First Preview Thoughts – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican!

1. HAMLET

Tis’ I, Hamlet The Dane!

After over a year since its announcement, tonight finally saw the first performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican! I know how many people are keen to hear about the production and as I’m not seeing it again until after press night (due to the 6 ticket limit), I thought I’d share my initial thoughts on the production as a whole.

DISCLAIMER – I’ll start by emphaising that it would be unfair to say this is a review, as the production has another three weeks of previews before officially opening on 25th August. Previews are vital in theatre as they give the company of actors, the director and creative team time to see how the production works on the stage and in front of an audience, to see what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be tightened up, for time or other reasons. If you plan on seeing a theatre production more than once, I’d always recommend seeing an early preview and then going again later in the run, as you’ll be in the position to be able to pick up the tweaks that have been made. This production will change and develop over the next 3 weeks, as actors settle in to roles and stylistic changes are tested out before press night. As I have done on this blog in the past for other productions that I have been to see during previews and even first previews, these are my current observations, impressions and initial thoughts on what’s already good and what I’d like to see grow and develop in the run up to press night. A lot can change in three weeks and therefore only after then will anyone truly be able to review the production and see where they feel it sits in the list of Hamlet productions of recent years.

So, with that disclaimer in mind, on to my initial thoughts of this hugely anticipated Hamlet. Firstly, the atmosphere prior to the show in the Barbican was very relaxed and not chaotic at all. Thanks to how big the complex is there’s plenty of space for everyone to be beforehand. The little shop, is very little, but with all the usual Shakespeare merchandise (between this and the RSC, the Barbican must have boxes of Bard-related goodies to sell!). The programmes are pricey – £8.50, but there are 6 pages of articles and very few adverts, but it still feels a bit cheeky when the wonderful RSC ones are only £4.

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Benedict Cumberbatch in rehearsal. Photos by: Johan Persson

As for entering the theatre, people were forming a queue before the doors opened at just after 7 p.m., but it soon moved quickly. I will be interested to hear others’ experience, but I was not asked for photo ID. My ticket was checked and I was let through.

As for my thoughts on the production. It is certainly off to a very promising start and has the potential to get even better over the course of the run. Es Devlin’s set is wonderful, with the huge space of the Barbican stage, allowing the grandeur of the Royal Family’s Danish palace to be on full display, with sweeping staircase and chandelier, particularly during the wedding banquet near the beginning of the play, which is visually very beautiful. It also cleverly moves from luxury to crumbling rubble, with the addition of mounds of rock and earth, as the facade of the household starts to fall away. The background music, by the talented Jon Hopkins (his albums are recommended for those unfamiliar with his work) is suitably eerie, enhancing the mood in later scenes, as the tragic events start to unfold. I was also pleased with the modern dress setting. I’m yet to see a period costume Hamlet, so I now can’t imagine seeing Hamlet without dark jeans and windbreaker jackets!

There are some incredibly interesting directorial choices in this production by Lyndsey Turner, some of which I think it would be unfair to ruin, particularly the opening scenes in this version, which is a choice I haven’t seen for Hamlet before, but which I thought worked very well. The emotions of grief and loss surrounding Hamlet couldn’t be clearer and I loved the song choice to accompany it – Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy, playing as the safety curtain rises to reveal the stage for the first time. It was certainly more powerful than the usual opening battlements scene. The play within the play is also interesting as Hamlet takes an even more active role in it and all the tweaks and shifts of text I noticed throughout the production seemed well thought through and provide some variety for those who have seen countless Hamlets. I’m still undecided on the positioning of the interval, which I still think works better a little earlier (the first half here is 1 hr 50 minutes, so take a bottle of water in with you).

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Ciaran Hinds in rehearsal.

One of the aspects I found most pleasing was the potential for this ensemble cast. The reason David Tennant’s RSC production has remained (as so far still remains) my favourite was due to the strength of all the cast. There wasn’t a weak link and it made the production stronger as a whole. All the Hamlets I’ve seen since have had some weak performances and so, despite the performance of the actor in the title role, the overall experience has been disappointing.

It’s no surprise to say there still need to be improvements, as actors grow in to their roles, but the potential for this cast to be a great ensemble is certainly there. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is already very strong as Laertes. Bringing his weighty stage experience to the production, his is a Laertes you admire and respect and his stage presence stood out for me. Karl Johnson was a wonderful gravedigger. It may be a small role, but is one of the lighter moments in the second half and he brought playful humour to the scene (although in contrast, I wasn’t particularly keen on his Ghost).

