This Barbican theatre production has suffered from a ridiculous amount of hype and is supposedly the fastest selling show in London stage history. Reviews have been mixed and audiences have been hysterical.
Now, this is Hamlet, the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. His greatest tragedy, of the young melancholy student who has suffered the shock of his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage to his uncle within a matter of weeks. His discovery – via a ghostly visitation – that dad was in fact murdered by uncle tips him over the edge into a type of madness (real, feigned, or a mixture) which causes the catastrophic events which forge the remainder of the play.
In this lead role is cast the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, internationally known for playing ‘Sherlock’ in the TV series and perhaps a victim of his own hype. One review of this production sniffily referred to Cumberbatch as ‘not the best actor of all time, not even the best actor on this stage’.
However, I found his portrayal very good indeed, a mixture of the sad and moody prince in the first scene, the manic regressive of the scenes where he marches within a toy fortress or marches along a long table, the revengeful son who reflects on the motivation of the Player King or Fortinbras as opposed to his own situation, the conflicted man who knows he must spurn Ophelia while being more than aware of the effect he will have upon her. He may declaim a bit too much the way Kenneth Branagh did in his own version of this play, but physically his performance is intense, and he is generally convincing.
This is a very cinematic production, using depth of sets to move the story along (Ophelia’s final exit and Gertrude’s desperate chase after her being one example), as well as effects such as video projection and vast dust clouds dressing the set for the second half. There is a sweeping staircase, a balcony, the grave of Yorick, dark exit points, and a long table which serves as the marriage feast, a council, a war cabinet, and more.
The rest of the cast are variable: I didn’t care for Ciaran Hinds’ Claudius, although it was nice to see he was not the crazed tyrant often portrayed. I found he was too shouty in places, and poor in diction in others. Anastasia Hille has been criticised as Gertrude, but I found the closet scene very powerful, as was the description of the death of Ophelia she delivered to the court. It was a mistake to put the revelation of the poisoned drink from her to Horatio, though.
As Ophelia, Sian Brooke is always on the edge of breakdown, whether receiving her brother’s advice or her father’s ultimation to ‘not have talk with the Lord Hamlet’. Her eventual collapse, here signposted by her father’s murder by the addition of lines not in the original scene, is heartbreaking, and the piano interplay between her and Laertes is well done.
Poorer performances come from Leo Bill as Horatio (his verse speaking and acting are both atrocious), and Karl Johnson’s Ghost, who seems to be casting around for a regional accent between Scottish and some vaguely foreign mutter (his Gravedigger, singing along to Sinatra’s ‘All of Me’, is much better).
Polonius, although shorn of a couple of his best lines (no ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, no ‘beautified is a vile phrase’), is well played by Jim Norton, and his death scene, grabbing at Hamlet’s hand, is good. Laertes, an example of colour-blind casting, is played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who is OK but now and again you can’t hear his lines and now and again he overacts.
The opening and ending sequences have been tampered with – at the start, it is Hamlet, listening to ‘Nature Boy’ on the gramophone, who utters the first two words, which eventually reveal Horatio, come from Wittenberg. At the end, the final sword play declines into a slow-motion sequence which muddles the moment, and the ‘goodnight sweet prince’ speech is completely ruined by poor acting and delivery.
You get freeze-frames during soliloquies, slow-mo, a panto-type chase and some other jarring flourishes in this production; and also some inappropriate laughter from the Barbican audience, who seem to see Cumberbatch as a stand-up comedian rather than accepting the arc of the story. This gives the show a feel of being over-produced in places, and misunderstood in others.
However, these reservations aside, I liked this. It is not a perfect production, and I would have been annoyed to pay £80 or more to see it on stage, but it has become an engrossing and effective film, perhaps the first NT Live production of which I can honestly say that.