Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Stars in Hamlet, Barbican Centre

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So it has finally opened.

Such has been the unprecedented level of attention on Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch that you could be forgiven for thinking that this show has already been with us for months. But no, this week the much anticipated show had its press night and we are all free to talk about in in the press without recrimination.

Hurrah!

Only it turns out that there isn’t that much to shout about because, whisper it quietly, this Hamlet is fine, it’s ok. But it’s not great. It’s not the unmissable classic that perhaps we all hoped it would be.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,          , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting - Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Director Lyndsey Turner has created a dynamic, exciting production that’s full of dramatic action but light on introspection. Further, this production revolves around a Hamlet that seems to be playing his insanity as a laugh, as a joke to wind people up. It’s a brave interpretation of the text but the result is that though there’s much to watch, there’s little to engage.

We care about Hamlet – or rather we’re supposed to care about Hamlet – because he is facing an impossible decision. And the pressure to make that decision is unbearable and increasing all the time. Only in this production, we are denied that journey.

Instead Hamlet’s motivation here is unclear and he is confusing.

Benedict’s Hamlet is sarcastic, mean, aloof to his girlfriend and vicious to his mother. He also hams up the supposed mental illness for all its worth, causing much laughter in the auditorium as his Hamlet mocks himself up as a toy soldier brought to life just to confuse and baffle those around him.

But Hamlet is a tragedy not a slapstick comedy and the lack of introspection is a loss.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,          , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting - Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Benedict is a fine, fine actor and I was so looking forward to seeing this intelligent actor wrestle with Hamlet’s huge decisions. I wanted to see him weigh up life and death, to battle with whether to fight and die, or live but succumb. Yet the creative decisions made robbed me of this. But credit to Benedict, he commits fully to this interpretation and his performance is athletic and bold, and his vocal projection is impressive.

But frustratingly, if the creative decision was for Hamlet to play up his madness deliberately, it’s not clear why this is done. What is Hamlet trying to gain? What is he trying to achieve by this? That drive to avenge his father comes and goes – and goes more often than it hangs around. It makes him petulant and juvenile.

And when combined with this Hamlet’s genuine shock at seeing his father’s ghost and his, seemingly, quite tender remorse for Ophelia, the performance doesn’t seem to hang together. If he wants to avenge his father then his actions make no sense. Why play mad? And it all seems so incongruous with the reflective, contemplative Hamlet that starts the show.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,          , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting - Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

It’s a shame as this Hamlet doesn’t seem to care about anything. Even towards the climax, as he’s being led away in handcuffs, he doesn’t seem particularly bothered. As if he doesn’t care what happens to Denmark. Well, Hamlet, if you don’t care then neither will we.

As a result, it’s so hard to get an emotional ‘in’ to this production. There’s nothing to hang on to. Instead the tragedy is left to Ophelia in a quite beautifully fragile performance from Sian Brooke. Her unravelling is the most heart-rending moment in the production but, of course, it comes so late in the play when most of the damage has already been done.

What doesn’t disappoint though is the set.

The set design from Es Devlin is stunning. Breath-taking, in fact. A huge fading baroque Danish palace dominates the set – its high ceilings towering above the cast underneath as they play out their dramas in a palace of dust and dying flowers. It’s beautifully atmospheric.

And its dramatic destruction as the borders of Denmark are invaded is a fine piece of theatre. But, let’s be frank, when the best thing about your production of Hamlet is the set, you’ve got problems.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,          , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting - Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

Of course, none of this is probably relevant in a show which could have sold itself out five times over. And probably more.

No doubt the crowds who flock to see the Cumberbatch will come away with different views on the show from mine. And that’s great – I really hope they enjoy the production. But, just as importantly, I hope those new theatre-goers amongst them come back to see more shows as the more shows that generate this kind of excitement, the better.

It’s worth noting though that if your tickets are on the left-hand side of the auditorium, you may find yourself with an unadvertised restricted view ticket – as we did. Some of the key action takes place in the extreme left wing of the stage. Considering the eye-watering prices for some of these tickets, that’s a little cheeky. And another disappointment.

Barbican Centre, London to October 31, 2015

Hamlet will also be shows in cinemas via NT Live on Thursday October 15, 2015.

Image Credits:

  1. Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) in Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. Photo credit Johan Persson
  2. Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) in Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. Photo credit Johan Persson
  3. Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) in Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. Photo credit Johan Persson
  4. Anastasia Hille (Gertrude) in Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. Photo credit Johan Persson
  5. Siân Brooke (Ophelia) in Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. Photo credit Johan Persson

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1 comment

  1. Posted by Flower, at Reply

    Had not read Hamlet before but had a good idea of the plot! Not my favororite but Benidjct made up for it Flower