Fardels bear[ing], or Richard Armitage as Hamlet?

Last night I went to an NT Live broadcast for the first time — a cinema in town is hosting them now, a vast improvement from the 40 min drive one way, previously required to see one. I wonder how long this will continue, as there weren’t many people in the theater. However, this was also an “encore performance” — Benighted Encumbrance in Hamlet — so maybe everyone in town who’d wanted to see it already had.

I remember the reviews of this production were mixed at the time (2015) and I would concur with that assessment. I think I would have thought “this is just fine” if I hadn’t heard all the hype. Even so, paying $18 for a three hour movie, which is twice the normal price of the most expensive films around here, I do think it should be something special, the best of the best, and this play wasn’t that. I am a Hamlet lover, even if it’s not my favorite Shakespeare play, and I’ve been more drawn into it in the past, including by actors of lesser professional stature than Cumberbatch. I won’t belabor the rest of it, as it seems this production was unreasonably laden with expectations. That must have been hard on Cumberbatch — a heavy responsibility. I did enjoy Anastasia Hille as Gertrude and Jim Norton as Polonius.

As time passes I see more and more of Cumberbatch’s work — although almost always by accident as I find the hullabaloo around him quite a bit more interesting than I find him. He shows up in odd places. I just saw him in a film about an Irish gangster in Boston, where he stuck out like a sore thumb; no one has less of the aura of a formerly South Boston pol about him than Benny C. Probably the thing that I found most convincing was his role in 12 Years a Slave; the only thing I’ve considered extensively was Star Trek: Into Darkness, which I did not like, but he was the most talented person in it. And I’ve seen the first series of Sherlock, although not more than that. My main reaction to him when I do see him tends to be: what a strange man.

Last night was the first time I’ve seen in him in the theater (albeit on screen), and my reaction was essentially the same: I didn’t exactly not enjoy him. But: I’m puzzled. Perhaps this isn’t fair because I’ve also been told at least five times that his best theater work was in Frankenstein, which I haven’t seen. But even so, I’ll ask the question. What was he doing in this play? There are dozens of options for explaining Hamlet’s motivation — my preferred one, for instance, that his entire personality is distorted by an unresolved (unresolvable?) grief that festers ever more destructively; or that he’s a Machiavellian schemer; or that his father’s death and mother’s remarriage triggers an Oedipal crisis (the Freudian reading); that he’s driven by revenge but too unripe to execute effectively. The list of variants goes on and on. But all of them involve some significant emotional involvement, and key for understanding that involvement is the idea of disproportion or excess — a general theme of the play (Claudius’ excessive ambition, for example, or Ophelia’s extra-dimension response to being spurned by Hamlet, or, in general, power that exceeds its bounds or strategies, like the mousetrap, whose endgames are not anticipated by their initiators). Even the option that makes Hamlet into a rational thinker relies on the reading that he over-applies his technique to the situation.

But Cumberbatch is everything the opposite of emotion or disproportion, and this is what puzzled me last night. I get it, I understand why they hire him: he abounds in technique. He’s physically lithe, he has plastic features and big eyes and the planes of his face are unusual enough to draw the viewer’s attention; he speaks well, in a pleasant timbre, with the right accent; he’s capable of the necessary snark (even if I didn’t feel that it fit Hamlet’s ironic responses well, it was there). He doesn’t struggle verbally with the text; he’s fully integrated into the Shakespearan idiom (in a way, for example, that Ciaran Hinds was embarrassingly not) and he’s made it his own.

But all these things that make him a skilled actor militate against him being an effective Hamlet, at least for me, and even if he’s not embracing my preferred reading, involving the sincere inability to master his own grief. It was overall the most curiously emotionless, detached performance of Hamlet I’ve ever seen. Technically perfect — but with the exception of a few moments, largely bloodless. (In contrast to the end of the play.) It was really often as if they thought they could wave their arms around as opposed to expressing something genuine. Cumberbatch seems: unburdened, even as his Hamlet rhetorically asks why people put up with the aggravations of life. There is no: anguish.

It made me wonder — and I’m not saying this as snark — exactly why actors get where they are in their careers. I don’t think Cumberbatch is untalented but his reception in the profession seems to me (admittedly in ignorance of parts of his body of work that might change my mind) to stand entirely out of proportion to that talent. I don’t begrudge him his success; I just don’t understand it. He treads so lightly wherever he goes.

I’d been pondering whether this is sour grapes. I would be happy to see Armitage as Hamlet but I can’t imagine he’s especially interested in it (although he’s also been in the play as a spear carrier in the past), and there are roles I’d prefer — Iago, Prospero, Macbeth. I’m sure he’d say he’s too old, even if quite mature actors have played the role over the years. And then I thought, huh, why do I think he’d not be interested? I suppose part of it is that I’ve never seen him as particularly cerebral or heavily tinted by the pale cast of thought (pardon the little Hamlet joke there). I think one of Hamlet’s problems in dealing with his grief is that he lacks the tools, that he’s simply too much in his head at the beginning of the play to be able to look honestly at his own soul — the soliloquies notwithstanding, for they ask the questions without giving him — or us — the answers.

And if it’s really the case that I think Hamlet is overmanned by grief — that’s actually one of Armitage’s best modes.

It started to make me wonder what kind of Hamlet Armitage would be. I think about Ben Brantley’s comments about how Armitage’s performance as John Proctor in The Crucible went against the performance tradition to depict him as a very earthy farmer. I see him mixing a really healthy portion of quite physical anger in with his grief.

