Hamlet, at the Barbican with Benedict, part 2

I'm so glad so many of you enjoyed the first part of my review of Hamlet. Thanks for letting me know!

Part 2

Now, recognizing that Ophelia is not written as the most appealing character, I found myself hoping that Siân Brooke would, in some way, redeem her. Would make me sympathetic to Ophelia's withering, whiny anxiety which ultimately does her in.

Brooke did not do this. In fact, I found her Ophelia so irritating that I kept wishing she'd drown herself sooner rather than later. One must wait until sometime post-intermission for her to throw in the towel on life. 

Brooke's voice is both trembling and somewhat nasal, and her body language and gait seem affected rather than remotely true. At times she's dressed like some sort of Victorian and at others, in a cardigan and capris, you wonder if she's just jumped from a J.Crew catalog. Her role is fairly limited in this production, and for that I was grateful.

The wonderful Ciarán Hinds played Claudius, often well but inconsistently. His primary soliloquies in the first half were excellent, but his energy in the role seemed to wax and wane. I wasn't sure if that was his doing or a directorial misstep, but in either case felt he needed to maintain and emote a greater sense of murderous treachery as the end of the play neared.

The men playing Polonius, Laertes and Horatio did a fine job as did Anastasia Hille who gave us a wonderful Gertrude

the Hamlet stage in the second half

the Hamlet stage in the second half

One of the most under-reported, impressive and exciting elements of this Hamlet is the stage. The set designer is utterly brilliant, and each alteration and the myriad uses of the main decor -walls, the staircase and balcony, the main hallway, the piano- added tremendously to the overall experience of the performance.

My sister subtly swiped this picture as we were leaving the theatre. In it you can see the enormous mounds and slides of rocks and pebbles that depict the utter destruction the second half marches toward. Ophelia marches barefoot down the dark hall, as if called to the light at the end. She turns there, and we know that the river awaits.

Hamlet and Laertes duel in the middle of the stage, Gertrude dies on front stage left and Cladius at the bottom of the grand staircase.

The whole stage is used all the time, and the lighting, colors and decor are all exceptionally well considered and executed. 

Turner's Hamlet isn't perfect. Though we were rapt for the entire first half -which is really quite something given that it runs for nearly two hours- both my sister and I felt the momentum the actors had gained dissipated during intermission and never fully returned. It made us wish we'd all powered straight through. And I do so wish Claudius had seemed more menacing and Ophelia more likeable.

All that said, it was a theatrical experience of a lifetime, and I remain thrilled that I was here. 

At the gift shop after the curtain closed, the cashier said she'd heard Benedict would be signing autographs outside the Silk Street stage door. My sister and I literally paid and ran, hoofing it to fan line in our shirts and heels. We saw Ciarán Hinds not two feet from us and Anastasia Hille just further than that.

And then the grand master emerged, and I was not six feet from him and I saw his hair and immediately said, "It's Benedict. Just look at that marvelous hair." 

That's all I got but it'll do me.

benedict's hair is just in there

benedict's hair is just in there

Hamlet, at the Barbican with Benedict at the helm: Part 1

As y'all probably know, I have a full-fledged, adult woman crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. Yes, I think he can wear a suit like no one else, is full of class in a way too rare today, and has hauntingly sexy eyes. He plays slightly-mad genius like it's his job but is as capable with comedic wonk and suave intelligentsia. He is the perfect Sherlock. I also think he'd be a fucking blast to hang at pub with. He is good-hearted and a feminist whilst also hard-working, well-educated and refreshingly, appealingly understated. In short, he seems damn near perfect, and so my tickets to last-night's showing of Hamlet were treasures to me like few others. 

It is really something to see magnificent theater firsthand. To see a person you feel you have some sense of transform so completely as if to disappear, birthing another character or being whom you get to know for just a little while.

Julia Roberts was really fantastic in Pretty Woman but since has been, for the most part, Julia Roberts playing someone else. I always feel like I'm watching Julia Roberts try to pull the wool over my eyes by donning a good costume. I am never tricked. 

Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, is never Daniel Day-Lewis. He is always Cecil or Abe or Christy or Tomas. 

I do feel that Benedict has, despite his singular looks, the ability to change as completely. To transmogrify, really. He is a brilliant, perhaps drug-addled sociopathic detective. He is a maybe-gay intelligence agent and a wildly uncomfortable man in love with his half-sister. He is, with slightly more of a stretch, the enigmatic founder of WikiLeaks, and now, with no stretch at all, he is a Danish prince.

And so, in long form short, a review.

