Benedict Cumberbatch’s appearance as Hamlet has reached unbelievable levels of hype. It has become the fastest selling play in British history, and fans have flown from overseas and queued for days outside the Barbican on the off chance of securing tickets. Critics have responded with no less hysteria than audiences, with Hamlet remaining front-page news in recent weeks. Both denounced as ‘Shakespeare for kids’ and hailed as ‘surprisingly challenging’, it seemed that this production was doomed to be subsumed by the furore that surrounded it. How could it possibly live up to the expectations placed upon it?
I needn’t have worried. The entire cast and production team rose to the challenge, delivering a Hamlet of such surprising depth and subtlety that I was too lost in the performance to consider anybody else’s opinion of it. Director Lyndsey Turner has navigated deftly through one of the most intricate scripts in the theatrical oeuvre, proving that complaints about altering the order of the text say more about the critics’ prejudices than the final effect of the production itself. I had rather hoped, after Kate Maltby’s outrage at the previews, that the play would open in complete darkness with Cumberbatch’s eminently recognisable voice declaiming ‘To be or not to be’. Alas, it was not to be, but the opening nonetheless received thoughtful tailoring. Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ provides the soundtrack for Hamlet asking ‘Who’s there?’, taking the abridged lines usually assigned to a soldier, with the entire first appearance of the ghost now edited out.
This opening sets the surreal, disorienting atmosphere that characterises the rest of the show. It also, however, makes it quite clear that this is a production streamlined to focus on Hamlet himself. On the one hand, Cumberbatch is the star of this show, and his performance justifies his reputation as one of Britain’s leading actors. His Hamlet is characterised by chimerical changes of mood — by turns truculent, tender, whimsical, despicable, resigned — a great example of the intelligently nuanced performances that have made Cumberbatch so famous. On the other hand, this close focus led to some peculiar directorial decisions that marred an otherwise phenomenal production. In the play scene, the primary focus is on Hamlet and Claudius’s reactions to the scene of treachery, presenting the opportunity for mesmerising performances from both actors. Bizarrely, therefore, in this production Claudius’s back is placed to the audience, and the player’s lines of murder given to Hamlet, rendering the scene somewhat nonsensical and undermining this pivotal moment in the play.
This is a rare moment of discontent, however. The production sparkles at its new, abridged pace, taking full advantage of the ample stage space in the Barbican. Es Devlin’s extraordinarily decadent set design is spectacular, enhanced by striking video (Luke Halls) and lighting (Jane Cox). Some of the most exciting Shakespeare productions I have seen in the last year have used video innovatively, and this is no exception. New physical and psychological possibilities are opened up in Shakespeare’s scripts when the traditional confines of the stage are technologically expanded, and here palace walls become forests and the backdrop for projections of Hamlet’s mental state. Most compelling, however, is the sound design (Christopher Shutt) and incidental music (Jon Hopkins). The first half concludes with a heart-stopping thunder that shakes the entire theatre, the sound, set, and light design rendering the stage momentarily cinematic. Jon Hopkins’ score is sensitive and astute, achieving a particularly heart-rending effect for Ophelia’s final appearance. She is associated with the piano throughout the play, and in her final moments on stage her feverish piano-playing melts into a non-diegetic score before she exits. Just as with her mind and, eventually, her body, her music is subsumed, overwhelmed by forces greater than herself.
Thanks to the unerring focus on Cumberbatch, the balance of power on the stage is a little more unequal than might be desirable. But there are some stellar supporting performances from Ciarán Hinds as Claudius and Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, as well as an excellent comic turn from Karl Johnson as the gravedigger (although Siân Brooke’s Ophelia is a little grating and overwrought). Initially, the cast seem to exist only for their relation to Hamlet, and it is only in the second half that the other characters take on a more independent existence. In doing so we see the events through the eyes of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, whose outlook develops over the three hours of the play from childlike self-obsession (reflected in the adolescents who adorn the cover of the programme, sold at an eye-watering £8.50) to mature self-reflection, realising the consequences of his actions as he stands by Ophelia’s grave.
This Hamlet certainly presents a spectacle, but it doesn’t detract from the substance that lies behind it. The production has become a moment of British theatrical history, and Cumberbatch offers a Hamlet to stand among the greats.
‘Hamlet’ runs at the Barbican until 31st October. More information about the production and ticket purchase can be obtained at the website.