Mental Health

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet: A study in teen depression


Y’all know I’m a loud and proud Cumberbitch, so I could swoon for 500 words about last night’s Hamlet performance, but I won’t, because the Barbican Centre’s interpretation of a 400-year-old play was more than a display of Benedict’s fantastic forearms. It was a depiction (strangely) of teenage depression and suicide, despite the leading man pushing forty.

I’ve been well acquainted with Shakespeare’s tragic Danish prince since high school. And then again in college. And then again after college, because I just love the play. Something has always resonated with me where Hamlet is involved, and thanks to last night’s National Theatre Live streaming performance, I finally understand why.

As a teenager, I dyed my hair black and wrote mean notes to myself about how ugly I was. I locked myself in my room and meditated on Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana. I was the epitome of teenage depression. As I grew up, I learned my depression wasn’t going anywhere, but I could hide it so no one knew I was depressed–and I was good at hiding it. Still am.

In the play, Hamlet feigns madness. He reverts to a childlike sort of exuberance. Benedict dons a toy soldier uniform and stomps across tabletops. He is animated, wild, in front of others, but as soon as he’s alone, the tears flow. In Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech, he ponders if life is even worth continuing. This was me in high school–and so many others. Benedict further represents a troubled teen in his astounding physicality as he hops, skips, and leaps all over the stage.

opheliaIt’s no wonder the man was covered in sweat for the entire performance, ginger curls glued to his forehead. No wonder Benedict has been losing so much weight over the show’s run, too, trying to force down as many calories as possible pre-performance. His already prominent cheekbones were like a razor’s edge.

Ophelia, of course, goes one step further than her precious, beloved Hamlet by actually going mad and committing suicide–doing what the young prince has not the will to do. She loses her first love; she then loses her father. How many teens do we lose to suicide for similar reasons because their feelings are either ignored or overlooked, much like Ophelia, who is left to wander alone offstage into a white light?

The production itself was spellbinding. Benedict Cumberbatch (although an Oscar-nominated film actor) was made for the stage. Not only was he physically impressive (he moves like an eighteen-year-old on cocaine), but his vocality evoked gasps from the audience as he went practically up a musical scale from depressive whispers to rage-filled roars. And okay, yes, he’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. He should wear jeans more often; definitely more often. God bless that ass.

He had a strong back up cast with the haunting Sian Brooke as Ophelia, Ciaran Hinds as an absolutely evil Claudius, and Anastasia Hille as loving, confused mother Gertrude. The special effects were movie quality, especially the final scene before the interval when the entire Danish royal home appears to be alive with swarms of angry, black flies. I give top honors to the fight coordinator who made Benedict’s childish Hamlet into an impressive (and sexy) sword fighter in the big, final duel.

And the ending still hurt. I joked before the show, “I wonder how it’s going to end.” The joke was on me as I still wanted to scream “NO!” as Hamlet shuddered and died in the arms of his one and only friend. If only depression was something we could kill with a poisoned sword.

I can’t say if director Lyndsey Turner intentionally asked Benedict to play Hamlet young. I don’t know if it was her idea to have Ophelia wander into the darkness like a child first learning to walk. Whatever the intention of the director or the actors, the Barbian’s Hamlet was a haunting reminder of the illnesses of the mind and how our own hearts betray us–at any age–but more so as young adults when we’re still trying to understand who we are.


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