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Shrinking With the Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet is Very Therapeutic Indeed

Shakespeare is apparently very happening right now and thank goodness because after recently seeing Hamlet I’m reminded of how powerful Shakespeare can be and how it provides a rare opportunity in our modern society to see and connect to expressions of the deepest emotions that human beings experience.
Through the wonders of modern technology, National Theatre Live broadcasts some of the best British theatre productions live or almost live to cinemas around the world.  This is how I came to see the London production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch—the fastest selling theatre ticket in all of London theatre history—and I was able to see it right up the street in Fairfax for twenty dollars, much cheaper than a plane ticket to England.  Benedict Cumberbatch, if you don’t already know, is a wonderful actor who is most noted for playing Sherlock Holmes in the latest reboot of the character called Sherlock which can been seen on PBS or Netflix.  He was also nominated last year for an Oscar for his performance in the Imitation Game, a great movie about the life of Alan Turing, a man whose work on early computers helped crack the Nazi code, which should be seen by every history class learning about World War II.  Thanks to his popularity many people are exposing themselves to this great play and hopefully understanding why they are still reading Shakespeare in high school English classes.  One young person leaving the theatre after seeing the telecast was quoted as saying, “Is Shakespeare always this cool?”  The other good news is that, due to the great turnout last week, they’ll be offering several encore presentations across the area over the next couple of months.

I have seen many productions of Hamlet throughout the years and the interesting thing about it for me is how it deals with some tremendous themes about the human experience—grief, rage, depression, suicide, revenge, betrayal and love and how different aspects can speak to you depending on the production and perhaps where you in your own life.  This production spoke to me about raw grief and the crazy-making aspects of being surrounded by people who don’t understand what you are going through and who think you should be over it.  Poor Hamlet hasn’t even had two months to grieve the loss of his beloved father when his mother marries his father’s brother.  When he expresses his unhappiness about this he’s told that he’s grieving too long and that his grief is ‘unmanly’.  I have sat with many people in my office who have gotten this same message from well-meaning but clueless people in their lives.

Poor Hamlet is then visited by the ghost of his father who informs him that he was, in fact, murdered by his brother and then asks Hamlet to avenge his death.  Well, talk about complicated grief!  So in addition to the grief over his father and feelings of betrayal over his mother and uncle’s marriage he now has to figure out how to kill his uncle so he can do right by his father.  An awful lot for a thoughtful student to wrestle with.  He figures the way to do this is to maintain a singular focus and to let go of such frivolous distractions like his love for the fair Ophelia.  He also struggles with the idea that this life is futile and wonders if it is better to end one’s life than to try to deal with the pain of loss and betrayal and disappointment that seem to be unavoidable in this world.

Now, this being Shakespeare, he also has to endure accidentally killing Ophelia’s father, feeling betrayed by two of his best friends, and the suicide of Ophelia (did I mention there would be spoilers?).  Hopefully most of us don’t have this laundry list of pain to contend with, at least not all at once.  But we have probably all experienced some of these issues and maybe can identify with Hamlet as he struggles to deal with the overwhelming emotions that come from such life events.

The beauty of Shakespeare is that these emotions are dealt with through beautiful and expressive language that most of us don’t have access to in a world where we usually answer that we are ‘fine’ when asked by others how we are doing—even if we’re trying to cope with grief or rage or betrayal from those closest to us.  This production makes some quirky choices in terms the timeframe the action takes place, characters’ costumes and having Hamlet listen to Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy at the top of the show.  None of that matters a damn.  The language and acting rule the day.  The other real treat is that, because it’s on film rather than the stage (well, it is on stage but your perspective is that of the cameras and not the back of the balcony), the emotions are that much closer.  You can see all the nuance of the emotions, you can see the tears and you can even see the ungraceful way grief appears as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude talks about the death of Ophelia with her nose running and no time or energy to tend to it.  How remarkable this seemed to me and yet how perfectly natural and appropriate to the events.  The language is big and loud and you get the rare chance to view and experience the expression of emotions that too often in our world we try to hide and put away as quickly as we can.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have clients who come to see me—they are there in a counseling office seeing a therapist—and they will apologize if they start crying.  What a sad statement that people feel they have to apologize for crying when they are depressed, grieving or in a marital crisis.  Unsurprising, though, in a culture where a show of tears can end a political career or see medical professionals mistake grief for depression and hand out prescriptions for antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.

I wonder if the Elizabethans were mentally healthier for having had Shakespeare writing his tragedies and providing them on a regular basis with an outlet and a language for the deepest, most difficult emotions that we all struggle with.  To add to my pondering of the role of Shakespeare in our lives, this week in the Washington Post was an article about a Milwaukee based program called Feast of Crispian that does workshops for veterans where they depict conflict-heavy scenes from Shakespearean plays to help them cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, reintegration and other mental health issues.  The participants talked about how the characters and language of Shakespeare helped them access and express bottled up emotions.

This makes so much sense to me and it is also making me reflect on the success of one of my favorite shows, Breaking Bad, which I always felt was a visual and emotional expression of Shakespearean-sized themes.  This is why the arts are so important.  We need a place to connect to and express the large emotions of life.  And this is why I think it is so important for schools to not just be reading Shakespeare but to be seeing it performed by actors who can bring the language to life.  Don’t be scared of the language and think it may be difficult to understand.  A good actor like Benedict Cumberbatch makes it all very clear and it’s so much more rewarding to hear the words Hamlet speaks rather than the ‘fines’ and ‘okays’ we have become so accustomed to hearing when we try to talk about how we are feeling in our modern world.

To find out about the encore presentations of Hamlet as well as additional productions go to www.ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk .

Click here for information on grief counseling.

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