Tag Archives: Game of Thrones

Creative casting: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

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?

Hinds as Mance Rayder

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.

Sold out.

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Creative casting: Shakespeare featuring Game of Thrones actors

One reason why I love to watch and rewatch Shakespeare’s plays is because I get to see my favourite actors play my favourite characters. Some actors cement public perception of a character, such as Laurence Olivier’s Oedipal Hamlet. Other times, I find an actor’s best-known role tends to colour my understanding of any other role they ever play. In the past I’ve called this inter or intra-dramatic doubling, but now I tend to call it “creative casting.”

The “creative,” in this case, is our creativity as viewers who interpret a production’s casting. Our insights can often be anachronistic, because in the age of Netflix, we don’t necessarily watch an actor’s filmography in chronological order. As such, our impressions of an actor in a later but better-known performance might influence our impressions of their earlier roles.

Spacey as Francis Underwood in House of Cards

Spacey as Francis Underwood in House of Cards

For example, Kevin Spacey is currently making waves as the anti-hero Francis Underwood. In 2011, he played the title role in the Old Vic’s Richard III, which inspired his performance of the fourth wall-breaking, 21st century Machiavel in House of Cards. Yet, if I were to watch Spacey’s Richard III again today, my understanding of his performance would be coloured by my impressions of how Richard’s devious machinations are akin to Frank’s. To learn more about Spacey’s journey into the role of Richard, check out his film, NOW: In the Wings on a World Stage.

Even though the Bard himself has no say in how his plays are produced today, it is nonetheless worthwhile to think about the significance of contemporary casting choices. By looking at who is being cast, how we know them, and why we know them, we can learn more about the Shakespearean characters they play.

Craster is unimpressed with Jon Snow's snooping

Pugh as Craster, unimpressed with Jon Snow’s snooping

Let’s take Robert Pugh, for example. His name might be unfamiliar, but his piercing blue eyes will remind you that he plays Craster on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Just before he terrified as the morally twisted wildling, Pugh filmed BBC’s Hollow Crown Series, specifically Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. In the movie, Pugh plays Owen Glendower, leader of the Welsh rebels. Glendower may be rebelling against Henry IV, but his time onstage is devoted to verbal battles with the defiant Henry Percy, aka Hotspur. When Pugh as Glendower boasts that he “can command the spirits from the vasty deep,” Hotspur doesn’t take him seriously, but I certainly do. This is because when I see Pugh, all I can think of is the character that does terrible things to appease what lurks beyond the Wall (no spoilers!).

Pugh as Glendower, with Joe Armstrong as Hotspur in The Hollow Crown

Pugh as Glendower, with Joe Armstrong as Hotspur in The Hollow Crown

Hotspur, on the other hand, is less cautious. Percy laughs at his host’s ostensible superstition, responding: “Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?” Glendower defends his pride, justifying himself with talk of even darker deeds. He tells Percy: “Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command / The devil.” Hotspur pushes all bounds of common courtesy by insulting the Welsh leader’s sense of spiritual authority, retorting: “And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil / By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.” Hotspur isn’t particularly spiritual himself: if an activity doesn’t call for a sword in hand and a horse underfoot, he laughs it off as cowardice.

In some productions of this play, the Hotspur/Glendower scene is comic relief – two bumbling villains who are too busy fighting each other to think up a smart plan to fight Henry IV. Whereas in the play itself, Hotspur and Glendower meet at the Archdeacon’s house, in this film, they seem to meet at Glendower’s own home. With this production’s particular choices in casting and setting, I have every reason to be afraid of Glendower’s spiritual powers. Hotspur may not be scared of him, but I am. I know what those remorseless blue eyes are capable of, and know that those who care more about the spirits care far less about honour. If Hotspur were watching Game of Thrones, he’d know to be more gracious to his host. If recent seasons have taught me anything about being a houseguest, it’s that even sacred hospitality laws can be broken!

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