Benedict Cumberbatch (currently famous for being Sherlock Holmes, and Khan, and a bunch of other stuff, but who didn’t play Loki) is appearing in Hamlet, at the Barbican theatre in London. He managed to drum up a bit of surprise publicity by asking the audience not to film his performance with tablets or phones. That caused some controversy on Twitter, which was fun. It’s always interesting when a playwright from the Tudor period is the topic of discussion in the 21st century.
William Shakespeare is The Boss. There’s no question about it. Hamlet is one of his best plays. There’s no question about that. Hamlet is still relevant, still important, still current. You don’t need to modernise it or update it. You don’t need to take out the Elizabethan English. Although, you can if you want to and the story will remain great.
You know the story. Disney stole it for The Lion King, mostly. Here’s a recap: a young Prince is called home because his father has died suddenly. His mother abruptly marries the dead King’s brother and the Prince’s Uncle takes the throne. Upset and disconcerted with the speed of events, the Prince broods but is stirred from his melancholy by the ghost of his father. The spirit of the King reveals he was murdered and commands Hamlet to exact a revenge on the murderer – the King’s brother. Hamlet agrees, but the King’s revelation that he died with sins on his soul haunt him. He seeks proof of his Uncle’s guilt, finally securing it after arranging to restage the murder as an entertainment. In the ensuing chaos, Hamlet accidentally murders a senior adviser and is exiled to England. The Danish King sends secret orders to England, demanding that Hamlet be executed, but Hamlet discovers these orders and jumps ship. Returning to Denmark, he discovers the court in disarray and is forced to face a childhood friend in a rigged fencing match. Poisoned and dying, Hamlet finally exacts his revenge and kills the King. By the end of the play, the entire Royal line of Denmark is dead.
It’s a remarkable play. It’s three hours long (bring a cushion when you watch it). It’s complicated, and yet simple. Here’s why you should watch it:
The language is beautiful. Don’t listen to people who claim you won’t be able to understand it. The hell with their limitations. It’s not too hard. You’ll understand everything, but better than that you’ll enjoy the way it’s performed and the way it sounds. This is the play that people quote when they want to sound like they know stuff about Shakespeare. Alas, poor Yorick? That’s from Hamlet. To be or not to be? That’s from Hamlet. What a piece of work is a man? From Hamlet. The language has to be beautiful. It must capture the audience, because Bill Shakespeare doesn’t have special effects. An Elizabethan stage projects out into the audience, many of whom are standing. They’re easily bored and not afraid to heckle or throw things. The challenge for Bill is to keep them entertained and to help them imagine what the actors are trying to show so he does this with the words the cast are given. There are jokes, there’s drama, and the more outlandish elements – that might require a budget for SFX – get described instead. It all adds up.
The action is pretty good. Yes, there’s quite a lot of play in which people stand around talking to each other. But that’s true of nearly everything, and if you’re looking for Fast and Furious: Tudor Edition you’re in the wrong theater. There are a couple of tense moments at various points of the play, but by the end the body count is up there with the original Robocop. People are drowned, stabbed, stabbed with poisoned blades, poisoned, poisoned and then stabbed with poisoned blades and, honestly it’s only the lack of gunpowder that means the whole shebang doesn’t end up in a Reservoir Dogs shootout.
Lastly, Hamlet is one of The Great Stories. Shakespeare sort of nailed down a couple of concepts that occur and reoccur whenever people try to build narrative. The son of a murdered father (or daughter of a murdered mother) out for revenge but unsure of their path is a thread that you’ll find in films, plays and books. Most notably, The Lion King is a retooled retelling of the story. Actors generally want to play Hamlet while they’re young enough (and King Lear when they’re old enough) because the character is such a challenge.
See it. Rent the Brannagh version, or the Olivier version, or get the one with David “Doctor Who” Tennant and Patrick Stewart in it. Better yet, find a theater company who are performing it. Take a cushion. Watch it live. Get lost in it and absolutely don’t record it on a phone or a tablet.
The Brew: Tactical Nuclear Penguin by Brew Dog
Hamlet is a dark and brooding youth, and this is a dark and brooding drink. It began life as an Imperial Stout that, at 10% ABV, totally justifies the fact that the Imperial March is now playing in your head. But Brew Dog didn’t want to stop there. Oh no.
They froze it. And they didn’t just freeze it, they froze it for three weeks. What remains is mostly alcohol. Alcohol, and flavour, and a refusal to die. It gets double casked in whiskey barrells for a couple of months and is then calm and mellow enough for drinking.
You drink it like you would a spirit, which is fair enough because it’s 38% ABV [Editors Note: Woah. I need this] at this point, and the flavours you’ll experience are intense. Malty. Caramel. Some say marmite – so, sort of salty yeasty darkness – and some say coffee. It coats the mouth, in the same way white phosphorous would, and if you have a taste for that sort of flavour is delicious.
I’m pairing this with Hamlet because if you try quaffing any other beer through the three hour duration of the play, your bladder will hate you forever. Tactical Nuclear Penguin, on the other hand, actively defies quaffing and if you try to neck a bottle of it (even over the course of three hours) you will die and you can join the pile of corpses on the stage.
Born in England, David Webb tried to identify his ancestral roots by having his DNA tested. The lab results came back accompanied by a note reading simply “oh dear.”
He lives somewhere in the middle of England, where his tendency for sarcasm and his crippling addiction to tea pass without comment by the general population. He likes reading and writing, history, science fiction and things that are silly, neatly combining all of these by venerating (as all Brits surely do) Doctor Who.
He recently acquired a Bowler hat and is not afraid to wear it in public. You can find more of his writing here.