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Patrick Viktor Monroe
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Wrong, but Effective, Production and Some Great Acting
This is such an overwhelmingly physical production, and so totally enjoyable, that I am forced to give it a 9 rating despite its many lapses. First of all, I am so sick and tired of seeing plays and operas updated to make them more 'relevant' to their audiences. There is nothing in HAMLET that could possibly be 20th century in nature (except the characters' feelings, which are both universal and timeless), but we start out with Hamlet listening to "Nature Boy" on a small, portable phonograph. Oh, one thinks, this one is going to take place in 1950 in that most ancient of Danish cities, Cleveland. But, immediately, on come the other characters, and while Horatio is sporting a backpack indicating a later era (they weren't really much in general use in 1950, except in the military and with mountain climbers), the ladies in the cast seem to be wearing costumes right out of the 1890s, and when Claudius enters, he looks like he's wearing something between an Edwardian suit with a military sash across it and something the butler forgot to take to the cleaners that day. So when DOES it take place? And why not in approximately 1100AD? Answer: Because then you wouldn't be able to play "Nature Boy" on the toy phonograph. I just don't get it. (Later on, the Gravedigger is mouthing the words to another old popular song. Why?) Timelines aside, the production is terrific, though, and some of the scene changes - like the one that goes from the banquet hall to the bringing on of the Ghost - were incredibly effective. As for the acting, which is what HAMLET is all about for most of us, while some of the accents clashed a bit - Horatio both sounds and looks like he just arrived from the East End, so how did he become such fast friends with Hamlet, who sounds of the Upper Crust, as does his mother Gertrude, while Claudius sounds not only American, but very much like Al Pacino playing Al Pacino (he doesn't sound the least bit kingly, but could pass for another leader - Al Capone) - there was not a weak link in the cast. Cumberbatch is not only terrific throughout, he is probably the most intensely physical Hamlet I've ever seen; I can't imagine how he could deliver this kind of show several times a week without going into cardiac arrest. Outside of Cumberbatch, and Ciaran Hinds as Claudius, the actors will not be that well-known to movie-goers, but Anastasia Hille as Gertrude and Jim Norton as Polonius are about as good as any actors I have seen in these roles, Hille's surprising physicality almost equaling her son's in their great confrontation scene, and Norton extremely funny. I've seen about a dozen, maybe fifteen, Hamlets in my lifetime, and surprisingly perhaps, the overall best one to me - looks, passion, delivery, etc. - wasn't Olivier or Branagh or any other noted Shakespearean, but Richard Chamberlain, who actually achieved notable success in the role both here and in England about 40 years back; Cumberbatch, on average, runs him a close second. This version has a lot of cuts, some unfortunate, some not so; it has lines transposed (indeed, whole speeches removed or transposed), and changes in dialogue from what appears to be a HAMLET FOR DUMMIES guide, but they are not insulting to those of us who love this play, only a bit disconcerting at times. Still, I really do wish we could continue to see plays and operas in the time period they are supposed to take place in. RICHARD III in the Nazi era was bad enough, but HAMLET in Motown? I think not. Still, this was a very exciting theatrical experience, which should be recommendation enough for it these days.
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