Our Verdict On Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet

Hamlet, Barbican ★★★★★

By Stuart Black Last edited 33 months ago
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.

Last Updated 26 August 2015


I think it's kind of sweet that you assume that the ghost was not meant to look like Prince Philip. :-)

Sheryl Granholm

"What is new however, is a stage set that actually shits itself." Dear God, I hope you mean SHIFTS itself...


Having seen the more-or-less finished product (I attended the performance the night before Opening Night), I would agree with the critic's assessment. The production is beautiful if uneven, and the supporting cast is weaker than they ought to be, but Cumberbatch rules this rendition completely, with a performance that leaves you breathless. It's an enjoyable evening, and return tickets pop up fairly regularly, so it's still possible to get a seat, and well worth the effort of obtaining one.

3 ○

It's crazy to imagine there is a massive queue every morning from what the barbican customer service representative has said over the phone, where people start coming around 6.a.m or even sleep overnight for a ticket??? I noticed many people went at least a few times to see this play & find it extremely unfair that others like me and my small brother can't even see it once.
Really hoped there would be a chance to show it to my 14 year old bro, as not less than two years ago we went to see Shakespeare's home town in Stratford and the only play he has seen so far is Othello.
Sometimes is good to disconnect & experience another story not relevant with life itself.
Will try my luck only once on the 10th of this month around 8.30 a.m no earlier as patience is too hard for those who are going through difficult circumstances...

3 ○

This is my experience and I'm going to be honest all the way.
I had to get up at 4:50 in the morning and got there at 6.40, there were at least around 34 people in front of me. After we were allowed to enter the building, 2 American girls pushed their way through with an excuse of having a number (which the operator of the Barbican clearly stated that it was not possible to have numbers by all means even for special circumstances) and because of this by 11 a.m when it was finally my turn there were no more £10 seat tickets. I ended paying £30 for standing three hours which was
a complete torture for my teenage brother who suffers from back problems & for me as well to be honest (there are enough good reasons which don't want to reveal) . It broke my heart that he was extremely uncomfortable during the entire play and as one struggles to stand, the enjoyment diminished and so did the concentration which was a great pity as it would have been a wonderful experience.
Really didn't like staff in general and would never repeat this nightmare again.
It's not as rosy as it seems and honestly think this entire hysteria is way overrated but I did it for my brother who is the world for me, if it wasn't for him, would have gone to see something else and got good seats without waking up this early. Don't understand the Barbican's policies to allow people to see it more than once or getting up to 6 tickets (guessing due to mass fandom) selling tickets one year in advance and letting those like me and my brother go through hell to see it only once.