It should be admitted now that I am not a fan of Shakespeare. Yes, I loved Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film production of Romeo and Juliet. Olivia Hussey, Leonard Whiting and Milo O'Shea were perfectly cast and the movie has stayed with me clearly through today, even though I first saw it many years ago. I've seen it many times since but not in ages. 

Shakespeare's insults are unsurpassably brilliant, and more linguistic tidbits than I'll ever really know were born by his pen, but his works are somewhat an effort for me and long-winded ones at that. A fault that may be, but it's the truth.

I made this pilgrimage to London and the Barbican and Hamlet for one reason only: Benedict.

The Barbican Centre is an odd place. It's like Star Wars met a Communist-era architect and they joined hands with Kafka and planned a theatre. Lots of concrete and elusive elevators and almost zero helpful signage. It's huge and yet can feel too small. Our row of seats, for example, sat only six, and we were ushered through a narrow wooden door that seemed crafted from a thick wood plank and that sealed shut behind us. As if we were on a submarine.

The stage is enormous: deep, tall, wide. Impressive and it leaves much room for real exploration of it. It was fronted by weirdly-70s gold lamé sheets. I have no idea what they're actually constructed of, but they lent a real disco vibe to the already conflicted aesthetic.

view from my seat of the stage, still covered by the curtain

view from my seat of the stage, still covered by the curtain

Lyndsey Turner, director of this production of Hamlet (and just the third female recipient of the Lawrence Olivier award), had such a spectacular and fresh vision for this show. As you may have heard, the "To be, or not to be..." soliloquy was initially moved to the open of the play; by last night's performance, it had been moved back to Act III. Wherever it was, it worked. The willingness to move these famed lines is brave, and even though the change didn't stick, it still serves to highlight all the modernization, shifts and reinterpretations Turner ventured to make. 

Though many characters dressed in costumes reflective of old-school Danish royalty, Hamlet's outfits (and those of his peers: Ophelia, Horatio and such) were current: hoodies, backpacks, sneakers. It didn't distract at all but rather helped bring the story, still so obviously of another time, to an easier understanding via the present. An angsty prince in modern attire is, perhaps, even more accessible than he might be when buttoned behind uniforms, crests, epaulets and the like. 

Indeed, I found Cumberbatch's Hamlet to be totally understandable. He is angry, betrayed, grossed out and grief-stricken. He's scared and shocked and desperate to exact revenge. This Hamlet never struck me as whiny or spoiled; no, he seemed to understand himself well. To be cognizant of the "inky cloak" that weighted his shoulders too often and why. The burden not only of this understanding but also of the realization that "if one doesn't know what follows death, there is a chance that the unknown is worse than life was" is tremendous, and Cumberbatch negotiated that vexation beautifully.

If you've only seen Benedict in films, you might not know what a talented comedic actor he is. He's downright hilarious at times: quick, obviously very smart, willing to play the fool, willing to be silly and enjoy it. And he ably teased out, as Hamlet, the many instances in which madness is funny. In which the only thing that can tame grief is finding levity in the situation that's caused it. 

We laughed out loud many times during the show, and these moments were real snatches of relief during an otherwise intense few hours. 

It must also be said that Benedict expends huge amounts of mental and physical energy during the play, and as he walked offstage after the last ovation and bow, I could only imagine his exhaustion. I believe he must have also been exhilarated by the experience, of acting such a vaunted role in front of sell-out crowds on the London stage. In concert, the fatigue and thrill must wear after a while and when the run ends in late October, I hope he can catch some rest.

Ok, I must get to bed, so Part 2 tomorrow, but as a teaser, I'll let you know that I waited my the stage exit and saw...Benedict's hair!!!!!!!!!


For the love of Benedict (to Hamlet I go)

So. If you've read Em-i-lis for any length of time, you probably know what an enthused fan of Benedict Cumberbatch I am. Minus "The Blind Banker" episode in Season 1 and the overdone premier of Season 3, Sherlock was a complete thrill of a show, and Cumberbatch so perfectly inhabited the title character role that I never felt I was watching anyone except the animation of the man Conan Doyle wrote about so wonderfully. When you witness acting that is so completely transformational (in a seemingly effortless way) that you literally no longer see a visage you might know so well through magazines, other roles, general celebrity culture and so forth, but rather that very character come to life, it's real magic. Most actors can't pull this off; they are always themselves, just wearing another's name and clothes. Julia Roberts, though I like her, is always  Julia Roberts. On the contrary, Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis are never Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis. I mean, Lincoln played himself in that film, right?

