One of the biggest theatrical events of the year, Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, has been the most talked-about production in London since tickets sold out just minutes after being released, nearly a year before its run. Labelled the fastest-selling show in London theatre history, it had a lot to live up to. The hype then became heated debate when a review of one of the preview performances was published before press night; and then, when the actual reviews came out, the verdict was not unanimous: was Cumberbatch the Hamlet everyone wanted him to be?
When staging Shakespeare, and particularly when staging Hamlet (his longest play) choices have to me made and lines have to be cut. The existence of three versions of the original script tells us that this also happened in Shakespeare’s time. Not only is a matter of length, but also of artistic direction. It is such a complex, multi-layered work that each and every production revolves around certain themes, and possibly highlights different aspects of the text. Therefore, a new Hamlet is born with every production, and that is probably one of the biggest thrills for actors and audiences alike. Decisions like placing the “to be or not to be” soliloquy at the beginning of the play – which was later reversed, being now in its original place – and some cuts devised to focus the story on Hamlet himself prove to be fruitful, giving us a thriller-like ride throughout this story of revenge and profound moral debate.
Cumberbatch shines as Hamlet. Possibly not the character we might expect, and moving away from classic models like Olivier’s, Cumberbatch’s stage presence is truly remarkable. He delivers his text with utter intensity, yet with a clear purpose: we can see his tribulations, his ‘madness’, his rage and everything in between with sharp clarity, in clear contrast with the rest of the cast, who are constantly concealing their true feelings. Probably too ‘mad’ for some, his anxiety-driven scenes are frighteningly authentic, capturing Hamlet’s tormented soul perfectly. The eternal question, ‘was Hamlet really mad?’ remains open to discussion, but is given a more realistic dimension: who would not be as agitated in a situation like that? On the other hand, there was a separation between Hamlet and Horatio, and the rest of the cast: their costumes were mostly present-time, while the rest of the characters and the production itself felt more 1940s, stressing these characters’ detachment from Elsinore’s corruption.
The set, I must admit, is one of the main characters in this production. When it is revealed, this enormous yet beautifully detailed piece of art impersonates Elsinore immediately. The great space is, at the same time, an oppressive chamber where all the events in the story take place. The corruption that engulfs Denmark is reflected on stage in the second half, where the whole set is filled with debris and cracks appear on the walls. From the magnificence of the wedding banquet to the decayed, ruinous and hysteria-filled last duel, it is a massive yet entirely meaningful backdrop to Claudius’s manipulation and dreadful deeds.
The cast of over twenty actors is solid and emotionally engaging. Ciarán Hinds as Claudius makes a good contrast with Hamlet, even though sometimes his acting feels slightly over the top. The wickedness of the character is explored here and, even when he kneels to pray, it is quite difficult to feel any sympathy for him. Anastasia Hille, however, portrays a double-sided Gertrude, full of love for her son but also aware of her own position. However, it was Siân Brooke’s Ophelia that prominently stood out, with a heart-breaking portrayal of the girl’s madness, eerily and hopelessly singing. Her brother Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), however, lacked some sensitivity and slightly abused his booming voice.
Although quite possibly not to the taste of purists, this production of Hamlet is simply outstanding. It makes the story relevant and relatable to, while being aesthetically impeccable. The play’s themes of revenge and moral corruption are splendidly conveyed, as we see Elsinore’s inevitable decay and the radicalisation of the characters’ behaviour. We are left with Fortinbras (Sergo Vares) proclaiming himself king of Denmark, and with the uncertainty of whether this is a new beginning or just a devastating ending.
Hamlet is playing at the Barbican Theatre until 31 October. For more information and tickets, see the production website. Photo by Johan Persson.