Theatre Review – Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican
Saturday night saw me return to the Barbican for my third visit to Hamlet and the first since press night. After seeing the very first performance, a preview in week two and now the show three weeks in, it’s interesting to see what’s changed and what hasn’t. I was relieved that overall the show was much stronger, mainly in terms of the supporting performances.
Sian Brooke’s Ophelia has grown in her role over the previews. I still don’t feel that there is a significant connection between her and Hamlet, but what I truly love about her portrayal is she’s not a mad whirling girl, but someone who becomes so broken by grief and loss. This is much more believable in my view, as we all suffer losses of varying degrees in our lives and it is more much relatable than someone dancing around manically. The use of snatched dialogue she has heard or overheard earlier during her “mad” scene is very clever and shows how those around her have been the cause of her emotional breakdown; the mock funeral she stages is very sad and truly brings home the tragedy of her situation and her final moments on stage remain the most moving and powerful of the show. The piano, the photographs and camera, the gorgeous use of light and Jon Hopkins’ Abandon Window music add to the impact and the moment she leaves the stage is visually beautiful.
Anastasia Hille is much improved as Gertrude, bringing more substance to her presence on stage and to her relationship with her son. Thankfully the closet scene is stronger than it was in early previews. Again she excels in later scenes and the touch of her running after Ophelia is something I loved, as is the added detail of her dress (sleeves and bottom half) being clearly wet when she returns with news of her death. I always wonder about Gertrude’s presence at Ophelia’s death from her speech and what she did. Here you can at least believe she went in to the water herself to reach Ophelia. Unfortunately there is however still no chemistry between her and Ciaran Hinds’s Claudius. By the end she has shifted away from him, but for this to have more weight, you need to have seen a disintegration of their relationship. In this production there is never any real connection to begin with.
Kobna Holdbrook-Smith remains the strongest ensemble actor here. He projects his voice to the whole audience and successfully conveys Laertes’ affectionate, caring relationship with his sister (their moment at the piano is tender and warm) as well as his potential for anger on returning to avenge his father’s death. It’s a shame he isn’t on stage more or have more scenes with Benedict.
Leo Bill is now a much better Horatio, but I think the weaknesses that still remain are due to the directorial choices. With the removal of the opening scenes we lose time with the character and due to the staging choices he is often so far to the side you forget he is there (for example, the play scene). For me, he should be more visible. Yes he is an outsider, but he is the loyal friend who should be seen to be by Hamlet’s side. Other productions have done this very effectively – the peak remaining Peter De Jersey for the RSC. I do however enjoy the choice to give him Getrude’s final line – in this production it is Horatio, ever the observer who announces that the Queen has been poisoned.
Jim Norton has improved as Polonius, although would such a wise man need to write his words of advice to Laertes down? Thankfully his death is also much better than the clumsy staging of early shows, but he still remains a bit dull, which is a shame when Oliver Ford Davies has shown how lively a character he can become. Matthew Steer and Rudi Dharmalingam are still sadly lacking as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They may be small parts, but I’ve seen actors bring them to life much more effectively. They seem totally irrelevant here and I can never picture this Hamlet having ever been friends with them. They aren’t assisted by the ridiculous decision to stage their arrival on the side balcony, which is only visible to part of the audience!
However, despite the improvements in performances, the biggest disappointment remains Ciaran Hinds’s Claudius. First and foremost his voice projection is still weak. You struggle to hear him in certain areas of the theatre. It may be a big space but I’ve never experienced actors struggling to make themselves audible at the Barbican before this production and I did note mics on some actors. His Claudius is also on the cowardly end of the spectrum. I’ve seen drunken, lecherous ones (John Nettles in Sheffield) through to subtle, menacing statesmen (Patrick Stewart) and I find the cowardly interpretation frustrating. This is after all a man who has killed his own brother and is running a country and planning military strategy. Having him cower on the floor before Laertes feels wrong to me. I did however appreciate the switching of lines between him and Gertrude at this moment. In the text it is Gertrude trying to protect him by telling Laertes he did not kill his father. In this production, it makes perfect sense that such a cowardly Claudius would say that line himself in fear while cowering on the floor. Claudius isn’t an obvious villain from the outset, but if you don’t believe his potential to be a dangerous operative, then he simply becomes a bit dull and boring and of no threat to Hamlet at all and Ciaran Hinds did rather bore me. The final scene before the interval is visually and audibly striking, but I don’t believe that the man at its centre carries any real threat, meaning it just isn’t very satisfying in my view.