Benedict Cumberbatch

In any case, through his various roles such as Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate (a forgettable film), from Charles Aiken in August: Osage County to Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness and back to Sherlock again, I have come to really admire Cumberbatch's range as well as his incredibly entrancing cat-like green eyes. Yes, I have me a grade-school crush. He can definitely look goofy, and if you stare at any individual aspect of his face for too long, it may appear vaguely off. I think the sum of the parts sing with sexiness but I'll give it to those who disagree. My dear friend, C, for example, is skeeved out by my Ben. But really, that man can wear.a.suit. like nobody's business. And he seems so flipping nice. Charm oozes from his poreless face. Gah!

After a long day last week during which I felt quite sick and Lords Pillington and Poutington had made me see red for three hours straight, Tom came home to find me in bed, coloring in my Benedict colouring book (from London, natch) with my top-shelf pencils that I don't share with the kids. I think he loved me a little bit more with this discovery. Sweet man.


Benedict is saying "Yay!" because I've drawn him a hot meal but today I'm pretending it's because I'll be in his audience one night. Har! Friends regularly send me photos or links of Benedict, keeping me up to date on his goings-on. How do you think I found out about this colouring book, for the love? The Pound Ridge Scone Lady! Thank you, Liz!

And thanks to one my college besties, also an Emily, I learned a couple months back that none other than my Benedict was to play Hamlet on stage! In London! For a twelve-week run starting August 2015!

I am certain she did not imagine that upon receiving this news I IMMEDIATELY marked the date in my calendar that tickets for this event were to go on sale. That would be tomorrow. And so yesterday, I started plotting, checking calendars, making a username for the theatre and checking seat plans. And I talked to a friend who had just returned from bringing her kids to London's Harry Potter World. And what was once a grand idea started feeling like a life imperative.

I have never once regretted making the effort to see a phenomenal theatrical production. Often, I've gone with my mom or by myself. On Broadway, we've seen Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, Alan Rickman in Private Lives, Philip Seymour Hoffman (I'm still stinging from the loss of him) and John C. Reilly in Sam Shepard's Private Lives. And here, at D.C.'s Kennedy Center, we saw Cate Blanchett stunningly portray Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

During a weekend trip to New York with Tom, he chose to walk the High Line while I went to The Normal Heart, lucky to have found a last-minute ticket. I was spellbound, utterly awestruck, and continue to feel that show's profound impact on me. Ellen Barkin and Joe Mantello were incredible. Last summer, I took the train to and from NYC one Saturday to see Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy, a posthumous production of Nora Ephron's play about reporter Mike McAlary. Hanks was leaving the production three days later, and I just felt I couldn't miss seeing him. Again, the spontaneous seat I purchased late was terrific, and the entire cast was as great as Hanks was. It was marvelous.

Ages and ages ago, I saw the original cast in The Phantom of the Opera and an early showing of Les Mis, both with my dad and both on Broadway. I loved Rent and was, despite myself, really impressed by The Lion King. Oddly enough, the two most underwhelming shows I've seen (and the ones for which we paid the most for tickets) are the ones most built up: The Book of Mormon and South Pacific. Such is often the case with overwrought reviews: it's hard to live up to hype, and that's why I don't often read reviews anymore.

My sister is the trained actress and knows infinitely more than I about this world, but I do love the sense of being utterly transported by truly masterful performances. There is something about the stage versus the screen, something raw and live. Especially in tiny theaters like NY's Circle in the Square, you're there, right in it. You can see the actor's sweat fly, you can hear the remarkably few times they stumble over a word. It's intense, in a really great way. Yet another reason we mustn't cut funding for arts education or for the Arts in general. They are so critical for a broadly lived education, life and worldview.

This all came back to me this morning when I went online to The Barbican Theatre's site. I was getting a place in the queue, readying my cart for any late-August (2015) tickets I might be able to procure. But I got confused and because one of my life mantras is "It NEVER hurts to ask," I called The Barbican.

Hannah with a beautiful British accent answered and told me that if I were an Orange Member of The Barbican, I could certainly buy two tickets today. Swear to god y'all, it took me 0.No seconds to buy a membership to a theater I won't visit until my membership has expired. Do NOT tell my husband this. Hannah said I was saving myself gobs of stress and time in tomorrow's queue which would certainly be mayhem; 10,000 folks were already queued up! Agreed and with no qualms, Hannah. Right then and there she secured two tickets for me, good ones for next August 21. We finished things up, exchanged goodbye pleasantries and I have been on a wild, whooping high ever since.

Tom was so supportive of turning my crush into our 2015 family trip but exactly that meh about the play, so I called my sister to see if she could come in from Italy and use my second ticket. She put it on her calendar right then and there. Her hubby and son (who will then be just about 9 months old) will come too so it's all turning out to be a fabulous family get-together with the added bonuses of London, Benedict and Harry Potter. The kids are off their heads, but not more than am I.

And you know what I later realized? All of Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurants are in London. Mon dieu. I am the luckiest gal!