The rest is silence…

Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet Photograph by Johan Persson
Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet
Photograph by Johan Persson

The problem with booking something over a year in advance is that there is a good chance you’ll be more excited at the time of booking than when the event itself actually deigns to come along.

This perfectly describes me with regard to my purchase of a ticket to see Hamlet. I did come quite close to trying to sell off my ticket so I could spend the money seeing a certain something else… Considering I could’ve bought almost 3 tickets with that money it was very tempting! But I decided that as I was lucky enough to get a Hamlet ticket first time round, and that it was obviously going to be an ‘event’ production, I really should go. So I went.

Anastasia Hille in Hamlet Photograph by Johan Persson
Anastasia Hille in Hamlet
Photograph by Johan Persson

On the whole I’m glad I did.

The set is jaw-droppingly fantastic. I’d been told it was amazing, so when the safety curtains opened to reveal Hamlet’s room, bare & with a flimsy canvas wall, I started to doubt – but as soon as that was dispensed with… I’m sure I heard people gasping at the sight that emerged. Es Devlin’s design is truly epic in scale and beautiful to behold. Unfortunately from where I was sat (AA5 in the circle) I couldn’t appreciate the full depth of the set that awaited through the hall doors, as the side of the stage completely obscured it. I’m guessing I didn’t miss any real action, but it did spoil Ophelia’s final dramatic exit a bit.

Ciarán Hinds in Hamlet Photograph by Johan Persson
Ciarán Hinds in Hamlet
Photograph by Johan Persson

The acting was generally brilliant, although some of the cast were a bit mumbly at times (and my seat wasn’t all that far away from the stage).

Ciarán Hinds is imperious as Claudius, easily portraying the usurper’s manipulative charm and power. Jim Norton’s Polonius is simply brilliant; he can find the comedy in anything, delivering even the shortest lines to comic perfection. He provides a good deal of the play’s light relief to great effect. Similarly, Matthew Steer (Rosencrantz) plays his part with a terrific dry humour and has great chemistry with Cumberbatch. As with some previous productions, the roles of Ghost & the gravedigger are portrayed by the same actor – in this case, Karl Johnson. Of the two parts, he is far more suited to the latter, squeezing out every last drop of humour that Shakespeare poured into the lines.

Karl Johnson in Hamlet Photograph by Johan Persson
Karl Johnson in Hamlet
Photograph by Johan Persson

Leo Bill’s natural rapport with Cumberbatch makes his Horatio eminently believable. They really did seem like close university friends, and his anguish is evident at the climax of the play. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Laertes) does a great job of showing his character’s transformation from loyal son to avenger, with some impressive stage sword-fighting skills thrown in to boot. Siân Brooke teeters on the edge of brilliance as Ophelia. She particularly comes into her own when grief-stricken and only able to communicate through snatches of song, somehow making her exit both dramatic and understated.

Siân Brooke in Hamlet Photograph by Johan Persson
Siân Brooke in Hamlet
Photograph by Johan Persson

And what of Benedict Cumberbatch? Simply exquisite. The role was made for him. It may help in that Hamlet is quite Sherlockian in his tendencies (although I suppose, technically, Sherlock is Hamletian): intelligent, sociopathic, a bit of a man of action. He absolutely nailed the big speeches, bringing gravitas & dignity to Shakepeare’s famous words. Cumberbatch is also an adept comic actor, which is especially highlighted in the scene preceding “To be or not to be” and with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern & the toy fort… His is a magnetic presence – you can’t help but be drawn to his performance.

He truly is the star of the show.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet Photograph by Johan Persson
Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet
Photograph by Johan Persson

Sadly though, that’s where my positives end. The production itself is confused, which leaves you feeling a bit empty. Personally, I’d like to get my bearings a little bit, but it was impossible to work out when it was supposed to be set; maybe they were going for a suggestion of a timeless, dream-like state, but this did not work for me.

Early on Ophelia was constantly fiddling with a vintage camera, which was a bit annoying and seemed to have no point to it – later, when she left it behind, I guess it was taken as a sign of her giving up on life, which seemed more melodramatic than symbolic. Daubing Horatio in tattoos was equally unnecessary, and almost managed to detract from the performance.

During Hamlet’s speeches there was an attempt to show time slowing down with the use of bizarre mottled lighting in the background, which just looked amateurish. If there were people in the background of the scene at the time, they would start moving in slow motion – this was a bit distracting. Surely stopping time & having them all stand or sit still would be more effective?

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The length. Ugh. Now I know that Hamlet is a hefty play, and it very rarely (if ever) gets played in its entirety, but… Almost two hours for the first ‘half’ and under an hour for the second? Putting an interval at the end of Act 3 is one of the more traditional ways to do things, but that does not make it a) the only way, or b) the right way. Yes, it works for the set design, but there has to come a point where the audience isn’t sacrificed for it. Could there not have been two intervals, perhaps? It really was arduous.

Hamlet, in particular, seemed to exit most scenes at a canter. Does he not know how to walk?

The music, too, didn’t really work for me. It sounded like an attempt to be like a Trafalgar Transformed production, but it didn’t come off. The modern electronic music really jarred with the beautiful surroundings…

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith in Hamlet Photograph by Johan Persson
Kobna Holdbrook-Smith in Hamlet
Photograph by Johan Persson

The final fight was not the best I’ve ever seen – yes, the swordplay was good, but THERE WAS NO BLOOD. I genuinely didn’t realise they’d all stabbed each other until they started writhing around on the floor. Honestly, Mick hitting Dave with the drum pedal in Sunny Afternoon is more convincing! And Laertes’ fatal stabbing… Well, that was laughable. For some reason everything went into slow motion, which is fine (it was at least consistent with earlier parts of the play) – but then all of a sudden the cast around the outside started doing odd contemporary dance moves! It was very hard to take seriously.

Siân Brooke in Hamlet Photograph by Johan Persson
Siân Brooke in Hamlet
Photograph by Johan Persson

My verdict? The main cast don’t disappoint, but at the hefty ticket prices you expect a cohesive production. After all, the play’s the thing…

Rating: 2*


Hamlet runs at the Barbican Theatre until 31 October 2015. 30 £10 day seats are available from 10.30am each day, but there is occasionally online availability.

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3 thoughts on “The rest is silence…

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