The Barbican, (NT: Live)
15th October 2015
Few theatrical events in recent years have produced as much publicity and intrigue as the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in Lyndsey Turner’s blockbuster production of Hamlet, staged at the Barbican and broadcast to the nation via NT: Live. For the past four months the tabloids have been fuelled by stories of embargo breaking, bootleg recording, and the determination of the self-named ‘Cumberbitches’ attempts to get that enviable golden ticket. But away from all the promotional hullabaloo, what’s the production actually like? Does it live up to the hype?
The answer is both ‘yes’, and ‘no’.
Cumberbatch is a fine actor, there is no doubt about that. He imbues the Great Dane with a mature gravity, this is no petulant teenager, but a considerate and likable man that we can unquestionably root for. Special mention must go to his crystal clear delivery of Shakespeare’s often dense language. Cumberbatch conveys the meaning of the verse with dramatic resonance, creating an admirably accessible Hamlet, great for introducing, and – crucially - not alienating, new audiences to The Bard’s most famous play. However, in making Hamlet an unequivocally heroic ‘good-guy’, there is little of the ambiguity which makes for truly a compelling tragic hero.
Dispelling with the eerie original opening, Turner introduces us to a Bowie loving Hamlet in mourning, placing our hero front and centre; and there he remains for the entirety. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is earnest in his gratitude, warmly humorous in his quips, and apologetic in his brief flashes of malice – there was no bite to his suggestion that Ophelia should ‘get thee to a nunnery’, for example. And while the play-acting was entertaining (the toy soldier element worked well in reference to the Fortinbras plot), at no point are we led to seriously question Hamlet’s sanity. This is a hero less flawed and driven to despair by procrastination and misogynistic complexities, rather, he is merely too decent a chap to thoroughly ‘get his revenge on’.
Turner also eschews much of the subtext often applied to the play, even the most obvious of themes – Hamlet’s Oedipal complex – is non-existent, perhaps deemed too seedy for this clean cut model. But it seems, judging by Es Devlin’s immense and visually impressive set – the grand staircase and balcony are put to good use - that most thought went into attempting to fill the vast stage of the Barbican, and subsequently the subtleties of the text have been misplaced. The overwhelming hurricane and resultant rubble enshrouding the stage following Hamlet’s banishment is a fitting symbol for the disintegration of the state on such a big platform, but only just avoids burying the play as a consequence. Despite the generally broad direction, several choices work very well. The decision to stage the soliloquys in slow-motion allows for the intimacy of introspection without breaking the flow of the scene, while also emphasising Hamlet’s feelings of isolation and detachment.
Amongst several stand out performances, Ciarán Hinds’ Claudius is an every man, avoiding the trap of comic book arch villain, breathing life into, and even encouraging a little empathy for the usurping King. Sian Brooke’s twitchy Ophelia is a fragile waif. She is broken from the very start and her vulnerability only makes her inevitable breakdown all the more devastating. Ophelia’s poignant final exit – tiptoeing over the rubble of Denmark, a quietly simple moment, heightened by Jon Hopkins’ beautifully ethereal music – is a high point in the production. Similarly, the piano playing by Ophelia and Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) suitably emphasises the siblings’ bond and provides a neat leitmotif for Ophelia’s mad scene.
Turner stages Shakespeare’s most famous work on a justifiably epic scale – to attempt anything else on such a huge stage would be folly - but subsequently has to paint with such broad strokes that this plot-led staging misses out on the ambiguities and ambivalences of other productions. A fine, well-acted, and incredibly accessible production for new audiences to get to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of Shakespeare, but this Hamlet is more likely to enter the history books due to the popularity of its leading man and resultant publicity, than purely on the merit of the production itself.
Hamlet plays at The Barbican until 31st October 2015.