confusing start. The cameras made the dark stage look even murkier than it actually was, and pointing a camera accurately in such conditions was also difficult. So for the first few minutes of the opening scene we saw some rapidly changing and indistinct close-up shots of the Elsinore guards. The effect was profoundly disorienting. Whereas the theatre audience would have seen a group of people moving into a space, the cinema audience saw individuals with no explanatory context.

Then the sound of the vision mixer’s voice began to bleed through into the audio. Besides the general irritation, it became especially annoying when Hamlet asked a question and her muted voice filled the ensuing pause with a string a numbers as if in reply.

A “No signal” error message appeared on screen after a short while, from which point onwards the picture and sound were slightly out of synch. This added to the artificiality of the cinema experience as it acted as a reminder that we were watching a composite of an audio stream and a video stream.

This problem was rectified for the start of the second half of the performance, only to recur and send us back into badly-dubbed mode.

Thankfully there was only one moment where we had an Acorn Antiques shot with the camera pointing at nothing in particular.

For anyone who had seen the original stage production, the NT Live broadcast was definitely no substitute. But it was in some ways a useful adjunct.

The stage production had only one flaw. Making Elsinore a contemporary autocracy made us feel a more lively sense of injustice than if we had been presented with the same system in an historical or non-specific setting. The modern and overtly political context of the production de-emphasised the more thoughtful, philosophical musings of the main character. This Hamlet was wrestling with Big Brother rather than with Big Questions.

But in the broadcast the close-up shots of Hamlet in soliloquy effectively abstracted him from this setting. These images of the prince alone with his thoughts allowed us to consider their general import beyond this particular staging.

This was most strikingly in evidence during the Yorick soliloquy. Instead of being a man in an anorak on his way back from England to a 21st century autocracy, Hamlet in close-up became an Everyman in his contemplation of Yorick’s and his own mortality . This could have been achieved unaided by camerawork if the existential element had not been overridden by the political context of this production.

The camera also allowed us to see some of the detail of Rory Kinnear’s performance that even a good front row seat could not have provided.

When Horatio expressed his horror at Hamlet’s account of meeting the ghost of his dead father, describing it as “wondrous strange”, the camera enabled us to see clearly the effervescent delight with which Hamlet replied “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome”. He launched into his lines about heaven and earth containing more things than are dreamt of in their philosophy in the same upbeat mood.

The broadcast also gave us a glimpse of a delightful detail that could not have been visible to the theatre audience and which could only have been a private joke within the production.

While Hamlet was sat in his trunk making fun of Polonius, the cover of the book he was reading momentarily came into clear view. It was a copy of the Penguin edition of Montaigne’s Essays. Subsequent checking revealed that the same book had been used in the publicity photos of that scene. This proved that the book was not a random choice, but a volume consistently selected to be Hamlet’s favourite reading.

Scholars have theorised that Shakespeare was familiar with Montaigne’s Essays as traces of the ideas they contain can be seen in Hamlet’s thoughts. Having the prince actually read this volume on stage was a knowing but occluded wink at this theory.

The director was able to use camera angles to group together elements on stage to suggest a connection between them that might not have occurred to an audience. Specific shots also effectively increased or decreased the apparent size of individual characters.

This could be seen when Hamlet lay dying. A camera positioned stage left gave us a shot of the bodies of Claudius, Laertes and Gertrude in a line cutting the screen diagonally in half with the small crouched figures of Hamlet and Horatio seemingly trapped beneath them on the left side of the picture.

The final shot in the broadcast looked diagonally across the stage from the opposite corner, with Hamlet and Horatio looming large at the bottom of the screen. The fencing piste stretched away into the distance with the new master of Denmark and his followers exiting as small, insignificant figures.

My third view of the production brought a few previously unremarked details to my attention. I noticed Ophelia’s reticence bordering on fear when her father told her that they would have to inform the king of Hamlet’s condition. This dread Ophelia had for Claudius nicely foreshadowed the actual harm the production heavily suggested he caused her.

In her mad scene Ophelia’s shopping trolley gave her a concrete point of reference when saying “O, how the wheel becomes it!” She presented a doll to Gertrude which she called “a daisy”. It is quite possible that in the world of the play the doll was actually a brand name “Daisy” along the lines of real-world brands Barbie and Cindy.

Whereas David Tennant’s Hamlet had exited for England drugged and strapped to a chair shouting “Weeee!” Rory Kinnear skipped away singing a hornpipe.

When asking whether a freshly exhumed skull might be that of a lawyer, Hamlet offered up a jocular prayer of supplication that his theory might be proved correct.

I was relieved to see that host Emma Freud had put on one of the Villain t-shirts over her top to deliver her final words after the performance had ended. I had got into the spirit of the event by wearing my Villain shirt in the same way. It was comforting to think that someone else had seen the potential fun in becoming part of Team Hamlet.

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