The beauty of Shakespeare’s drama is its versatility: it has reached audiences throughout the ages as a product of its time, and as a perfect vessel to communicate the cultural zeitgeist ever since. We don’t study it just to learn a bunch of difficult words: it’s about how those words, delivered in the right way, can make us think differently about bigger ideas like love, ambition, fury, and revenge. When I say “delivered in the right way,” I mean, by whom? In what accent? Who are they speaking to? Where are the words being spoken? Is the speech staged based on First Folio stage directions, or at the whim of a director with another vision entirely?
A bit of a pop culture fiend myself, I love thinking about how who speaks the words matters. Where have I seen them before? How do their most memorable performances colour my understanding of the Shakespearean role they play? In the past I’ve called this inter or intra-dramatic doubling, but lately, I’ve been calling it “creative casting.” It’s a bit more pithy.
Most recently, I’ve been eagerly anticipating my trip to London to see Benedict Cumberbatch perform in Hamlet. We don’t live anywhere near England, but as self-professed “Cumberbitches,” my mother and I determined that we needed to see it in person. Why do we care so much? Because with all of Benedict’s filming commitments, we won’t be able to binge-watch another season of BBC’s Sherlock until January, 2017! In the show, he plays the sharp-witted and sharper-tongued Sherlock, who loves to confound his partner with his powers of deduction. Benedict’s Sherlock is unique because it’s his own spin on the role. I have no doubt that he’ll make his Hamlet unique as well, but I wonder: will his Hamlet bare traces of his Sherlock? When he raises Yorick’s skull, will he investigate it? Will Hamlet’s signature comeback, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” be delivered with the same sass that Sherlock lashes witticisms at Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson?
While Benedict is the main attraction of this Barbican theatre production, there will also be a familiar face in the supporting cast. Fresh off of his role as King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Ciarán Hinds will be playing King Claudius. Hamlet contemplates revenge against his uncle when his father’s ghost informs him that Claudius poisoned Hamlet Sr. in his sleep. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This isn’t a good fit! In season 5 (without giving away too many spoilers), Mance scoffed at the notion of poisoning someone, declaring himself above killing those under his hospitality!” Will Claudius be a complete change of character from Mance, or will Hinds draw on his recent character’s silent strength and determination to bring his people together at a time when “something’s rotten” north of The Wall? Mance is a man who understands necessary brutality for the greater good, but is also an advocate of justice. Most of all, he’s honest about his own shortcomings. Will this come through when Claudius gives his great speech, inches away from Hamlet’s drawn sword?
But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
Claudius admits his sin, but what Hamlet does not realize is that the King does not have it in himself to repent: he did what he thought was right. I see that in Mance, and I hope that Hinds will let some of that rub off on his Claudius!
Looking ahead, I can’t wait to see the chemistry between these two excellent actors. Both speak with outstanding elocution, and I’m especially looking forward to their verbal sparring in Shakespearean verse, which has its own internal rhythm. How will they dress? Will they look Danish, upper-class English, Viking Norse or trailer trash? Cumberbatch and Hinds share high cheekbones and a look that is rarely called attractive so much as “distinct”: will director Lyndsey Turner use that to her advantage, perhaps hinting that Hamlet is Claudius’s bastard? That’s an angle that’s always worth pursuing, because it makes it seem that Hamlet eventually kills his own father, which is deliciously Oedipal. There have been precious few clues about what to expect. All I know is to be excited!
Hamlet: directed by Lyndsey Turner.
Barbican Theatre, 5 August–31 October 2015.