I don’t care what the proper critics say, the Barbican’s production of Hamlet is a triumph. Yes, some of the supporting cast aren’t up to par, and yes, symbolic though the mounds of dirt they tip onto the stage in the interval may be, they are a little odd; but Hamlet is all about the Great Dane himself and Benedict Cumberbatch really does shine. His Hamlet is much pared down in comparison to some, such as Maxine Peake and David Tennant. He doesn’t rage so much as despair. As the rest really did descend into silence I was genuinely moved. No production of Hamlet (and i’ve seen my fair share) has done that before. Oft portrayed as a petulant and over emotional teenager in recent times (notable exception to the fabulous Rory Kinnear) here is a Hamlet you genuinely get behind. He still dithers, he is still infuriating, you still want to shout ‘Don’t do that you idiot!’ but you see his vulnerability. The hint of tenderness in Ophelia’s dismissal that one reviewer criticised is part of the charm. Hamlet is here presented, however wrong his choices may be, as a boy, who has lost his Father, and will do anything not to have to let him go. Anyone who has lost someone close to them can understand this position. Maybe I have never paid enough attention but Hamlet has never been a tragic figure to me. In fact, I’ve wanted to give him a good shake. This Hamlet I pity.
But enough of Benedict, he is not the whole show and to be honest I could go on forever analysing this production. Credit must go to the ever brilliant Karl Johnson as the ghost of Hamlet’s Father and the gravedigger. He was by far the best of the supporting cast with the appropriate gravity and detachment as Old Hamlet switching effortlessly to the light relief of a distinctly ‘Lark Rise’ gravedigger. Sian Brooke also shone in Ophelia’s moments of madness although before then had maybe been forgettable. Ciaran Hinds never seemed to reach his full potential as Claudius. Having seemed a perfect casting, he may given have given the performance of his life but his diction was so poor that even knowing what the lines should be one couldn’t tell what they were. In fact, poor diction was a problem for a great number of the supporting cast who often seemed to stumble through the verse. This may have been a stylistic direction, but I’m not sure why.
The set, as the curtain opened, was striking, there seemed an audible intake of breath from the audience. Es Devlin really has made excellent use of the seemingly unending Barbican stage. It is as grand as you would expect for the Royals of Denmark and despite the inflexibility such an elaborate staging causes, clever lighting does deal with this well. One can almost forget they are apparently still in Elsinore when meant to be outside. Almost. The decision to cover the stage in mounds of earth and tip furniture upside down for the second half is less sensible. Clearly it is meant to symbolise the descent into ruin of the ruling family, that the state of Denmark is indeed, itself, rotten, and the staging reflects this quite cleverly (my young sister thought it was ‘so cool’) but for such a remarkable set it seems a shame to limit the stage in such a way.
A big crowd pleaser was the staging of Hamlet’s numerous soliloquies. Many given, not on stage alone, but in a crowd. From the first, at the wedding feast, where time seems to slow for everyone else on stage whilst Hamlet’s inner monologue races on, a real sense that these are the inner workings of Hamlet’s mind is found. If occasionally there is a tendency to give these speeches to the audience instead of as a turmoil of self, it is quickly forgiven. To the casual audience member, the staging offers quite the interesting distraction from a long speech, and hopefully the true Shakespeare aficionados don’t mind. It is cleverly done.
Maybe this is a Hamlet for the masses. Cumberbatch is certainly a draw to any number of people who wouldn’t normally darken the doorway of the Barbican, or any Shakespeare play, but is that really so bad? If the friends I went with, who really went as a favour to me, came out raving about the performance, how surprised they were they hadn’t been bored, how they felt they had understood it all despite not finding Shakespeare natural, who cares if it wasn’t the most ‘pure’ performance it could have been. In fact, the person who proof read this review was highly annoyed I had criticised at all. They called the production ‘flawless’, ’the best play they had ever seen'. We don’t want Shakespeare to be that weird bloke who wrote those weird plays we had to study at school. Shakespeare is a joy and as far as I am concerned, the more people that think that the better and I really don’t care if the only reason they do is because air cannons blew soil on Ciaran Hinds and Benedict Cumberbatch looks good dressed as a toy solider. Quite frankly, I think that’s fabulous.
Reviewed by Harriet Crompton on 19th September 2015