Barbican Theatre, London, Friday 11th September 2015
Currently the hottest ticket in town due to the presence of everyone’s favourite Cumberbatch in the title role, Lyndsey Turner’s production lives up to the promise and the hullaballoo. In the headlines because of ardent fans trying to capture the performance on their mobile phones, leading to the leading man making a statement, and then for the leading man’s pleas for the audience to toss money into buckets to alleviate the greatest refugee crisis known to humanity… This show comes with a lot of baggage.
I have seen countless productions of Hamlet and each one throws up the question, How old is the Danish Prince supposed to be? He wants to go to school in Wittenberg, presumably as a mature student, and he used to ride on Yorick’s back – the jester has been dead and buried for 23 years… Taking all this into account, I’d say late 20s, 30 at a push. Mr Cumberbatch is creeping up on 40, but this is what acting means: his Hamlet is a moody, post-adolescent, student-type, the kind you used to get in the 1960s. There is a youthful energy to his more manic moments, countered by a sober bitterness to his starker, depressive speeches.
The show begins, not on the battlements of Elsinore, but in Hamlet’s room. He’s playing Nature Boy by Nat King Cole, wallowing in the melancholy emanating from his record player, before he’s called down to join the celebratory dinner at his mother’s wedding to his uncle. The wall flies up and the full extent of the stage and set is revealed. A gasp almost sucks the air from the auditorium. Es Devlin’s palatial set puts us inside Elsinore. There is grandeur and opulence, ornamentation and power. A house is a well-established metaphor for the mind, and a haunted house for insanity. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father (the splendid Karl Johnson in a suitably spooky moment) is what tips the balance in Hamlet’s noggin. From that point, his behaviour deteriorates and the house falls into disruption and decay… By the second half, the house is like a bombsite, full of mud and rubble: Hamlet is at war with just about everyone. I can’t help thinking of the poor old stage crew, having to clear it all up before every performance!
We get lighting changes to isolate asides and soliloquies, and during some of the transitions, the cast judder and jitter like a DVD stutter or a videotape rewinding, like mental tics, I suppose, brief flashes of distorted reality, glitches in the matrix.
Hamlet marches along the banqueting table, dressed as one of his own life-size toy soldiers, fannying about in a man-size fort. I can only assume he had these giant toys as a small boy for them to be so handy. The toy soldiers bit I don’t like so much but there is no denying the power of Cumberbatch’s delivery of all the key speeches. The play is Shakespeare’s greatest hits album, Disc 1, where every other line is famous. Cumberbatch, and indeed the rest of the cast, keep the well-worn phrases fresh. “O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt…” is a highlight, as is “I have of late but wherefore I know not lost all my mirth…” and, of course, “To be or not to be…” is a set piece, a lesson in how it’s done. “Alas, poor Yorick…” gets an unwarranted laugh – the line is the cliché that identifies the play, and is the butt of countless parodies. The play suffers from its own familiarity, its lines so embedded in popular culture and everyday speech. Cumberbatch’s inflections shed new light: this is a Hamlet we can understand rather than find disturbing. We like him but we don’t fear for him losing his marbles. There is always the sense that he will cope.
For me, Ciaran Hinds as Claudius matches Cumberbatch in terms of star quality. We only glimpse overt villainy a couple of times: Hinds is the duplicitous politician, charming and plausible on the surface. Knowing what we know (through Hamlet’s eyes) this makes him all the more dangerous.
Anastasia Hille is a stately, restrained Gertrude, whose attire and demeanour deteriorate in tandem with her son’s mental health, and Sian Brooke works wonders with Ophelia’s tricky and awkward mad scenes.
Inevitably, a director has to make cuts. The text is too long for comfort. I appreciate the decision to keep the Ghost from us until Hamlet himself sees it, but I mourn the omission of Hamlet’s Irish friend: the ‘pat’ is excised from the “Now might I do it” speech!!
The play itself is flawed. Similarly this production is patchy; it’s more about moments rather than moment or momentum. The visual impact of Gertrude clambering up a slag heap in pursuit of doomed Ophelia punches you in the face, but curiously, Turner’s staging choices do not show Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play, which is surely the point of that scene.
We end with the excitement of the fencing match (thrillingly choreographed by Bret Yount) and the tragedy of Hamlet’s demise (we don’t really care about anyone else kicking the bucket). Fortinbras arrives and picks his way over the rubble for a downbeat denouement.
We clap our hands off. I am most pleased to have attended the event rather than being moved by it. And, of course, I am gratified to have seen actors of the stature and skill of Cumberbatch and Hinds, playing their roles like virtuosos.
Holding the fort: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. (Photo: Johan Persson)