Tag Archives: Jonathan Pryce

Hamlet first night first review: how great is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dane?

25 Aug
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

I predicted in my previous blog that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet would be more of an action man than a thinker, and, having now seen the much talked-about Barbican production, so it proves – to a fault. Even when soliloquising about suicide (“Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew”) he leaps nimbly up on to a table – the first of two such leaps. I haven’t seen such an Action Hamlet since Mel Gibson in the Zeffirelli film.

Wait, I tell a lie, I have. It was the wonderful bit in The Last Action Hero where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Hamlet (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – and Hamlet is taking out the trash!”). “To be or not to be”, says Big Arnie, lighting a huge cigar. “Not to be,” he decides, and the whole castle explodes in flames.

But I digress.

Benedict Cumberbatch is hugely entertaining to watch throughout, and never more so than when he elects to “put an antic disposition on”: he reveals such a wonderful gift for physical comedy when pretending to be a toy soldier while acting mad, you’d love someone to sign him up for an out-and-out screwball comedy. But aye, there’s the rub. In the hoary old question of how much Hamlet is really mad, and how much he is just pretending, this production plumps so squarely for the latter that it makes a nonsense of the play.

Most damagingly, this interpretation turns Hamlet into such an irredeemable shit that you lose all sympathy with him. In the original play, one of the most troubling scenes is “Get thee to a nunnery”, where Hamlet is unremittingly horrible to the poor innocent girl to whom he once so movingly professed, “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt thou that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt that I love.”

In the context of a man who is haunted by the ghost of his father, who is utterly turned off sex by the thought of his mother lying with his uncle in “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, honeying and making love over the nasty sty”, who has had his love letters rejected, and who has just been thinking about suicide before they meet, the scene can make sense.

In the Barbican production, however, they cut the scene where Ophelia talks about how Hamlet recently came to her and “raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being”; AND they moved the “To be or not to be” speech to the beginning of the play (apparently this has been rethought during previews, and that soliloquy, at least, has been returned to its usual place). The result is that Hamlet goes straight from telling Horatio that he’s going to pretend to be mad, to the Nunnery scene where he is horrible to Ophelia – from which we can only conclude that she is deliberate collateral damage.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,There are many other ways in which a Hamlet in full possession of his senses becomes odious: the killing of that “rash intruding fool” Polonius; the summary execution of his old friends Rosencrantz and Gildenstern; Hamlet’s startlingly casual (in this production) semi-apology to Polonius’s son, in which he defends himself by copping an insanity plea – a plea we know to be a lie. It also makes it even more peculiar that this Action Hamlet fails to take action in avenging his father’s death.

I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets. I started with Jonathan Pryce’s, in 1980, when studying the play for A-level. That plumped for a mostly mad Hamlet – the voice of the ghost came from deep within Hamlet himself. I next saw Steven Berkoff’s at the Edinburgh Fringe – transfixing, stylised, with elements of mime, performed in a simple circle with no props to give the audience’s imagination wing. I’ve seen Ralph Fiennes’s Oedipal Hamlet in 1995, where the “nasty sty” scene with his mother was so overpoweringly sexual that it was little surprise to discover that he and Francesca Annis became lovers. Michael Sheen’s was the maddest, set in an actual lunatic asylum; Nick Hytner’s production at the National was the most well thought through and all-round brilliantly acted and staged production of the dozen I have seen.

What does Benedict Cumberbatch’s add?

Certainly, like David Tennant’s, it has reached out to a new audience. The set is so wonderful it is bound to win awards. Many of the cuts are good, and keep the production rollicking along at a fair pace. Some of the more confusing words have rightly been changed: “Pat” has been axed (in the original text Hamlet says, contemplating killing his uncle, “Now might I do it pat”, which led generations of sniggering schoolchildren to wonder who Pat was); “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me” has been changed to “him that stops me”, since most people don’t realise the original meant the opposite of what is now understood; the “union” thrown into the poisoned drink is now called a “jewel”.

But – and as Sir Mixalot would say, it’s a big but and I cannot lie – it didn’t fire the imagination of the Hamlet neophyte that I took along, my son Sam; whereas I’m quite sure Nick Hytner’s more cerebral version would have.

Benedict’s is a very good Dane, then – but it could so easily have been a great one.

