(Barbican Theatre, London, 5 September 2015)
Whatever your feelings about celebrity casting or, indeed, Benedict Cumberbatch, there’s no doubt that the Barbican’s Hamlet is the hottest ticket of the year here in London. I failed to get a ticket when they initially went on sale. The only reason I managed to get there at all is because a friend won two tickets in a lottery: a lottery I’d also entered, and in which I lost out. To my enormous gratitude, she invited me to come with her (as far as I recall there was no sustained guilt-tripping involved).
Let’s make one thing clear before we start: I’m not a wild Cumberbatch fan. I like him; I think he’s a good actor; and I love Sherlock; but I think the amount of hype over this production has been absolutely preposterous. Yes, I was curious to see what he’d do, but primarily I wanted to go because it was Hamlet. I’ve seen numerous filmed versions, but I’ve only seen the play done live one before. I was a schoolgirl in Bath at the time, and Simon Russell Beale was playing a rather mature Prince of Denmark. I’ve managed to miss every single one of the recent Hamlets in London, and I wanted to see it again. Of all Shakespeare’s plays it does most to investigate the things that make us human: our fears; our attachment to our own brief existence; and the struggle to comprehend death as the great punctuation mark of life.
I wasn’t sure what to expect: some of the press reviews have been lukewarm, as if the critics were showing off their indifference to mere celebrity. But for my part I thought it was a remarkable success. Beautifully designed and lit, the set begins the first act as a blossom-strewn dining hall, decked with all the grandeur of the new king’s wedding feast. It ends as a desolate wasteland, where the superficiality of courtly life is played out against heaps of grit and earth, the civilities barely hiding the thirst for blood that seethes beneath. Along the way the director Lyndsey Turner creates a sequence of eye-catching vignettes, with slow-motion and spotlights used to emphasise the soliloquies.
Of these vignettes, I particularly loved the conclusion of the first act when Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) stands, scheming and alone. The palace doors crash open behind him, letting in a gale of smoke, dirt and mud which swirls across the stage, suggesting the gradual disintegration of his kingdom. It’s visually stunning, and the whole production has a hauntingly dreamlike quality. Some of that is helped by the music: a quirky retro soundtrack. The show opened with Hamlet flicking through old photo albums while a record span on his turntable: Nature Boy, which was tellingly cut off halfway through the final line: ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just…’ No love here in Denmark; not any more.
So, what of Cumberbatch? I had to smile when Claudius said of Hamlet, ‘He’s lov’d of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgement, but their eyes‘, but there was a lot to like beyond the eyes here. Not many non-specialist actors of my generation can deal easily with Shakespeare: there’s a tendency to speak in verse, as I found with Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and his Hal. Cumberbatch, admirably, made the lines as fluid and natural as ordinary speech. He also had a very good sense of the feeling in the poetry: when to pause, when to be swift, when to play it for laughs and when to simply hold still and let the language do its work alone. I’ll be honest: I’d expected to be underwhelmed by his performance (that’s partly due to reviews I’d read), but in fact I was impressed. And I didn’t go seeking to be. But it was a subtle, thought-provoking interpretation of the role.
Cumberbatch comes across as young and naive: a clever student called home from university to find his world turned upside down. He’s shocked to discover that life is dictated by his uncle’s brand of cynical realpolitik rather than his own fine, elevated philosophies. His despair is not just caused by his father’s murder, but also by the realisation of his own mortality and how fearfully easy it is to kill, or be killed. Smart but overwrought, he reacts by retreating into a feigned childhood – this Hamlet dresses as a toy soldier, and comes in dragging a child-sized fort into his uncle’s campaign room. His anger at his mother Gertrude doesn’t make him sound like a grown man seeking revenge, but more like a child who still somehow thinks that everything can be made right again, if only she will renounce Claudius’s bed. While there’s none of the Oedipal intensity you get in some productions, there is a very clear sense that the prince is trying to return to a time when everything made sense.
And who can blame him? Along with death, Hamlet must learn to face betrayal and not only from his uncle. One of the things I loved about this production was the contrast between his two groups of friends. On the one hand there was Horatio (Leo Bill) – loyal, trustworthy Horatio, who seemed to have backpacked over to Elsinore from Wittenberg during the summer vacation. He spent the play skulking around in a checked shirt and scruffy trousers with his rucksack always on, as if planning a swift getaway, and his accent placed him as an unassuming everyman – though it occasionally thickened to become a bit too sullen and not quite clear enough. None of the courtiers ever seemed to even notice Horatio: he’s almost invisible to those who care only for ambition and status.
Compare that with the polished grace of Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingam), who despite joining in Hamlet’s larks, all to quickly reveal that they’ve sold out. They’re too neat, too eager for advancement. They both appear in black tie for the performance of the players’ tragedy, while unkempt Horatio peeks down from a hiding place on the balcony. Yet is their betrayal really worth such a punishment? When Hamlet escapes from their custody during their return to England, he tells Horatio with satisfaction of the trick he’s played on them. No matter that, in changing the letter, he has condemned two innocents – two former friends – to death. It’s as if, like a child still, he doesn’t think through the full consequences and weight of his actions. We are meant to think of Hamlet as a hero, but by the end of the play he has more lives on his conscience than Claudius does; and that hadn’t ever really struck me quite so strongly before.
Of the rest of the cast, Ciarán Hinds struck me particularly strongly, as you might expect. I’ve admired Hinds ever since watching him as Caesar in Rome, and here he made a devilishly calculating king with a surprisingly sympathetic gruff edge to him. When Claudius suggests to Laertes that Hamlet might be disposed of, it almost sounds wise. Hinds was one of the very few other cast members who tackled the language with consummate ease, although his naturalism was echoed by Anastasia Hille as Gertrude.
Gentle and caring, this queen doesn’t seem to be implicated in her first husband’s death, and her shame before Hamlet’s accusations gives way to deep, sincere grief at Ophelia’s death. Ophelia herself was played by Siân Brooke, whose affectionate early scenes with Hamlet crumble into subdued meekness as she finds herself turned into yet another tool to trap the man she loves. Brooke didn’t have much character depth to deal with, but her emotional disintegration in the second half was very poignant to watch, and when she eventually wandered off towards the back of the stage, I felt myself wishing that someone would notice her and stop her. But by then all was set on its tragic course and there was nothing to be done.
Some of the minor roles were slightly less fluid – more marked speaking in verse – but overall it really was an incredibly impressive production. I genuinely hadn’t expected it to be this good and I’m thrilled that I actually had the chance to see it live, even though we were about as high as one could be, and so far off to one side of the stage that we couldn’t see all the action. But there’s bound to be a DVD. There’s got to be. Perhaps on seeing it all close up, again and again, I’ll see weaknesses that I missed today; but the measure of a play is its ability to capture you in its reality. Despite its prodigious length – a solid three hours of action with one 20-minute interval – this Hamlet remained gripping and powerful until the final curtain.
Though it’s inevitable that people will be focusing on one member of the cast, the entire ensemble and all the directorial team deserve a pat on the back. It would have been easy to make this an unimaginative, straight-up blockbuster of a show. They didn’t even have to try – the crowds would’ve come – but try they did, and the result is something moving and beautiful that deserves to be remembered as a great interpretation in its own right, and not just because of who it was that played the Dane.