“I thought it was dystopian!”
“I thought it was modern?”
“I thought it was the past…”
The Millennials are confused, and understandably so. The Barbican Centre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by Lyndsey Turner and filmed before a live audience, presents a unique and refreshing perspective on the 400-year-old play. It is not the medieval Danish world of Shakespeare’s setting, and nor does it sit well within any of the centuries that have occurred since then. The buildings are Victorian, the uniforms modern, the clothing contemporary, but the weapons historic. Hamlet has traded in his doublet for a David Bowie shirt, but keeps a dagger by his side and listens to Nat King Cole albums on an old record player. And just wait until you see Horatio.
It soon becomes reductive to try to situate the production within any sort of recognizable time period, and it instead becomes more useful to work to understand the ways in which the interpretation illuminates some of the more subtle elements of the drama itself. It’s a story about a guy who lives at home and complains about everything while wandering around the house in sneakers and playing with old toys. Our new Hamlet has been transformed into just another Millennial.
The gravity of the role and the breadth of the story make it easy to forget that Hamlet is a young man’s tale, about a young man’s angst and his doomed struggle to do what he believes to be the right thing when placed in an impossible situation. We forget that his speeches are not so much eloquent soliloquies, but rather the confused ramblings of a distressed kid. His brooding, destructive thoughts are not artful designs for vengeance but are instead reminiscent of the same dark craving for violence that still plagues many young men today.
I never liked Hamlet. I first read the play when I was a teenager myself, and I found him whiny, spoiled, petulant, and abhorrently self-centered. However, boosted by Benedict Cumberbatch’s pristine performance, Turner’s production elevates the character to a more sympathetic role. Other prominent productions have given us a Hamlet who lurks in corners or whispers his asides in solitude. These Hamlets have been sullen brats who air their grievances the way that teenagers post selfies––with shameless self-indulgence.
But now we see and feel the dichotomy of a Hamlet surrounded by action and yet disconnected from it. He speaks his inner thoughts to us in spotlight while the movement of the scene continues in muted, time lapsed slow motion behind him, as if unaware of and indifferent to his absence. These juxtapositions call to mind that other phenomenon of the Millennial experience, which goes beyond Instagramming and ride-sharing––the paradox of incessant loneliness in a world of hyper-connectivity.
Benedict Cumberbatch, at a lithe and spry 39 years of age, is certainly pushing the limit for playing a believable Millennial, but he nonetheless performs the role with superb fluidity and ease, slipping through the stages of Hamlet’s anger, fear, sorrow, madness and pain with phenomenal poise. He looks right at home in his assortment of off-the-rack American Apparel hoodies and sneakers. Likewise, his friend and confidant Horatio, portrayed by a cool and calm Leo Bill, is a geek-chic, tattooed hipster decked out in a Herschel backpack and pea coat. Even the lovable maiden Ophelia, played by the delicate and stunning Siân Brooke, has been transformed into the shy, quiet girl, who slinks around in heavy sweaters and takes pictures of artsy things like goblets and antlers.
When seen through the lens of Millennial hipsterism, the anachronisms on stage begin to make sense. Hamlet listens to albums on an old record player because it’s cool. Ophelia carries around a bulky old film camera because it’s quirky. Sometimes things don’t quite make sense, and that’s exactly why they’re relevant. Our heroes still speak and move with Elizabethan diction and grace, but at a quick glance appear startlingly, refreshingly current.
All of this is not to say that the production finds itself overly concerned with modern adornments and trending fads, because it certainly doesn’t. Instead, this new production transcends time as the old story takes on new meaning in these surroundings. By firmly situating Hamlet and his cohorts within the context of something so readily familiar (Millennial-ness), his plight and status are instantly recognizable, and while his antics are still instantly annoying, through the power of words and actions (and no doubt, amazing performances), this new Hamlet becomes something sensitive and tender. He’s spoiled but kind, whiny but pensive. His confrontations with his uncle and mother are neither brash nor abrasive, but are by turns subversive and, dare I say it, sweet.
There are stellar performances all around worth mentioning, particularly Ciarán Hinds as the regal and conniving King Claudius and Anastasia Hille as a conflicted yet forgivable Gertrude. The performance stays very true to the original text (with some scenes and lines swapped or edited), and runs just over three hours with a 20 minute intermission. As mentioned, the play was performed and recorded before a live audience at the Barbican Theatre in London, and then screened in select movie theaters throughout the world. Encores will be playing throughout the United States for the rest of 2015, with more information here: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout10-hamlet