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Hamlet - Review * 09 August 2015

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The following review is based on a viewing of a preview performance of the play staged on Saturday August 8 2015 - our sole chance to see the play performed on stage. We will discuss elements of the play relating to both the plot and staging, which some could construe as spoilers.

The most famous play in Shakespeare's canon. The perceived ultimate proving ground of an actor's skills. Lofty generalisations maybe, but Hamlet has been often staged, many times filmed. And now comes Benedict Cumberbatch's turn, in the production that needs no further introduction thanks to its record breaking nature as the fastest selling stage production in London theatre history.  Because of the sheer popularity of both the play text and the leading man, hype has been through the roof, and so perhaps rather fittingly, what has ultimately emerged is William Shakespeare retrofitted as a thrilling, expansive popcorn blockbuster, designed to play to a huge audience.

This populist aim is clearly there right from the start, curtain up revealing Hamlet alone on stage, where he dives straight into the most famous soliloquy in all of Shakespeare. 'To be or not to be' is the ultimate expression of the theme of the play, usually spoken during the third act, so to place it immediately is a stunning move of purist baiting intent. Indeed both it and the later 'Alas poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio' are delivered with a simple casualness by Benedict that is a polar opposite to the often portentous gravitas that the lines are delivered with, their literary importance weighing them down. Another shift lies in the depiction of Hamlet's descent into feigned madness in an attempt to trick Claudius. Here it is played with showy, childlike comedy, Hamlet dressing as a nutcracker styled toy soldier and deploying gigantic, expensive props to fulfil his deceit. The text has been retrofitted to be very broadly comic here, though surprisingly it is not particularly jarring, instead fitting well into the sense of excess that is being displayed throughout the Danish royal court.


Away from these most noticeable changes to the core text, we have to come to the performance - as that is after all why we are all here. The play is renowned as an acting rite of passage in many ways, not least thanks to its length. In unabridged form, Hamlet has the most lines of any character in all the works of William Shakespeare, and is often seen as a feat of endurance and recall. Though aside from the aforementioned moments relating to the staging Benedict Cumberbatch's performance is remarkably and pleasingly un-showy. Instead, he produces a Hamlet that early on is simmering with bottled rage, before exploding on the discovery of the identity of his father's murderer. From then on, Benedict imbues the character with a barely contained hyperactivity, flying around the stage with such energy you fear everything could teeter on the edge of disaster at any moment. Come Act Five, with the revelation of Ophelia's death, he shifts gears into genuine remorse but never vulnerability, and then later righteous fury come the murder filled close - this is the first time we've personally ever seen Benedict perform a death scene, effectively spasming into his final silence in weary agony.


Hamlet features an expansive and uniformly excellent company, and so we must pay attention to those that caught our eye the most. Top of the list is Ciaran Hinds as a superb Claudius, haughty and malevolent, yet also curiously sympathetic. His bombastic interpretation of Claudius' monologue at the close of Act Three is perhaps the most electrifying moment of the entire play, ending in literally explosive fashion. Also, Sian Brooke is initially a potential oddity, until you realise just how well she is playing Ophelia - rendered with childlike vulnerability and wonderment, before the murder of her father by Hamlet reduces her to a truly broken state, she gifts the play it's most emotional scene as she exits stage in a final, luminously ascendant walk. Her performance also highlights a thematic counterpoint to Hamlet's own false madness, his take as perhaps a dark, almost mocking mirror to Ophelia's own genuinely fragile state.

To the production design itself: This is Shakespeare in modern dress, with the costuming achieving a primal, archetypal style that is designed to reinforce the basic traits of their characters. Horatio for example, as an old university friend of Hamlet, is consistently decked out in what can only be described as gap year clothing, always carrying a rugged backpack and dressed in a weathered check shirt, while Claudius and his court are suitably attired in the dress uniform of modern royalty. Most intriguing though are those most famous of minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who oddly evoke the 1970s and a curious sense of Woodward and Bernstein - perhaps to be seen as those who know the truth while skirting perilously close to off stage danger. Special mention also has to be given to the set design of the play, for it is frankly staggering, perhaps the largest we've seen in a theatre environment. Panoramic and decadent, it is a sight to behold, but is also perhaps the single achilles heel in the production that we potentially cannot see being fully corrected. Due to the cavernous nature of the set, when an actor faces away from the audience in some scenes their voice reverberates around the space, with some lines becoming lost in the echoing depths. Also unusual in terms of direction are moments of interpretative dance and slow motion during Hamlet's internal monologues. The aim clearly is to lend everything a sense of the cinematic, but we remain unsure if it is truly successful.


Ultimately though, nothing can truly detract from the performances on display here. In summation, other roles have given Benedict the chance to show his powers to greater effect, but he is nonetheless truly superb on stage here, magnetic as usual, in a brilliant take on William Shakespeare's great tragedy that has found itself slightly reconfigured for all audiences, epically staged with a genuine star at the core.

Hamlet runs until October 31 2015 at the Barbican Theatre. The play is sold out, but day returns occur and 30 £10 tickets are released daily for sale in person at the Barbican box office. Check the website for availability and details.

Also, National Theatre Live will broadcast the play to cinemas around the world on October 15 2015. Ticket information and venues can be found on the National Theatre Live website.         

[All images © Johan Persson]