Tag Archives: NT Live

REVIEW: NT Live Hamlet – Barbican, London

What do I think? Well, it can be boiled down to one simple sentence: an outstanding Hamlet in a massively flawed production.

There are few productions in recent history that have garnered as much press as Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet, well I say Turner’s Hamlet, but this is very much Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, Turner’s subsequent production (Tipping the Velvet at the Lyric Hammersmith) opened last month to very little ado, and it is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s name attached to the production that has sparked the ticket buying frenzy.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet | Image – Johan Persson

There’s the issue of reviews being posted during the preview period (the counter argument to this being that the producers were charging full price for tickets, unlike normal practice during previews and therefore, fair game). It is also well-documented that the changes the director made with the text were not well-received, though, it seems that much of what irked the most has been removed but, does what has now been presented as the finished product, measure up?


Anastasia Hille as Gertrude | Image – Johan Persson

Firstly, NT Live is a wonderful thing, a strange, but wonderful thing. It affords the thousands of us who didn’t get tickets to a production a chance to see what all the fuss is about, however, it can be a strange, detached experience which lacks the atmosphere and absorption that live performance provides. (I’ve also got a personal gripe about the quality of the filming which in my experience can be grainy and lack sharpness).

Opening to the strains of Nature Boy is at first thought unusual, but actually is really rather perfect, as the lyrics testify:

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea

A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day, a magic day
He passed my way, and while we spoke
Of many things, fools and kings
This he said to me

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return”

However, this is one of the only examples of where the liberties taken with the order of the text or the directorial choices add anything to the production. It matters not a jot whether you are familiar or unfamiliar with the work, if you know it, you might spend your time as I did, trying to work out the  jigsaw puzzle of what should have gone where or you might just be plain old lost. Lindsey Turner obviously has a mind brimming with ideas, but there are too many of them and not all of them thought through or carried out effectively. I am at a loss to understand how making a work more incoherent makes it better. All those glorious and oft-quoted lines are here – just not where you expect them to be.

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Ciaran Hinds as Claudius | Image – Johan Persson

One aspect of the production which is spectacularly effective is Es Devlin’s monumental set.The sheer size and scope of it is breathtaking, it is beautiful and moodily atmospheric, so absorbing is it that it is often more interesting than what’s going on on top of it.

I can’t help thinking that the actors have been done a great disservice here, the universally outstanding cast is lost in the mire of all this trying-to-be-cleverness. The relationships between key characters don’t feel fully-formed because of all the chopping and changing and by the time the final scene comes it is rendered strangely unmoving.


Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes | Image – Johan Persson


Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is a gripping Laertes, but his onstage time is limited, Sian Brooke is convincingly disturbed as Ophelia and the rest of the cast, both featured and ensemble deliver solid and often highly emotive performances.


Sian Brooke as Ophelia | Image – Johan Persson

Cumberbatch is outstanding, it is a perfectly judged performance infused with humour as well as great sensitivity, he is at all times, even in the depths of his ‘madness’, real and entirely believable, there are no histrionics, nothing is overblown, the hurt, the sadness and the madness are utterly relatable, the biggest compliment I can give is that it is a truly ‘human’ performance.

cumberbatch hamlet red tunic

If you get a chance to see the NT Encore screenings from 22 October then do so – for all its faults don’t miss one of the greatest actors of a generation deliver a near-perfect performance. Just pray that it won’t be long before Cumberbatch returns to the stage.

NT Live information: here

REVIEW: National Theatre Live – Frankenstein

The shining star in the firmament of the National Theatre Live cinema broadcast series, such is its draw that three years on from its original theatrical staging, audiences are still clamouring for tickets to these limited re-screenings of Frankenstein.


The draw is undoubtedly the casting of the two main characters: Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, alternating as Victor Frankenstein and The Creature as well as the attraction of Danny Boyle as director, but one can’t discount the draw of Mary Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece, its themes of genetics, moral responsibility and the removal of the role of ‘God’ in creation and their resonance and relevance to audiences today.


Nick Dear’s adaptation starts as the book does with the birth of the Creature, his tentative first steps and his confrontation with Frankenstein, who, on seeing the aberration he has created banishes him. It is here that the play differs from the novel: this is very much the Creature’s story (we actually see very little of the titular character until half way through the piece), and unlike the myriad of Hollywood re-tellings, this is an extremely faithful representation of Shelley’s work, if stripped of many of its unnecessary threads.