We may never know. Today I was listening to this and wondering if that’s the only clue we’ll ever have. Yet still, I’d like one chance to see him roar out: “Foul deeds will rise / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.

If there’s any actor who has “that within which passeth show,” it’s Richard Armitage. How do you think he would perform the role? What would his choices be?


~ by Servetus on March 10, 2018.

18 Responses to “Fardels bear[ing], or Richard Armitage as Hamlet?”

  1. Parents…..both his parents were/are actors I was always surprised he didn’t go to RADA

    Liked by 1 person

    • His mother went to Central. I thought it was also interesting that he went to Manchester and not Oxford / Cambridge. I think I read somewhere that he blew off his exams.


  2. The top three drama academies in the UK are RADA ( the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), LAMDA ( the London Academy for Music and Dramatic Art) and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. All are part of the eight schools making up the prestigious Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, which is world leading in its field of Drama, dance, music, circus arts and technical theatre.

    Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Armitage went to LAMDA and Benedict has now become President of LAMDA.


    • Yes, although Cumberbatch completed the MA and we’re not sure whether Armitage completed the BA or not.


      • Well, back in 2014 he tweeted out that the LAMDA graduation class of 1998 were in to see him on stage. LAMDA also tweeted out about the same time a photo of him during his time training with them, describing him as ‘LAMDA alum’ and the LAMDA website has him on their graduates page, so he must have obtained his BA. LAMDA also tweeted birthday greetings to him last year describing him as a grad.

        Any of the actors in the top three drama academies, who finish their whole course and are described as graduates would have obtained their BAs .


        • To be in a graduation year is not the same as graduating that year. To me that says “my cohort’s in the audience,” not necessarily “the graduates of that year are there.”

          I’m not saying he didn’t receive a BA, just that there’s been no evidence apart from the LAMDA tweet that he did for sure, and professional schools tend to like to claim people who’ve studied there, even if they didn’t finish. E.g., Chewitel Ejiofur was in the graduation year of 1998 but didn’t enter due to being cast in a film, but he’s regularly associated with LAMDA. Armitage is on record once as saying “I read for a degree,” but never as saying “I got a degree.” Moreover, degree programs change over time; I know that LAMDA grants a BA now to the three year course participants (well, actually I know as of 2010 when I started being interested in this topic that they did), but I don’t know that that was the case then. I looked for evidence of when their program became a BA granting one about five years ago and didn’t find anything definitive. Then there’s the fact that Armitage’s own Spotlight resume says he was there from 96-98, which, if correct, would put him in one of their programs for those with previous professional experience (they had at the time a two year advanced course for students who’d worked in theatre before), which might not lead to a BA because typically accreditors want a minimum number of classroom units. Of course, Armitage’s resume might just have a typo, but Capper’s Spotlight CV says 95-98, which put her in the regular BA course.

          In short — evidence is there that he might have, but definitive, convincing evidence that he did, is lacking.


  3. I don’t get the hype and accolades about Cumberbatch – he’s excellent as Sherlock and really made that role his own and makes a pretty good dragon. I noticed his hype seems to have cooled off quite a bit but the last few months but for 2 or 3 years you couldn’t not hear about him no matter how much you tried. When he played Khan in Star Trek I found him to be a total disappointment and ruined the movie for me – maybe because I’m so fond of the original Khan played by the “fine Corinthian leather” Montalban – no one can match Montalban! I’m sure Armitge would make a great Hamlet (biased opinion) but I would LOVE to see him as Macbeth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He does make a good dragon — but I’m not distracted by his appearance. I agree that the hype seems to be fading (same with Hiddleston).

      And I am in total agreement re: disappointment over Into Darkness, although Ricardo Montalbán was simply unforgettable in that role.

      re: Armitage — I think that’s what I’m wrestling with. Macbeth seems totally his speed; aside from his expressed preference for the play his vibe seems to fit that role perfectly. (In contrast to Hamlet.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed about Hiddleston – the hype I think was mostly due to Loki (which I really liked) and I loved Only Lovers Left Alive – I found that movie quite absorbing. It was slow but I was totally drawn in. But he kind of shot himself in the foot career wise with the Swift shenanigans. It was hard to take him seriously after that. I would move heaven and earth to go see RA play Macbeth. And not afraid to say it now – I really dislike Hamlet.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I hate Hamlet. I’m probably the only one person in the world who thinks that in it die too few people, and too late. So I’m not longing to see mr. A talking to a skull, but I can’t watch Sherlock without thinking what a wonderful Mycroft he would be.
    And I like ABC (amabile Benedict Cumberbatch); I always loved strange men with deep voices!


    • No, you’re not. One reason that Hewson / Hartley cited for their Hamlet adaptation was this very issue — the average person isn’t interested in the play, or if they’ve studied it, doesn’t like it. Add to that the problem that a lot of people are required to study it in school and the dislike for it spreads just by virtue that it’s a matter of compulsion.


  5. Really not the best production to fall in love with NTlive broadcasts!


    • There are two more this spring that I bought tickets to — Julius Caesar and the Macbeth with Rory Kinnear (shoulda been you, Richard Armitage!). I don’t really like Julius Caesar, but I do like this feeling of going to the London theater to see Shakespeare.


  6. […] down here about what I was thinking, but I don’t really want to write a formal review. After seeing Hamlet recently, I realized that just seeing theater really invigorates me and have resolved to see more. So I […]


  7. […] confusing. More potentially troubling is that (yet again — like McKellen’s Lear, like Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, like Norris’ Macbeth) this seems to be a Shakespeare production that isn’t […]


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