Monday, 24 August 2015

'Hamlet' at The Barbican starring Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet was announced over a year ago and tickets went on sale a year ago and finally there we were, in the front row of the Barbican Theatre waiting for 'Hamlet' to begin last week. I've seen quite a few Hamlet's over the years and my first was Derek Jacobi in 1978 while he rode the wave of the success of 'I Clavdivs'. More recently I've seen Jude Law and Rory Kinnear play the role as well as Michael Sheen in an awful production at the Young Vic. And now it's Benedict's turn.

What is it about 'Hamlet' that makes playing the role mandatory for an actor of any stature once he reaches a certain age? You can't play it as an older man so I suppose you need to play it when you're in your 30s or early 40s at the latest - any later would just be silly. But it does seem to have become a star turn for actors when they reach a certain level and I'm not sure that's good for the play. It draws in the crowds (and Benedict did the other night) but do new audiences for stars go away having learned anything?

We follow the psychological trauma and drama of the young prince of Denmark whose father has recently died and his mother married his uncle for the sake of the realm. But is that all that's happened? Soldiers see the ghost of Hamlet's father on the battlements of Elsinore, young Fortinbrass of Norway is threatening war, Laertes goes back to university while Hamlet remains at home and Ophelia is ripe to go mad. So much is going on in this play but you know the story - can anyone looking at this blog not know the story? The question is how well is it re-told in this new star vehicle and it is re-told very well indeed.

I half expected not to like it since it is clearly a star turn rather than a more 'standard' production (if you see what I mean).  It could so easily have been a one-man show with a few minor supporting characters to allow the star to bounce off them but it wasn't like that at all. While not quite an ensemble piece, it wasn't that far off really. And I'd mention the set as an astounding piece of work that helped the action to flow. The first half was set in a baroque banqueting hall with staircases and balconies that could transform into the castle ramparts with a slight change in lighting. In the second half it's a scene of desolation and destruction with the action taking place in what seems to be rubble of the once grand castle. I winced when Gertrude came on barefoot but later realised the craggy rubble was really cork. I loved the set in the first half and would happily live there.

Anastasia Hille and Ciaran Hinds as Gertrude and Claudius were very effective as the king and queen, bringing some sympathy to the characters. I also liked Jim Norton as Polonius, a difficult role to get just right but he managed it as did his son Laertes, played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (although I was less keen when he pulled out a gun). I wasn't keen on Leo Bill as Horatio who didn't quite get the role of Hamlet's one true friend right and didn't get the 'flights of angels' speech right either. Very workmanlike but not entirely convincing. And Sian Brooke as Ophelia... I liked giving her a camera to play at amateur photographer but the motif didn't last very long and was soon forgotten. I've no idea why she was given a small trunk to drag down the staircase in her final scene. And then, of course, there's Mr Cumberbatch.

I thought Benedict was excellent and brought real believability to the character he was playing. We could feel sympathy for this poor lost soul not knowing what to do for the best, and the changes in mood and pace were well judged as were the interactions with the other characters. I saw him in 'Frankenstein' at the National Theatre a few years ago and he's a class act. But I didn't like him playing with his toy castle or wearing a hoodie for the graveyard scene - I mean, c'mon... But it must be very strange for him to be dishing out serious poetry with deadly connotations and have his fans laugh in the wrong places which they did with annoying frequency. Someone has just been killed - it's not funny and it's not meant to be. One could argue the laughter was to ease the tension but I doubt it.

All in all the production gets the thumbs up from me. I'd say go and see it but tickets sold out a year ago although it's always worth looking out for returns. I've no idea why they've cast children in the roles for the poster and the front of the programme - sorry, souvenir brochure - but I think it's silly. I was also surprised to see a merch stand selling souvenir mugs and stuff. You know there's a star around somewhere when you get a merch stand in a theatre!

Goodnight sweet prince...

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