NB: Having bought my tickets a year ago and seen the play last week, in order to satisfy critical convention I have held off reviewing it until First Night — which is tonight. 

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Charlie’s Dark Angel: film noir meets theatre in James Christopher’s debut

9 Mar
The cast of Charlie's Dark Angel. Front: Ben Porter as Charlie and Joannah Tincey as Susan. Back: Phoebe Pryce as Ukrainian Ella,  Kieran Gough as un-reckless Eric

The cast of Charlie’s Dark Angel. Front:  Joannah Tincey as Susan and Kieran Gough as Eric. Back: Phoebe Pryce as Ukrainian Ella, Ben Porter as Charlie. Photo by Aimée Watts – HausOfLoud

One goes to see a play or film written by a friend with some trepidation. What do you say to them at the bar afterwards if you don’t like it? Thankfully there was no such problem with Charlie’s Dark Angel, a theatre noir written and directed by James Christopher, and playing at the Drayton Arms until March 28.

I’ve known and worked with James for 20-plus years: first when he was Deputy Theatre Editor on Time Out, then when he was Film Critic at The Times. He’s a terrific journalist, particularly known for his arresting metaphors. But although he has since taken an MA in theatre direction – an experience he describes as “humbling” – I had no idea if he could make that great escape under the barbed-wire fence separating critics from creators.

I needn’t have worried. The play is strong meat. When two old schoolfriends are reunited in a country house, each with a female partner in tow, a sinister, stalkerish obsession soon surfaces. The house is also built over a peculiar, disused well, perhaps haunted – the well is, as I said to James, his Chekhovian gun. (I knew he would know what I meant.) In other words, once it’s been introduced in Act One, you can be sure it will be used come Act Three. And how!

None of the plot devices and film noir tropes is startlingly original, something that has occasioned a couple of (to me) mysteriously negative reviews from online arts review sites. But it doesn’t matter; it’s not the point. As James said to me, “Film has borrowed from theatre for so long, I felt it was time for theatre to steal from film. The plot is just the McGuffin that keeps you along the linear narrative track, but really it’s about trust, and betrayal, and emotional crisis.”

James Christopher’s journalistic love of metaphor shines through in his stage writing. To take but one instance, the profession of the protagonist, Charlie, is picture framing. As he talks about the painstaking process of framing, with its multiple layers of varnish and gilding, he’s really talking about himself, about how his inner self has been varnished and gilded and eventually obscured, until he is all frame and no substance.

Ella the Enchanting (Phoebe Pryce)

Ella the Enchanting (Phoebe Pryce). Photo: Aimée Watts

But though Charlie’s Dark Angel is similarly multi-layered (James says it took five months of “agony” to write), it is also splendidly pacey, particularly in the shorter, post-interval final act, with ping-pong dialogue pricked by the odd flight of fancy. Plaudits also go to the four fine actors who bring the production to life. The one theatre neophyte, Phoebe Pryce, maintained such a consistent accent as a young Ukrainian artist/Manic Pixie Dream Girl that I asked James if she were actually foreign. He looked at me as if I was mad.

“That’s Jonathan Pryce’s daughter,” he said. “We were lucky to catch her just in time. After this she is acting with her father in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe.”

To tell you more about the production would be to spoil it. I was on the edge of my seat for much of it. (And not just because the benches are rather small.) Two days later, I am still reliving and savouring moments. It’s sexy, and edgy, and there’s a lurking menace bubbling constantly under its characters’ urbane surface, as in the aforementioned well. I’ve been to a lot of West End theatre in the last couple of years, and this was one of my favourite nights out: quite a surprise from a first-time writer/director in a small pub theatre.

For info about Charlie’s Dark Angel and to book tickets, click here.

Why everything you thought you knew about Citizen Kane and Hamlet is wrong

23 Sep

ImageCitizen Kane was shown on BBC4 last night. Everyone has their own take on this classic – one of my first published pieces of journalism was about the links between Citizen Kane and Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Watchmen – but I am still intrigued by something Geoff Andrew pointed out to me a long time ago. Geoff was the Film Editor of Time Out, now head programmer at BFI Southbank, and he remarked on the fact that though the whole film is supposedly framed by a journalist’s quest to discover the meaning of “Rosebud”, the word Kane whispers with his dying breath, there was no one in the room to hear it.

It follows logically that the whole film must be taking place in Kane’s head, his life flashing before his eyes.