Leo Bill’s Horatio (one of my favourite characters) is the outsider, standing apart from the court and the main players, always watching and always loyal to his friend and I think his performance will only improve as the run continues, once he and Benedict develop a deeper on stage chemistry. Theirs is a friendship that has to feel genuine for the heartbreak at the play’s end to have the full impact on the audience (Peter De Jersey’s portrayal and final moments at the RSC never failed to bring a tear to my eye). It’s not there yet, but with time, this will continue to develop and improve. I would have liked to see Horatio in more scenes with Hamlet, such as the post play scene with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, to deepen their connection and bond.

Ophelia is a difficult role to play – she doesn’t have long to make an impact before she dies off stage and so it needs a strong actress to make you feel the sadness of her death. Sian Brooke’s performance for me was one of two halves, in that she was so much stronger in Act 2. I liked the staging of her mad scene, as although she didn’t come across as mad as other actresses have in other productions (Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Jude Law’s springs to mind), she instead conveys a woman who has been completely broken by loss and grief. Her use of a trunk as a mock coffin around which the people she gives flowers to gather was delicate and the staging of her final exit off stage, through her performance and the lighting and music was very moving and powerful. I also appreciated the directorial decision to have Gertrude actively make a clear choice to go after her, which added depth to her character as well.

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The cast in rehearsal including Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes (far right)

Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude was much better in later scenes and her finest moment for me was as she described Ophelia’s tragic death. I personally loved Penny Downie’s strong portrayal against Tennant’s Hamlet. Her Gertrude stood out despite her relatively few lines, whereas Anastasia’s Gertrude still feels a little incidental in earlier scenes. Crucially for me, the closet scene needs to develop more and lacked power, which is something that I hope will happen naturally as her and Benedict work more together (also the actual murder of Polonius needs tightening up, as it felt a little clumsy from my viewpoint). Jim Norton’s portrayal of Polonius is as a traditional, father figure. I enjoyed his performance, however I think I have been forever spoilt by Oliver Ford Davies, who brought humour and depth to dialogue that I’d never noticed before and always miss.

Ciaran Hinds surprised me a little tonight in his portrayal of Claudius. He was very good as you would expect, playing him as the shrewd political operative, always controlled and wearing his mask to cover his true character. I think I had expected him to be a more intimidating Claudius, who you felt Hamlet should truly be afraid of and who you perceive to be a genuine threat to him (Patrick Stewart’s interpretation as an example). I did not get this impression tonight and it was only in much later scenes that his darker side started to truly emerge. I wouldn’t mind seeing that a bit earlier on.

I suppose I should also mention Mr Cumberbatch! There is undoubtedly a great deal of expectation on his shoulders with this role and he has started very strongly indeed. Due to the calibre of actor he is, you automatically expect more from him. We all know how good he is, therefore he needs to give that extra sparkle, to take his performance to the next level. He wasn’t perfect tonight, but then that’s to be expected on a first night of such a complex and multi-faceted character. However he is already commanding the stage with confidence and charisma. You are in no doubt of his Hamlet’s pain at the loss of his father and more still the crass remarriage of his mother to his uncle, someone he is clearly not fond of, even before he learns of his murderous actions.

8.  Si+ón Brooke (Ophelia) in rehearsals for Hamlet.  Photo credit Johan Persson
Sian Brooke as Ophelia in rehearsal

His antic disposition, in my view, never feels real, which is a choice every actor playing the part has to decide for themselves. This is a Hamlet who seems too intelligent to truly lose a grip on his wits, in contrast to the likes of Tennant, who seemed to have become so lost in his own act, spiralling further in to despair. I particularly liked Benedict’s “What a piece of work is a man” soliloquy (probably my favourite in Hamlet), which felt heartfelt and powerful. His choice of outfit for when supposedly mad also brings a playful humour and worked very well, transporting Hamlet back to his childhood days, playing forts with his toys (here in a life sized fort, in which Benedict is very much at home!)  It allows him to seem both childlike, ridiculous and vulnerable at the same time. In his first scene on stage, we see him smiling over an old battleship toy. I did wonder whether making this a castle/fort would link better due to its starring role later on.

His interpretation of the most iconic lines in Hamlet, “To Be or Not To Be”, is already very interesting to watch and as he holds up Yoric’s skull towards the end I was vey much aware that this was a part he was made to play. He is not my favourite Hamlet so far, but with 12 weeks in which he will continue to mine the text for ideas, I’m very excited to watch him grow and develop in the role, alongside his fellow actors.

