Nov 23, 2015

Hamlet and Coriolanus

I saw National Theatre's Hamlet and Coriolanus recently, and greatly enjoyed both. National Theatre Live is a great idea. I'd have never been able to see these without it, and I'm deeply grateful. I only hope they'll release these great performances on blueray or dvd one of these days. The Metropolitan Live opera performances have been released, but not the theatre ones. It seems to be a matter of rights, or something like that, but it feels like a waste if these fantastic performances disappear, burning brightly for an instant, then gone forever. 

Coriolanus is basically an Elizabethan action movie set in ancient Rome. Hiddleston was fantastic in the role, and the production was very well done. I loved how they used the colour red throughout the play. (This is how you do symbolism, take note, Crimson Peak.)  I've always been fascinated with ancient Roman graffities, and I liked how they used graffiti in the production. One of my favourite National Theatre productions of all time. 

There have been some great modern Hamlets in the past few years. I liked Benedict Cumberbatch's performance, and this newest production was beautiful, but I prefer Rory Kinnear's Hamlet from 2010. David Tennant was also memorable in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2009 production. (That one you can get on dvd, click here to go to Amazon.)

It's interesting to compare the productions and how the actors made the role their own.  Tennant brought a nervous energy and humour cut with cold capriciousness to the performance, while Kinnear's Hamlet was tragic, almost an everyman rather than a prince, his madness close to depression. Then emotional range and subtlety in his performance was astounding; that's the Hamlet that made me cry. The production was also very good, and I liked the Big-Brother-is -watching-you symbolism of the surveillance cameras as a parallel to the paranoia of living in the Elizabethan society of Shakespeare's time. Cumberbatch was almost rational in his madness (I am aware that I might be projecting this on his performance because of Sherlock), and his soliloquies were beautifully done, but I didn't get the same feel of really being in the character's head as with the others.

Writerly digression: Shakespeare gets away with a lot of  exposition with his grand soliloquies. Like this, for example:    

129   O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, 
130   Thaw and resolve itself into a dew! 
131   Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd 
132   His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God! 
133   How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, 
134   Seem to me all the uses of this world! 
135   Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden, 
136   That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature 
137   Possess it merely. That it should come to this! 
138   But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two: 
139   So excellent a king; that was, to this, 
140   Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother 
141   That he might not beteem the winds of heaven 
142   Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth! 
143   Must I remember? why, she would hang on him, 
144   As if increase of appetite had grown 
145   By what it fed on: and yet, within a month— 
146   Let me not think on't—Frailty, thy name is woman!— 
147   A little month, or ere those shoes were old 
148   With which she follow'd my poor father's body, 
149   Like Niobe, all tears: why she, even she— 
150   O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason, 
151   Would have mourn'd longer—married with my uncle, 
152   My father's brother, but no more like my father 
153   Than I to Hercules: within a month: 
154   Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears 
155   Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, 
156   She married. O, most wicked speed, to post 
157   With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! 
158   It is not nor it cannot come to good: 
159   But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue. 

(Quote from Hamlet by William Shakespeare.) 

I've probably mentioned this before, but a really useful website for understanding Shakespeare's plays is They have notes on the more obscure allusions in the plays and also vocabulary stuff. The notes are placed conveniently beside the text so you don't have to go back and forth to see them. The site doesn't have all of Shakespeare's plays, but it's worth a look if you're interested in the subject. 

I know Shakespeare's plays are regarded as somewhat highbrow nowadays, but they really weren't at the time he wrote them.  Shakespeare aims to entertain; there's fight scenes and comedy and vulgar jokes aplenty (check out Shakespeare Navigator for the ones you missed.) in addition to the deeper themes and drama. And the wonderful thing is that even after hundreds of years, Shakespeare's plays can still touch you, make you laugh or make you cry. 

That's pretty amazing in my book.

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