Close up on Cumberbach

On Monday, after dinner at the residence of the British Ambassador (I know, pinch me), my wife and I and our son Jack went to see the NT Live film of Benedick Cumberbatch in Hamlet. All in all, it was a pretty remarkable evening.
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Cumberbatch was superb – the whole cast was terrific – and it reminded me of how much I enjoy seeing theatre and opera onscreen. Of course nothing replaces a live performance, but this is certainly the next best thing. And seeing a play filmed with all the new technology and new techniques being brought to bear these days has its own, unique and very wonderful virtues.

The close-ups are breathtaking. I got a truly clear sense of Cumberbatch’s performance. Clearer than a live performance? Yes, possibly. Is it heresy to say so? Probably. But it doesn’t really compete with a live performance, it’s just a different experience.

Also wonderful is hearing every single word of the performance. And seeing the costumes in so much detail is an added bonus. And best of all, the SIZE of everything is sort of magnificent. Perhaps it takes a really big play, like Hamlet and the operas I love so much, to take advantage of the medium. But I suspect that even more modest plays would be rather great on a big screen.

What suffers? The set, for one thing. It looked like an incredible, indeed magnificent set for this production, but on a screen you can’t quite get the sweep of the thing. I also got a sense that I was missing some of stillness in the play: those wonderful moments in a live theatre when you can hear a pin drop and you’re aware of the hushed tension in the audience around you.

Perhaps the biggest loss was the sense of an intimate communal experience, the one thing that makes live theatre breathtakingly unique.

That said, what a wonderful treat to be able to see a production of this magnitude that I would have otherwise missed. That alone made the experience irreplaceable.