So, those are my initial thoughts on the show. I’ve tried not to ruin some of the moments that I think will be most surprising and it’ll be interesting to see how the production as a whole has developed by the next time I see it. I may even write about that too in a few weeks and the differences that have occurred. I’d love to hear what anyone else thought about tonight, so feel free to leave comments and share your experiences. After such a long wait, the Hamlet summer has finally begun and I suspect it’s going to be a wonderfully thrilling experience for us all.

Hamlet continues its run at the Barbican until 31 October 2015 (press night 25th August). Tickets have sold out, however there are 30 £10 tickets released each day at the box office (maximum of 2 per person in the queue, also subject to the existing 6 ticket limit per person across the whole run of course). There is also a returns queue, which you can join, for any tickets put up for resale. The main website link is here: http://hamlet.barbican.org.uk . Also, I’ve posted some hopefully useful tips for any newcomers to the Barbican, which you can read here.

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10 thoughts on “First Preview Thoughts – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican!”

  1. Hi, you’ve said the day tickets are subject to the 6 ticket limit, but I was informed that there was no way to enforce that when I questioned it prior to securing my own tickets. I have even less faith now that you’ve said they’re not enforcing the ID check, I’m even more deflated.

    1. Well the official line is if in the day seat queue the 6 ticket limit applies. Plus you will need to give name and address details on buying them so if you have 6 on the system already I imagine it will come up. We’ll have to see what day seaters say.

    1. Thanks Anne. I’ll post a proper review post press night, when it’ll be interesting to see whether the things I’m expecting to improve have. It is however a very promising start, which is quite exciting!

    1. Thanks. Whenever I see a production in early preview which I tend to do quite often, I try and make clear they are simply initial impressions. I look forward to seeing how this has developed on my next visit.

  2. I saw the play on the 12th and it’s a pleasure to read your well-informed (and considerate) thoughts on it. I completely agree that this ambitious and sophisticated production is already interesting and memorable but has room for improvement. I was also a bit surprised by Ciaran Hinds’s Claudius relative softness. I suppose that it’s meant to make the contrast between his public and private selves more striking, but he does come across as a bit bland as a result. Gertrude I found particularly effective and convincing in subtle ways. I found the Hamlet-Horatio and the Laertes-Ophelia relationships quite credible. I think my biggest issues would be with the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship (if any) and the fact the second half, especially the last two scenes, felt a bit like a hurried wrap-up with all the tension already gone. But, as you point out, this was really an opportunity to see their work in progress, and I am glad indeed I will be seeing them again in October.

  3. One of the things I’m really hoping that disappears by opening is the very very odd choice of the actors in non-speaking roles (who were previously garbed as butlers) suddenly bursting into some kind of interpretive dance during the final scene. In what I’ve read about initial reactions to the previews, no one else has mentioned it, and it made me so angry that, had it been a different production, I might have walked out. I love that scene so much and it was one of the most distracting things I’ve ever seen in a major production of Hamlet. Other elements of staging that scene also seemed odd to me: the slow motion; Gertrude being blocked so far stage right that she was almost offstage (I was looking for the moment with the goblet and almost missed it – a very odd choice for a moment that should be one of Gertrude’s most important moments).

    The constant moving around of small set pieces (the flowers draped over the bannister being a great example) was, I think, a real challenge for the actors to work over. I love the way the set looked, but I felt it really overwhelmed some of the cast – they just didn’t have the stage presence to compete with it.

    It was also very strange to me that, in the 14th row (center) of the stalls, I frequently had trouble hearing both Ophelia and Gertrude. Like you, I felt that Claudius had a slow run-up to his character; it was hard to imagine that the person we see at the beginning of the play was willing to murder his brother in cold blood for the crown. One we got into the second act, I liked his performance a great deal. Gertrude’s “There is a willow” speech was very strong. That’s a hard speech to motivate, and I think the staging of Ophelia’s exit really set that up beautifully.

    I agree with the strength of the Tennant RSC, and with much of your commentary about this production. I’m definitely looking forward to the broadcast!

    1. Thanks for the comments. The dance aspect you mention seemed toned down to me on 2nd viewing, although the slow motion aspect was still there sadly. Not my thing either. I do tend to think the vast space is too much for some of the cast and Some really can’t project. I can also see your point about props etc. – the instruments with flowers being somewhat pointless as an example. I’m going again on Saturday so will post a full post comparing how it has developed at the weekend.

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