Our Verdict On Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet

Hamlet, Barbican ★★★★★

By Stuart Black Last edited 107 months ago

Last Updated 26 August 2015

Our Verdict On Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet Hamlet, Barbican 5
Cumbo as Hamlet. Photo by Johan Persson.

So this then is a remarkable production of Hamlet. Not particularly because of its lead, who we'll get to presently (patience, patience), but for its visionary interpretation of the story's setting, Elsinore.

In typical productions the Danish court-castle often ends up becoming a physical manifestation of the tragic hero's tortured consciousness: a hall of mirrors, an Escher-like labyrinth, a Piranesian dungeon — there's not much we haven't seen before. What is new however, is a stage set that actually shits itself.

The concept is a strange and fascinating one — and both designer Es Devlin and director Lyndsey Turner should be applauded for their verve. To explain: we essentially have a play of two halves here. The first takes place in a very handsome turquoise palace, stretched long across the stage in a clever approximation of widescreen. It's decorated like a deluxe photoshoot for Vogue — all candles, antlers and floral arrangements — a perfect setting for the new Danish rulers to grandstand and speechify. But as doubt and deceit infect the royal household, this polite, uptight (and slightly boring) chateau then goes and prolapses pretty much before our eyes.

The second half of the play is then performed in a clammy cesspit, the filth seemingly conjured up by Hamlet’s own psyche, which has been steadily regressing back towards the anal stage (there's some great stuff with toy soldiers on the way). The combination of seeing his father’s ghost (the “old mole”) and imagining his mother and uncle in their “enseaméd bed” has made him fixated on the dank and physiological, all those “things rank and gross in nature.” Something is indeed rotten in the state Denmark – it is Hamlet’s head.

Transforming Elsinore into this messy, crumbling mind palace is eerily effective and manages to keep an audience with unfeasibly high expectations more or less rapt to the play's bitter end. It also creates a perfect conceptual structure for Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance...

And, let it be said, his performance is excellent — with flawless enunciation and a sweaty, desperate energy that together manage to propel this circumlocutory tragedy forwards. Looking a bit like an athletic Adrian Mole, the man of the moment is angry, playful, smug and unpleasant — all the things Hamlet should be. Celebrity fans and theatre lovers should both be suitably satisfied by the effort and the effect.

There are quibbles with the production overall — long stretches are dull and static; the players are particularly dreary; the ghost is distractingly like Prince Philip; and the Norwegian invasion is clunky (and threatens to confuse the clever concept of the befouled collapsing castle). More significantly, the key female characters Gertrude and Ophelia are too knock-kneed and make less impact than they should.

The controversial shuffling of scenes is still going on and the results are uneven. Starting the show with a bland exchange between Hamlet and Horatio is underwhelming for example; though the new home for “to be or not to be” (after Hamlet feigns madness for Polonius) does work well enough.

No Hamlet is ever perfect but this very impressive interpretation is about as close as it gets. And it's the fact that it's such a wild and whirling play that makes it so damn good — all the better for it's sharp edges and odd turns. We're not sure it's worth queuing overnight at the Barbican for the day tickets on offer but we do heartily recommend catching the live cinema broadcast on 15 October. This is a very palpable hit.

Hamlet runs at the Barbican until 31 October. Tickets £10-62.50 (good luck). Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.