Shakespeare September- Day 30: Review, Hamlet @ The Barbican ****

And then one day, a magic day
He passed my way, and while we spoke
Of many things, fools and kings
This he said to me

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return”

The last six months have been somewhat of a love/hate relationship with the Barbican’s Hamlet.

Loving the cast and crew. Hating I don’t have tickets. Loving that £10 ones were available on the day. Hating the prospect of camping out overnight on my day off to get them. Loving that I managed to get some at the last minute. My bank account hating me for it.

So it’s somewhat fitting that when I went to see it last week, I both loved and hated aspects of it in equal measure.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.

One of the best parts of this production is the staging and the set, designed by Es Devlin. The play opens with the majority of the stage blocked off, as Hamlet sits alone in the dark in his own little world. Once he is pulled back into the real world, the darkness lifts to reveal the extravagance of regal Denmark: a grand ballroom, fit with balcony, chandelier and dining table, and doors leading to a maze of other rooms. Unlike with most stage doors, these are functional and open to reveal not offstage but more onstage space. The sheer scale and magnitude of the set is awe-inspiring and otherworldly, and I was not the only one to gasp at its reveal. One of my favourite parts of this production is the use of mirroring. The state in which we find the lavish ballroom in the first scene and its sheer devastation in the last scene is a stark contrast. This idea of visual subversion is also echoed in the costumes. In the first scene, the wedding party are all adorned in white, wedding garments, Hamlet in black, mourning his father; in the last scene, this is completely subverted with Hamlet clad in white for his fight with Laertes, and the others dressed in black, mourning Ophelia. This further reinforces our impression of Hamlet as a solitary, lone figure, an outsider, always out of place and time itself.

Ciarán Hinds as Claudius.
Ciarán Hinds as Claudius.

‘The time is out of joint’ in Denmark, and the way which Lyndsey Turner conveys this through movement is ingenious. At crucial moments in the play, time slows down on stage. And by this, I don’t mean that it stops. As Hamlet enters (to borrow a phrase from Sherlock) his mind palace to soliloquize, he leaves the physical palace of Denmark behind, suspended in time until he returns. The other actors in the scene continue their speeches and gestures, but at a slower pace. Visually, this makes for a stunning piece of theatre. The only time this didn’t work as well was during the sped up scenes. While trying to apprehend the murderous Hamlet, the other characters sprint throughout the palace. And they do not just sprint, they crawl and dash on all fours. It’s an odd, disjointed sight, as these men become ‘mere beasts’ hunting this great Dane, and I’m not wholly convinced it worked.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.

This use of staging combined with the grandiose set will no doubt work well on screen, when NT Live broadcasts Hamlet live later this year. There are, however, certain aspects which seem to have been staged with a cinematic audience in mind, rather than theatrical. In particular, the scene before the interval springs to mind. Having endured dissension and humiliation following Hamlet’s pre-ordained play, Claudius plots the demise of Hamlet in the rousing ‘Do it, England’ speech. To make this even more intense, music has been added at this point. Not the traditional music you’d expect to hear in Shakespeare. More the kind you hear in films: slowly building, dum-dum-dum, drop some bass in there too. You know the kind. And then BOOM. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t say any more. But it’s an incredibly dramatic moment. Not any textual need or suggestion that it occurs in the original. But it’s visually stunning, if needless and pandering to the cinema.

Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.
Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.

Cumberbatch makes for an accomplished Hamlet: equal measure brooding and charismatic, he recites the words ‘trippingly on the tongue’. Surprisingly, I was more impressed by his ‘The plays the thing’ speech and his pure cry of ‘O, vengeance!’, than his ‘To be or not to be’. The only slight critique is that I felt his performance was at points overshadowed by what they were trying to achieve staging wise, i.e. the soldier boy carry on. I get what they were trying to convey with that, but at points it detracted from the scene itself. Ciarán Hinds makes for a conniving but not convincing Claudius. It wasn’t until the ‘O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven’ speech that I truly believed he embodied the character, by which point we were well into the play.

Siân Brooke as Ophelia.
Siân Brooke as Ophelia.

Siân Brooke’s Ophelia is an interesting, modern take on the character, and in this production more than any other did I view her as the true victim of the piece, an object, a mere plaything for the royals of Denmark. Most of her communication in the play is through music, although it is her moments of silence which are most moving. I shed a tear during her final scene on stage, and what she expressed through just her movement with Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude was incredible. The remaining cast members on the whole make for a strong supporting cast, with the exception of Leo Bill’s Horatio. Supposedly Hamlet’s best friend, a man willing to drink poison to join his comrade in death, Bill’s Horatio comes across less as this loyal confidant and more as a gap year student with nothing better to do than stalk Hamlet. I’m not sure whether it’s an issue with direction or casting or that stupid backpack, but it was such a jarring performance that it detracted from the end entirely.

Verdict: a visually impressive and moving production led by the commanding Cumberbatch, but one which perhaps needs reminding that its being made for theatre not film.

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