You haven’t been able to score a pair for love or money (well, maybe money) since tickets to Benedict Cumberbatch’s three-month run as the Melancholy Prince went on sale last year. But the Sonia Friedman production at London’s Barbican Theatre drew more than 225,000 viewers to theaters around the world on Thursday for a live (in some cases slightly delayed) telecast through NT Live, at around $20 each (many for less). The production, which is distributed around the world via By Experience, runs through October 31, and in response to the demand, NT Live has added encore performances of the three-hour presentation.
More people saw the Shakespeare drama via the October 15 presentation than will have seen the entire Barbican run. Although the 2 PM screening was the actual live performance, most people in the U.S. saw the delayed telecast that began at 7 PM. It was offered on more than 1,400 screens in 25 countries. Shown live with Swedish subtitles, and for the first time on a live basis, with Russian subtitles, it drew the largest global audience for a live broadcast day of any title in National Theatre Live history.
The cast included Leo Bill (Horatio), Siân Brooke (Ophelia), Ruairi Conaghan (Player King), Rudi Dharmalingam (Guildenstern), Diveen Henry (Player Queen, Messenger), Anastasia Hille (Gertrude), Ciarán Hinds (Claudius), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Laertes), Karl Johnson (Ghost of Hamlet’s father), Jim Norton (Polonius), Matthew Steer (Rosencrantz), Sergo Vares (Fortinbras) and Dwane Walcott (Marcellus).
I attended the 7 PM screening at the Beekman Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The performance ranked, without qualification, among the best Hamlets I’ve seen in a lifetime of theatergoing: Cumberbatch played a youthful, collegial Prince marked by physical prowess and grace and a rich eloquence that gave flight to the monologues and poignancy to his interactions, notably with Gertrude, Laertes and especially Brooke’s gripping Ophelia.
I wish I could say the same of the rest of Lyndsey Turner’s uneven and sometimes silly production, with its toy soldiers and play castle for Hamlet’s quarters and a fourth and fifth act that seemed, on Es Devlin’s sets, to have Elsinore covered inexplicably in what appeared to be volcanic ash. Much as I love Nat “King” Cole’s singing of “Nature Boy,” I still have no idea what it was doing here.
I also expected less interference from the camerawork, which seemed outdated in the constant shifting from panning to close-up. After all, one of the big differences between movie- and theater- going is that in the live theater, each of us does our own camera work, deciding where we wish to focus. I frequently found myself wishing the camera would sit still so I could see a reaction or minor player rather than have everything chosen for me. And while I can’t report what it was like elsewhere, the sound at the Beekman was overloud and headache-inducingly shrill.
Despite all that, I would not have traded the experience for anything (other than being there). A pre-performance video of Cumberbatch observing and then speaking with young students interpreting “To be, or not to be” shocked me — by being almost as moving as the performance that began a few minutes later. It was even better than seeing the Mets beat the Dodgers in the NLDS.