There is a similar revisionism in Nick Hytner’s astonishing 2010 production of Hamlet, which gets an encore screening on October 22 as part of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations. I’ve seen more than a dozen Hamlets over the years, from Jonathan Pryce summoning up the ghost of his father in a guttural voice from deep within himself to Michael Sheen in a mental asylum, deluded into believing that all the world’s a stage and that he is merely playing Hamlet in it. Hytner’s is one of the most interesting and well-rounded.

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Rory Kinnear as Hamlet, Ruth Negga as Ophelia — was her death suicide, or murder?

Anyway, Hytner evidently noticed something that every other director has overlooked: the death of Ophelia makes no sense. That long, lyrical description of her floating down the river, “till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death” – if someone witnessed the scene for long enough to describe it thus to the Queen, why did they not step in to help?

Hytner’s conclusion is that after Ophelia went mad, Claudius had her assassinated, and the drowning story was concocted to cover it up. This, after all, is a man who has already killed his own brother, and in the context of Hytner’s modern production, with burly security guards with ear-pieces always standing at the ready and the palace a hot-bed of back-stabbing intrigue, it makes perfect sense. A fun one for the Diana conspiracists, too.

Incidentally, Rory Kinnear as Hamlet at one point adopts a smiley-face T-shirt with the word ‘Villain’ under it — “oh, villain, villain, damned smiling villain!… One may smile and smile, and be villain” — which brings us back full circle to Alan Moore’s The Watchmen.

I strongly suggest you book for the one-off screening. If it captures anything of the brilliance of the original live production, you’re in for a treat.

 

#11: Absolutely positively the very last Cannes diary extract from 1997. In which Mike Leigh is a “patronising twat”

26 Jul
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I found myself lunching with Alan Parker, fresh from directing Madonna in Evita

Cannes, Monday May 12, 1997. Having called a halt to post-party drinking at the Petit Carlton last night at 4.30am, I woke up just in time to get to the Polygram lunch at the posh Carlton at 12.30. I introduced myself to legend-in-his-own-lunchtime Baz Bamigboye from The Daily Mail, about whom everyone here has a story to tell.

I told Baz the one I’d heard about him crawling for hours through bushes to get into a closed set, and finally getting caught by a security guard at which Baz says, “It’s okay, I’m a security guard too.” The guy replies – this is in America, mind – “No you’re not, you’re Baz Bamigboye. Now f**k off.”

Jonathan Pryce was there, but having seen his ground-breaking Hamlet when I was 13, where he was both Hamlet and, in a voice ripped from somewhere deep inside of him, the ghost of his father, I was too awed to say hi. Geoff Andrew is an old hand at these things, and told me he’d work out the best table to sit at for lunch. Accordingly he latched onto veteran BBC film critic Barry Norman – a good plan, since host Stewart Till turned out to be sat next to him, and the Guest of Honour, Alan Parker, turned out to be the man whose Reserved notice we shoved one along to make way for Geoff and me.

The director of Midnight Express and Fame was never high on Time Out film critics’ list of beloved auteurs, and his appointment as head the BFI was proving controversial, so I introduced myself as “editor of your least favourite magazine”, and we got on famously. Parker looks completely square, block-headed, compact, like a human battering ram; younger and healthier than I expected, especially after surfacing from filming Evita with Madonna; amusing, articulate and definitely not suffering fools gladly. He was particularly undiplomatic about Mike Leigh, whom he called a “patronising twat” – Parker had offered him the cash to make two films, only to find Leigh taking the piss out of his accent later.

I also asked Barry Norman what he thought of Dennis Pennis, who asks embarrassing questions of stars on the red carpet by pretending to be a “proper” BBC interviewer, which I imagine makes life hard for the real arts journos. Barry said he saw him chased by some bodyguards last year after some prank and all but shouted out “Yes! Get him!”

After which, my time in Cannes was nearly up. I just had time to look in on the New Producers’ Alliance party on the way to the station, carrying my bags with me, but for the first time fell foul of Cannes accreditation bureaucracy. Instead I found a BFI party at the British Pavilion to spend my final hour with. And then, too soon, it was time to go. Will I ever make it back here?

Little did I know that, 15 years later, I’d be back with a short film of my own I had co-written, Colonel Badd: see here. My previous 1997 Cannes diary extracts start here.