Ever since it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing Hamlet at the Barbican Centre in summer 2015 a fair part of my life has been consumed by helping fans from all over the world with their queries about the show. So it was somewhat surreal when the time finally came to sit down in the audience & see what Benedict & his exceptionally talented director Lyndsey Turner had come up with. It’s been a production quite beset by the slings & arrows of outrageous fortune with worldwide press interest verging on out and out hysteria leading papers to throw out accepted practice & inappropriately review the first preview. The pressure on the company on press night being the eye of such a media storm must have been enormous but you’d never have known from watching them. Together they kept the audience spellbound with a thrilling production of Hamlet which is bold, breath-taking, moving and visually stunning.
All eyes were obviously on Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet who rose to the occasion with aplomb. It was Benedict’s stage acting that first drew me to him & lead me to set up this site and he remains truly electric on stage commanding the huge auditorium effortlessly. Hamlet can, frankly, be a little trying in the wrong hands (he is quite the mopey devil who has to be galvanised to action) but Cumberbatch shines very brightly indeed. He gives a delicate portrayal of a devastated, grieving son moved to take bloody vengeance against Claudius’ villainy. He showcases his deft knack for comedy while depicting Hamlet’s “madness” in a couple of show stopper scenes which have him march on stage dressed as a toy soldier and defending a toy fort, firing guns at invisible combatants. His relationship with Gertrude (a hugely impressive, understated Anastasia Hille who seems much less complicit in Claudius’ machinations than previous incarnations) is both brutal and tender as he lambasts her for abandoning his father and begs her not to return to Claudius. Their relationship is much less aggressive than I’ve seen it portrayed previously and Cumberbatch physically transforms into a desolate lost child in their scenes together (despite the bare 10 year age gap between them).
Much fuss was made about the initial previews starting with To Be or Not to Be (it’s a shame it’s been moved – it was quite the ballsy statement to kick off with the greatest soliloquy in the play) and while not quite back in it’s proper place Cumberbatch nevertheless delivers it beautifully. Personally I’ve always preferred “what a piece of work is man…” which is delivered quietly and powerfully.
Hamlet’s interactions with Horatio (a bedrock of the play) are somewhat less successful. The chemistry just isn’t there and Leo Bill looks rather like he’s wandered in from a completely different production to everyone else playing a mumbly, blokey perpetual gap year student version of Horatio. This unfortunately renders their final scene rather less affecting than it should be. However overall Cumberbatch conquers Shakespeare’s greatest role with immense charm and brio.
He is well matched by Ciaran Hinds who is truly menacing as Claudius. With an appearance that looks like it has been hewn from granite he is a commanding presence towering over the stage and the assembled company. Equally charming whether hosting dinner for his guests or casually ordering Hamlet’s demise Hinds’ Claudius is a compelling monster. He also captures Claudius’ self-loathing beautifully with a wonderful rendition of the “Oh my offence is rank…” speech.
Olivier award winning director Lyndsey Turner once again shows why she is one of the best theatre directors working today with a fast paced, visually stunning production brimming with beautiful moments. She deserves all the kudos for making me actually care about Ophelia. Ophelia is one of the least interesting of Shakespeare’s female characters – a drippy character with zero agency who is entirely defined by her relationships with the men in her life (Hamlet, Laertes, Polonius). I’ve always found it rather hard to care about the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship or her unfortunate fate. Turner changes that with a heart rending sequence in which Gertrude catches Ophelia’s eyes and quietly watches with dawning horror as a dignified but very addled Ophelia slowly weaves her way off stage towards a cold light, the stage bathed in shadows. It’s exquisitely cinematic, profoundly moving and far and away the best moment in the production.
Equally visually arresting is the end of Act One in which Claudius’ evil machinations and his desire to see the death of Hamlet literally corrupts the environment around him as the stage explodes outwards, black debris raining on the audience.
Not everything is quite so effective. The slo mo in the banquet scene works extremely well but becomes less effective each time it’s subsequently used. Whilst prettily rendered the spot of interpretative dance just before Hamlet goes in for the killing blow to Laertes in the duel is verging on the silly. It’s also an odd decision to end with Fortinbras (rather than cutting to black as it were after The Rest is Silence) as Fortinbras has been all but stripped from the play.
Special mention must go to Es Devlin’s glorious set design. The jewel toned vast set is simply spellbinding and drew audible gasps from the audience on its unveiling. Ms Devlin has assembled a vast faded palace set decorated with hunting lodge paraphernalia (so many antlers!) and stunning chandeliers while clever video projections display the rot hiding just below the surface. In Act 2 as proceedings start to disintegrate the stage is invaded with piles of debris, soot and soil as the characters’ worlds collapse around them.
The show is set in an indeterminate time. The costumes and props are from a variety of time periods with 30’s and 40’s style outfits for Gertrude, 50’s stylings for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern (these have been massively toned down from the previews when they were in pure 50’s gear), 60’s and 70’s (the players) and current (Hamlet & Horatio) or perhaps they’re all just Shoreditch hipsters.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention the very clever lighting design by Jane Cox which makes stunning use of light and shadow.
Is it the definitive version of Hamlet which will be remembered for the ages? Of course not. But it is exciting, thrilling, visually inventive and beautifully performed with a world class turn from Benedict Cumberbatch.