THEATRE REVIEW: Hamlet, Barbican Theatre

running until 31 October

(c) Johan Persson
Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role (c) Johan Persson

At last. Two years since rumours started circulating, over a year since the ticket was purchased on that stressful day, a month and a half since the controversially early first reviews emerged – was all that waiting worth it?

Overall, it’s a solid yes. Starting with the most pressing issues, Benedict Cumberbatch, for me, makes for a great Hamlet. With occasional flashes of his acclaimed portrayal of Sherlock – his Hamlet is sharp intelligent – he not only shows innate understanding of Shakespeare’s work, but he is able to translate it to the audience with ease in his great fluidity and eloquence. His Hamlet is clearly in the throes of grief for his father, but his “antic disposition” certainly seems “put… on”, with an overriding sense of rationality rather than genuine madness. Indeed, his ‘mad’ scenes are the most comic, as the Prince messes about in his toy castle in full old-fashioned military garb, to the delight of the audience and the confusion of his old school friends, the doomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There’s a certain level of restraint in the performance and it does lack the darker, twistier elements of the character that drive him to wonder helplessly, “to be or not to be?”, and to consider “self-slaughter” in the face of his “too, too solid flesh”. However, overall it’s a captivating performance, at his strongest when he directly addresses the audience in the soliloquies: there is a piercing quality to his gaze and his speech that draws you in, regardless of his meteroic fame.

Of course, it’s not a one-man show. Elsewhere Kobna Holdbrook-Smith moves believably from capricious to brooding as Laertes, Jim Norton makes for an entertainingly pompous Polonius, and Karl Johnson shows impressive contrasting shades of tragedy and comedy, doubling as the Ghost of King Hamlet and the Gravedigger. Ciarán Hinds and Siân Brooke (Claudius and Ophelia respectively) appear rather one-dimensional in Act I, but both come into their own in the second half, Brooke in particular with her final, haunting exit, stumbling over the ruined set that covers the vast Barbican stage. The biggest disappointment is some members of the supporting cast, whose diction and projection is nothing short of terrible – I am familiar with the play and was sitting near the front, and I couldn’t understand a number of lines, which is pretty unforgivable.

Karl Johnson as the Ghost of Hamlet's father (c) Johan Persson
Karl Johnson as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father (c) Johan Persson

Lyndsey Turner has taken many a liberty with the script, chopping and changing several passages sometimes with no apparent reason but sometimes successfully. Turner steers our focus back to Hamlet when it isn’t there naturally – notably in the opening, where the battlement scene is pushed back to make room for Hamlet reflecting on the lost happiness of his youth, as he reminisces over old records. However, the direction does go a tad too cinematic for my taste and the final slo-mo section had me cringing. Meanwhile Es Devlin’s set is stunning: suffocating opulence with wonderful details gives way, after the interval, to rubble and ash – obvious perhaps in its representation of disintegration, but fitting as both grief and war approach relentlessly.

This is by no means a perfect show, and what drawbacks are there are fairly hefty ones. However Cumberbatch gives a fine leading performance in a striking production that perhaps sacrifices visuals over depth, but as a whole achieves synergy and manages to live up to the hype (although shame on the Barbican for those £8.50 programmes…).

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One thought on “THEATRE REVIEW: Hamlet, Barbican Theatre

  1. I saw it twice and would give it a 3,5 out of 5 stars rating. Mainly due to the fact that I had the feeling that the production valued its visual appeal more than its story telling. I will see it again in cinemas and I wonder how different it may be to see it on the big screen


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