Barbican Theatre, London
After all the hullabaloo, is it possible for a performer to live up to the hype? Has the Bard fallen prey to rank commercialism? Well, Shakespeare was nothing if not a shrewd businessman. And this Benedict Sonia Friedman-Sky Arts Hamlet, `starring’ Benedict Cumberbatch, with its £10 daily ticket scheme and devoted Sherlock fan base must have repaid its investment in publicity ten times over.
But what of the production? Lyndsey Turner whose previous hits have included the multi-award winning Chimerica and Posh has delivered a spectacular, almost cinematic visual feast, somewhere between a Hapsburg Empire in melt-down and WW1 meets Beckettian desolation. Modern and yet Ruritanian – a bit like our own dear monarchy. Es Devlin’s grandiose opener of vast dining hall dominated by family portraits and sweeping staircase makes clear this is a play about private feelings played out, uncomfortably, in very public spaces. By the end, the outer external world has literally invaded the inner, court corruption made manifest by mounds of earth piled up at every entrance. Visually stunning if slightly mad.
But then madness, feigned or otherwise, is at the heart of Hamlet, the great philosophical meditation on indecision, self-doubt and our mortality. Cumberbatch makes a dashing toy soldier, Nat King Cole loving rebel who even administers the poison himself in the Gonzago play-acting scene.
But in truth, his is not an interpretation that goes very deep. There is little evidence of internal journeying from agonised soul-searching to ultimate resolution. Charismatic, be-jeaned, Cumberbatch is just too deft, too sharp. Around him, a heavy-weight cast try but fail to make any discernible impression. A compendium of talents, gone to waste.
Needless to say, he was cheered to the rafters. Job done.
Hamlet is at the Barbican Theatre to Oct 31, 2015
First published in The Herald, Aug 2015
Also: for Reviewsgate
Somewhat flaky Danish pastry.
Hamlet the Dane is Everyman and woman. Right now, it seems he’s the provenance of young women. Scores of them hung about the Barbican Stage Door, hoping for a glimpse of Sherlock himself, Benedict Cumberbatch – fan worship the like of which has not been seen for many a long year.
Yes, we are talking here about serious theatre, Hamlet, arguably the greatest play in western drama. But inevitably, one’s view of the Sky Arts/Sonia Friedman frenzy fest is skewed by all that has gone before, controversy over the resiting of its most famous speech, “To be or not to be”. Yet the production’s creative credentials are as impressive as any production and to be judged by those standards.
Lyndsey Turner’s production is handsomely staged, given a fascinating – if not ultimately successful – cinematic grandeur by Es Devlin, boasting a vast dining hall (imagine a Buck House interior) that metamorphoses into a wasteland of Beckettian earth, piled high – a prison and a mausoleum.
So far so intriguing. And with the likes of Ciarån Hinds, Anastasia Hille, Jim Norton and Karl Johnson alongside such up-and-coming bright young talent as Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Siân Brooke and Rudi Dharmalingam, sparks could fly.
Alas, as scholar Harold Bloom has written, Hamlet the character overwhelms the play. It stands and falls by the capacity of its central protagonist to convey a paralysing, agonising internal journey from inaction to murder.
Turner opens with a strikingly original, sad and reverberative moment – Hamlet leafing through a book, listening to Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy on an old gramophone – but the song’s sentiments (about a sad and lonely boy, loving and being loved) barely resounds in the production until Hamlet, plunging the sword into Laertes, recalling that lost dream, receives his own death warrant.
Ophelia’s, Gertrude’s and even Claudius’ relationship with Hamlet go for almost nothing. Cumberbatch is speedy, clever, adept, the words tripping off his tongue beguilingly but barely translating into emotional angst or doubt. I guess you get what you pay for and this Hamlet – stylish and cast to the nines – barely scrapes the surface of its potential.