Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. (Hamlet 1.5.103-110)
Last Thursday, October 15, my students and I were among the 225,000 people around the world who settled into cinema seats for a screening of National Theatre Live’s Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Getting my students to the production took some effort; our suburban theater wasn’t slated to show the play, but when I contacted theater managers and promised to bring a large enough group, they agreed to schedule a screening. I became a woman on a mission.
With the help of my colleagues and teachers from two other area high schools, I recruited a group large enough to ensure a trip to Elsinore. Here’s what some of my students had to say about it:
“I thought Cumberbatch brought so much energy to the performance. […]I loved how the soliloquies were done and was amazed by how committed the actors were to the slow motion. […] Along with the set and costume design, the effects were amazing. I have been to numerous Broadway shows and I have never seen anything like the King Claudius scene with the massive dirt storm. It was insane and incredible to watch.”
“This was my first Hamlet and I loved it! Benedict Cumberbatch was phenomenal and the show was a masterpiece. It was worth every cent of my ticket. It was also cool to see it actually live (well… 6 hours delayed) because it felt like I was actually there.”
This production of Hamlet is, as one Guardian reviewer notes, made for the cinema. The atmospheric musical cues delighted the student musicians in attendance. The stagecraft captivated students less familiar with Shakespeare’s language. And the performances left us all with much to discuss at intermission and in the classroom. One student, a wrestler and an actor, was still talking with his teacher about “Hamlet’s biceps” later in the week! He appreciated the physical endurance demanded by a role like the Prince of Denmark.
For many who attended our optional field trip—students from all levels, all grades, and several different countries—this Hamlet was their first exposure to the character and the play. As they munched on popcorn or ordered a second ICEE from the concession stand during intermission, they peppered each other with questions: What was going on with Hamlet and Ophelia? Wasn’t Cumberbatch’s “mad Hamlet” funny? Had they been surprised by the on-stage explosion? Weren’t the soliloquies cool? Were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern supposed to look like hipsters?
Perhaps the idea of mixing Twizzlers and “To be or not to be” makes some Bard fans cringe, but to them I say fie! Students discussing Shakespeare without prompting might just be the first step to English teacher nirvana.
Our “trip” to London and Hamlet was a joyous success, but it had its sobering moments, too. At the curtain call, the cast appealed to theatergoers around the globe to support Save the Children, an organization currently assisting refugees from Syria and other war-torn nations. Suddenly, the most memorable images of the production—a silt-covered Elsinore; childlike Ophelia’s careful footsteps over rubble toward her willow aslant a brook; the toy soldier uniform Hamlet dons in his “antic disposition”—held more weight. The “baser matter” of my busy day fell away as I was reminded that Hamlet’s Denmark is a war-weary nation. Shakespeare’s four-hundred-year-old play (and many others in his canon) offers a startlingly reminder of the human cost of war.
Critics have mixed feelings about the spectacle of this new Hamlet as well as its famous lead, but there is something to be said for a production that can enthrall, inspire, and rally “distracted globes” across the globe. The success of this Hamlet speaks not only to the popularity of its leading actor but also the power of Shakespeare. For one night, National Theatre Live’s Hamlet invited the world (including three rival high schools from Green Bay) to contemplate the play’s sweeping human questions together. Meanwhile, the “Globe to Globe” tour of Hamlet connects countries one performance at a time. And very soon, another Hamlet will bind our often less-than-United States when Folger’s First Folio Tour begins in 2016. How ironic that the story of a house (and a hero) divided should have such power to unite.