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I love Shakespeare. Like I really enjoy not just seeing the various adaptations (except the R&J with Leonardo DiCaprio- what a cluster that was), but reading the plays and the poetry repeatedly. I get tripped up by the meter and verse and just nibble it up.
It does really delicious things to my brain, too. Unlocks hidden gems I didn’t realize needed archaic language to give them voice. Frankly, we use more of such careful construction of thought and feeling in this day of Twitter, Snapchat, and ubiquitous emoji use. Not hating, my GIF game is pretty strong, but there are some things that need conscientious construction more than pithy retweeting.
Anyway, all that is to say that when I saw there would be a rebroadcasting of the live broadcast of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch I couldn’t buy tickets fast enough. And my husband, being a man of history and good humor and more than willing to oblige my whims said, “Great, do we have a sitter?”
Everyone knows that Hamlet, while tragic in nature and painful when done poorly and too often abridged to cater to our dwindling attention spans, is brilliant. But B.C. does the title character more than justice. There are moments when he transforms before you, and becomes the tortured prince, the betrayed friend, though he never quite reaches the wounded lover of Ophelia.
I was reminded as I drank up each line how much Shakespeare packed into each of his plays. He waxes philosophically through his characters on the perils of acting and the capacity for drama to reach into the heart and wring from it emotions not its own, the nature of depression, the ways in which human beings prey upon each other, forgiveness and whether or not it’s even attainable, the disparity between the treatment of the wealthy and poor, and I could go on.
That is all to the side of what, at the heart of Hamlet, is essentially Shakespeare’s meditation on death itself. If there are not tears in your eyes as Hamlet bids Horatio live that the truth of what befell the royalty of Denmark and his own story might be known, then you might be robot. You should have that checked out.
Ciaran Hinds as the King’s treacherous brother is brilliant. He has such a calculating, yet noble presence that he fits every role and speech to perfection. The more so for rarely being wild and overbearing the way that many Shakespearian actors are tempted to be.
Ophelia was perfect. Sweet and maybe a bit simple, but then heartbroken, betrayed, and her insanity was so believable that for someone who struggles with mental illness it was gut wrenching to watch.
And the production crew, the artistic choices that brought out the comedic amidst the tragedy, the costumes, the whole thing was scrumptious. As sumptuous a cultural feast as I could have asked for, performed at the Barbican, for less than $20 a ticket!!
When a good cast delivers on the promise of catharsis latent in all of Shakespeare’s plays it is not a thing to be lightly passed up. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the language, the verse, the cultural and mythological references can be off putting to some. But there is a reason that nearly 400 years later we are still staging his plays and using them as fodder for our own creations.
Every time I revisit one of William’s plays or poems I am struck by something new. This time in particular it is Hamlet’s last injunction to Horatio:
“If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.”
I wonder if Shakespeare here is telling us of his own responsibility, to forgo the siren song of premature death, taken at one’s own hands, and instead give life to the characters and stories that commanded his attention. Mental illness is no stranger to many creatives and Shakespeare’s understanding of depression, expressed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is so apt that I cannot believe he had no firsthand knowledge of the condition. Yet Horatio’s role all through the story, as confidant, friend, and eventual herald look so much like Shakespeare giving himself a place to stand among his own characters, taking on the responsibility to get them where they need to go and bearing witness to their pain.
In short I loved every minute of it, and I cannot recommend highly enough that you seek out chances to see Shakespeare performed on the stage. And when the movies will bring such performances to your neck of the woods on the cheap? That’s a no brainer.
Til’ next time, watch some Shakespeare, and enjoy the show.