‘Hamlet': Theater Review

Johan Persson
Anastasia Hille and Benedict Cumberbatch in 'Hamlet'
After a tentative start, Benedict Cumberbatch hits his stride in this admirable if not quite outstanding production

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the Danish prince in director Lyndsey Turner's modern-dress staging at London's Barbican Theatre.

"The play's the thing," goes the line. But amid all the hype and hysteria surrounding Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at London's Barbican Theatre — over broken review embargoes, forbidden cellphone recordings and stage-door-shy stars — the play seemed in danger of being forgotten altogether. As the dust blasted from the wings at the end of the first half starts to settle, it's finally time to examine the production directed by Lyndsey Turner and its star performance, and deem them both … quite good. Neither is epoch-defining, but this modern-dress, light-on-gimmicks interpretation packs a strong supporting ensemble, while Cumberbatch's graceful, witty but somewhat self-effacing turn is certainly no disgrace.

In the end, the show will achieve what it clearly aims to: add extra gilding to the reputations of all involved, attract new audiences to Shakespeare who might not otherwise have sampled his work onstage, and mint the producers a fortune with a sold-out run and full-price preview tickets in the three weeks before opening night.  

Given the demand, there would inevitably be talk of this production transferring to Broadway, regardless of its quality. So far, there's been no announcement, but that probably has more to do with Cumberbatch's schedule. (He's due to start shooting Marvel's Doctor Strange after the run, and then on to film more episodes of Sherlock in April 2016.) At least a live broadcast in cinemas on Oct. 15 will give audiences worldwide a chance to see what all the fuss is about.

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One challenge facing any transfer plans would be finding an available stage big enough to accommodate the humongous set showcased at the Barbican, designed by Es Devlin, whose résumé covers notable theater, opera and ballet, as well as concert designs for U2, Kanye West and Miley Cyrus, among others. Fashioned to look at first like the glacier-blue interior of a Scandinavian palace, festooned with portraits, blades, stags' heads and chandeliers, its massive doors open upstage to reveal a deep, cavernous vanishing point that swallows the actors whole. In the second half, it's strewn with raked mounds of black Styrofoam cinders — the rotten slag heap of Denmark.

No wonder Cumberbatch, used to the intimacy of film work despite his early-career experience in theater, struggles to command this intimidating space in the opening scenes. That hesitancy may be intentional, meant to match the little-boy-lost vibe evoked by introducing him as he listens, curled up on the ground, to Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" on an old turntable. Later on, the stage gets cluttered with outsize tin soldiers and toy castles, like playthings retrieved from the attic by Cumberbatch's aging graduate student of a Hamlet, an introverted sort of chap who maybe went to a good public school, got a First in PPE or Classics, but can never quite finish his Ph.D. thesis.

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If the role is a magnifying glass for its interpreters' most pronounced thespian quality (grandiloquence for Laurence Oliver, method madness for Daniel Day-Lewis, and so on), then Cumberbatch's iteration is full of his trademark genial tweedy Englishness. It's easy to triangulate it with his aloof Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and his ludic Sherlock Holmes — especially the latter as the drama goes on and he plays up Hamlet's feigned madness by dressing up as a soldier, leaping onto tables, and accenting the sarcasm in the verbal snipes. Ever the professional, throughout he pronounces each syllable with immaculate precision and displays a balletic skill in movement. But the sonic resonance wasn't quite there at first, particularly in the opening scene, which dispenses with the guards on the battlements and gives the first line, "Who's there?" to Hamlet himself.

Perhaps the star's soft projection at the Aug. 20 performance caught for this review suggested he was still finding his balance after the decision had been made to move the "to be or not to be" speech — boldly placed up front and center for the first weeks of previews — back to its traditional place in Act III, possibly to appease purists. When it did arrive, the delivery was matter of fact, and sounded more like someone puzzling over a tricky math problem. However, elsewhere the other famous monologues and soliloquies — like the "what a piece of work is man" speech, the heartfelt advice on naturalism to the players — hummed with growing passion, and by the time the dust cannons went off and the curtain fell for intermission, Cumberbatch was fully on form.

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In general, the trims and tinkers with the text are sensible, keeping the running time to a manageable three hours. Gone, for instance, is the foppish fencing master Osric who appears for comic relief just before the climactic duel, his key lines handed instead to Ciaran Hinds' exceedingly capable, quietly sinister Claudius. If anything, the textual tightening distributes the weight more equally on the other actors' shoulders, and it's to this production's credit that it consistently feels like the work of an ensemble, and not like that of hired hands called upon to support another big-star turn.

Sian Brooke's Ophelia, for example, her shoulders hunched inside lacy dresses a half-size too big, projects a girlish fragility from the start that's snapped like a twig by her bereavement. Her fine singing voice adds extra musicality to the mad scene, and resonates with the moments earlier in the play when she plays sister-brother duets at the grand piano with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's muscular Laertes. Her slow final-exit ascent up the slope before drowning offstage is one of the play's most chilling moments, as is the haltingly, sorrow-choked description of the girl's demise delivered by Anastasia Hille's elegant Gertrude. Pains have been taken to add nuance to each of the lesser characters, from Karl Johnson's Cockney cab-driver of a gravedigger sifting through his clients' bones, to the same actor's Scottish-accented ghost, calling for vengeance with single-minded menace.

It would be entirely unfair to call this production, with its cuts and star casting, dumbed down for the masses. Nevertheless, there's a sense that director Turner — who's done interesting work for the Donmar Warehouse (Fathers and Sons) and the Royal Court (Posh, Our Private Life) — has aimed to make an accessible, digestible Hamlet that won't much frighten the horses. There are an infinite number of ways to open up, color and carve the play, making it a pliant vehicle to explore madness, sexuality, gender, what have you. But there's almost no palpable subtext here, and even the choice to use a mix of modern dress (this Hamlet wears a hoodie) with mid-20th century formal wear and uniforms serves no particular function apart from setting the Prince of Denmark slightly apart from the others.

The most knowing wink comes in the first big ensemble scene where Hamlet sits sulking during a ceremonial banquet, positioned like Christ in da Vinci's The Last Supper. There's no real follow-up to suggest a religious interpretation for the production, but the passionate devotion Cumberbatch inspires in his fans prompts the thought that some film or stage producer should consider casting him as Jesus next.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Anastasia Hille, Sian Brooke, Leo Bill, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Jim Norton, Ruairi Conaghan, Rudi Dharmalingam, Diveen Henry, Karl Johnson, Morag Siller, Matthew Steer, Sergo Vares
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Set designer: Es Devlin
Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Music: Jon Hopkins
Video: Luke Halls
Movement: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Fight director: Bret Yount
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions

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