In terms of the production’s staging and direction, there are aspects I enjoyed and that work well. The first reveal of the opulent banquet is still incredibly impressive and truly shows off the length and depth of the Barbican stage. It’s literally as if you’ve stepped in to a painting which is wonderful. The music by Jon Hopkins is wonderfully atmospheric, as is the lightning design. I also like the comedic touches of Hamlet within his fort, as if a child once again. It’s also much better that the projected visuals that used to appear in every doorway, whenever the Ghost appeared have been greatly reduced, as they were quite distracting and unnecessary. The way the Ghost appears during the closet scene is also wonderfully eerie and gothic in style, which I liked very much. The nunnery scene also has some added touches that work well. I’m still curious what Ophelia is writing frantically, as if she is trying to warn Hamlet, then it’s clear from Benedict’s performance of the scene that he senses that Claudius or someone working for him is listening.
However I do have some not insignificant grumbles. The positioning of the balcony is ill-conceived, as it is not able to be seen by those sitting on the left side of the auditorium – I’d guess at least the first 4-5 seats of each row have a restricted view for the scenes that take place there, including Hamlet’s reaction on first seeing his father’s Ghost and his consideration of killing Claudius seemingly at prayer (and charging over £60 for such seats is very poor indeed). With such a vast space, this balcony could surely have been moved.
The set is also too busy at times. The banquet scene results in the frustration of seeing servants carrying chairs and flowers etc. off stage as Laertes and Ophelia have their moment together (crucial to weight their affection in preparation for the tragedies to come). The rushing on of desks and office furniture as Ophelia also comes across Hamlet trying on his outfits is also distracting. This moment between the two is one of the few opportunities to try and make a connection between them and yet it is lost amongst the needless moving on of furniture. These courtiers may wear the same coloured suits as the walls but they are still a distraction at times when the focus should be on the play, not on the visuals. The addition of instruments filled with flowers during the play scene are perhaps the most pointless. They are brought on and then simply carried off again, serving no real purpose. With a play whose text is as rich as Hamlet’s such things stood out as style over substance for me.
As for Benedict himself, he is certainly settling in to the role and growing as time moves on. Hamlet’s soliloquies are now flowing from him naturally, as if from the character rather than an actor on stage. His passion and energy are also much stronger and he seems to dart around the stage with far more confidence and ease, which can only continue to benefit his performance. His opening soliloquy is the right pitch of anger, sorrow and despair as the gothic slo-mo banquet carries on behind him and I still love his “What a piece of work is a man?” delivered outside his toy fort with a very real depth of feeling.
Again, as with Horatio, some of my grumbles are more staging points than acting ones – I’m still not sure I like the use of Hamlet within the play scene. The focus should be on Claudius and his reactions and Hamlet’s reaction to him. By Hamlet taking part, you find yourself shifting attention to him. I also miss some of Shakespeare’s wonderful dialogue that has been cut (such as “miching mallecho; it means mischief”).
As for the ridiculous fuss over To Be or Not To Be, as one of the small number who saw it in its initial place up front – I quite liked it. It made the production interesting and did give you immediate sympathy for Hamlet. Watching him listen to Nature Boy and curl up on his side and cry for his father certainly made you sit up and pay attention, which I personally enjoyed. Hamlet is over 400 years old and experimenting with its form is what helps keep it current and exciting. Now it’s moved to Act II (so still not its normal place, yet I see no big grumbling about that) and works perfectly well here too, thanks to the calibre of the actor. He moves from farcical comic with Polonius to someone grappling with darker emotions swiftly and convincingly and as he walks off afterwards, you do indeed feel the power of that iconic text.
As was the case three weeks ago, this production is still very much Benedict’s show. Although the supporting cast have improved, they do remain in his shadow and the production would have been so much stronger if he was more equally matched by more of the ensemble around him. This isn’t a superb production, but it is certainly much better than it was and is a worthy one to introduce newcomers to Shakespeare, through the strength of its leading man in particular.
Hamlet continues its run at the Barbican Theatre until 31st October 2015. For further information visit the website. For details of the NT:Live cinema screenings across the country and internationally visit the NT:Live website.