Robbed of  name and therefor a sense of identity, the Creature argues his right to happiness and longs for love and acceptance but the world the creature encounters is one of little compassion or kindness. His innocence corrupted, the Creature is driven to seek his revenge. Ultimately it begs the question: who is really the monster here?


Much, if not all of the success of this work are the two  performances from the leads. Both Miller and Cumberbatch are outstanding. In this first re-screening the role of the Creature is taken by Cumberbatch,who gives a majestic and at times thoroughly touching performance, Miller delivers a mercurial take on the arrogant and morally weak Frankenstein.

In contrast, the supporting performances are somewhat leaden, particularly Naomie Harris as Frankenstein’s fiancee and George Harris as his father, it is however a difficult task to hold your own against two such gifted actors as Miller and Cumberbatch. However, the scenes between Karl Johnson as blind, impoverished academic De Lacey, who teaches the Creature not only to read but to think, are particularly affecting.


There  are points where Nick Dear’s script can be a little plodding but the mesmerising Miller and Cumberbatch more than make up for any flaws and Danny Boyle’s direction and the staging itself literally crackles with energy: on, above and around the stage. The only question left is when are they going to release this on DVD???

1379949_10151742595313857_933039135_nPictures: Catherine Ashmore.


REVIEW: Coriolanus – National Theatre Live from the Donmar Warehouse

tomLaunched in 2009 with a production of Phèdre with Helen Mirren, National Theatre Live aims to bring the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world. Broadcasts have now been experienced by over 1.5 million people in 500 venues around the world, including 250 in the UK. Past broadcasts include Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller and One Man, Two Guv’nors with James Corden.

Tom Hiddleston CoriolanusThe latest offering in the programme is Josie Rourke’s version of the little seen Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse: Shakespeare’s last tragedy, his most political play and possibly his least favourite title character. Characterising the power struggle between the early Roman republic’s two main social classes; the patricians and the plebeians, it speaks of the common themes of war, social inequality and the abuse of power.

Having never experienced watching a play in the cinema the first surprise was the size of the audience, the powerful draw of Tom Hiddleston enough to fill the entire screening room.

Tom Hiddleston NT CoriolanusDifferences between the live theatre experience and the filmed one soon become apparent: unlike the theatre, this presentation included Emma Freud introducing the work, some background videos and a somewhat cringe-worthy live interval-time interview with director Josie Rourke musing on the casting of “sexiest actor on the planet” Hiddleston. Whilst these might provide some worthwhile information for those unfamiliar with the play (my presumption was that most people investing in the cost of a ticket for a screening of a Shakespeare play might have some inkling of what they were letting themselves in for) this is not the norm, so if the intention was to recreate the experience of live theatre this was somewhat off-base. The filmed production, unlike on stage, also has a measure of editing involved: the use of multiple camera angles and cutting between them, is one not experienced in a theatre, but the film-makers to their credit respected the fact that there is no such thing as a close up or a panning shot in theatre and studiously avoided them.

tumblr_my0ybgGswF1rxmb0io1_500As an example of British acting at its best there could be no better showcase. That Hiddleston is the finest actor of his generation is in no doubt after watching this production and the supporting cast are of a universally high quality in particular Deborah Findlay as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, Hadley Fraser as Aufidius and Mark Gatiss as Menenius. Rourke’s stripped-back staging gets the balance right between retaining the feel of ancient Rome whilst infusing the production with a welcome modernity. The creative lighting too adds atmosphere and creates a sense of menace throughout.

As an opportunity to gain access to productions that one otherwise might not be able to is worthy, the fact that it may inspire non-theatre goers to give live productions a try can only be encouraged, but as an emotional or visceral experience it does not have the power to move that being in a theatre does. the sense of a shared emotional experience just wasn’t there. There was also the embarrassing situation of to clap or not to clap at the curtain call, with the audience divided 50/50 (I was in the half who didn’t feel moved to clap – it just didn’t feel right – it was a cinema after all!)

Put simply: Did I enjoy it? Yes.  Is it as good as live theatre? No. Would I do it again? Yes.