Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch
Written by William Shakespeare, Hamlet follows the journey of the Prince of Denmark as he seeks revenge on his uncle, Claudius, for the death of his father.
The Barbican is a relatively small and I have to say ugly building above, with a warren of orange-lit chambers and corridors below. The centrepiece is the theatre itself with each seated row having its own entry door and a good view over the head in front. I enjoyed the snapping shut of the many doors before the performance; it was like being eaten by a giant beast.
A vast corrugated copper curtain lifted to uncover a hoodie-wearing Hamlet sat quietly amongst crates and an old record player. Close behind him, a plain wall with a door spanned the width of the large stage. Hamlet’s friend, a rucksack carrying, mountain climbing, fell walking, Horatio, comes in and insights Hamlet to follow him through the doorway. The backdrop then lifts to reveal an immense sea-blue mansion house with gilded balcony and staircase, portrait-lined corridors and masses of ceremonial flowers. Capping the main multi-purpose chamber was an enormous chandelier and under that an extensive banqueting table.
In future scenes, when Hamlet was in reflective mood, the lighting changed to give an impression that the mansion had spent the last hundred years under water with dripping walls and decaying woodwork. After the interval, earth, slag, and rubble, representing a battleground, filled every nook and cranny. I spent far too much time wondering how they’d managed to do that in twenty minutes and that was a problem for me. The set was so consuming that it took my attention away from the actors and I had to fight to return to them.
Another problem I found was nearly all the voices were so low that even though the auditorium was deathly silent, I had to strain to hear their words. Also the costumes were confusing, were they 1970’s, 1940’s, backpackers, Victorians, soldiers, graffiti artists, or gentry? Was it set in the past, present, or some fantastical future? Were they going to an anything goes fancy dress party round their mates’ house? It seemed as if each actor said, I want to wear this, and the director said, yeh, whatever. This didn’t help to ground the play as I wasn’t sure what time period I was in.
Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, played by Benedict Cumberbatch was eye-catching, skittish, and restless. He is all arms and legs no matter what you watch him in, but his energy was real and his character true and believable. I engaged with him and he had my full attention whenever he was on stage. This was nothing to do with the fact it was Cumberbatch, it was to do with the fact he was the best actor there.
I wasn’t too keen on Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover, I had an image in my head of a sylph-like character with flowing locks, drifting in a pond, surrounded by flowers. The actor that played her was none of those. This was the choice made but it wrenched me out of the story somewhat as I tried to connect to her. On the other hand Polonius, Ophelia’s father, was fantastic—engaging, funny, likeable and most importantly, loud!
The tin soldier scene was my favourite. Life-sized red-jacketed soldiers guarded a similarly dressed Hamlet in a man-sized toy castle. There’s a moment where Hamlet forgets his feigned madness and delights in the joy of play with his friends. It is brief until the darkness descends again. I also enjoyed the ‘Alas poor Yorick’ scene and loved the gravedigger, which I suspect was the same actor that played Hamlet’s dead father. The comic timing was spot on. I also took pleasure in the fact that Hamlet unceremoniously dumped Yorick into a wheelbarrow at the end.
After the interval, amongst the slag heaps and destruction, the dark and fear of the destroyed mansion house was where you truly got a feel for the play. As mentioned earlier, my mind wandered onto how they got tons of rubble onto the set in twenty minutes, but I felt immersed in the tension and scared for Hamlet even though I knew what was going to happen.
The scene changes were swift but too many minions ran around the set shifting stuff and dragging furniture hither and thither. I’m a member of an amateur dramatic group and have myself been a scene changer so I know it’s not easy, but I think a dedicated team dressed in black would’ve helped instead of members of the cast.
Benedict addressed the audience at the end of the play, appealing for aid to help the Syrian refugees. He quoted from Home by the poet Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see your whole city running as well. You have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Benedict was passionate and animated and all breaths were held as people connected to his words. After the performance the red buckets filled quickly with donations.
I wish I could post pictures to show you the mind-blowing set and Cumberbatch’s Hamlet but… spoilers!
To sum up, I have more dislikes than I expected—the all-consuming set, confusing costumes, low voices, strange Ophelia, and too many distracting people changing the scene. But, I enjoyed, the Barbican itself, Cumberbatch’s performance, Polonius, remarkable lighting, slag heaps, Yorick, tin soldiers, oh and seeing Benedict Cumberbatch in the flesh!