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Theatre review – Hamlet at the Barbican starring Benedict Cumberbatch

Much has been said and written about Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch since it began previews on 5th August 2015, from Cumberbatch’s plea to not record in the theatre to the controversial decision to place the infamous ‘To be or not to be’ speech at the beginning of the play (a decision quickly reversed). It was this evening (15th October) live streamed into cinemas across the world, therefore this piece is based on the cinema experience and not the live experience.

I should say to start with that I adore the play of Hamlet, it is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, I know it well. Therefore I was looking forward to seeing tonight’s performance. The play opened with Hamlet listening to old records whilst thumbing through an old photo album before being interrupted by firstly a messenger calling him to the great hall then Horatio coming to visit from Wittenberg. The entire opening between Francisco and Bernardo when they first see the ghost of old Hamlet is gone. The entirety of the play has scenes missing and text moved around with some lines being in different acts all together. I can see why they originally placed the ‘To be or not to be’ speech at the beginning, Hamlet is depressed from the start and therefore the speech would have been befitting to the opening scene, however, I am glad that it was restored to its rightful place.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet had a great on stage presence and dominated the stage whenever he was present, however, something was missing! The madness moments seemed strained at times and he felt disconnected from others on stage during the quieter moments. Cumberbatch did get the tortured prince down to a tee though; his emotions were running high throughout.

HamletBenedict Cumberbatch as the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet

Without Cumberbatch though the stage was missing something and the performance just did not gel for me, each actor was fantastic in their own right but there was no on stage chemistry for me. Jim Norton’s Polonius seemed like he was rushing to get his lines done as if he had somewhere better to be and Leo Bill’s Horatio appeared more wandering hipster than learned scholar. Karl Johnson’s Gravedigger did provide a few laughs especially when he used a spare bone as a mic whilst he dug the grave and Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude in the latter half of the play showed how she had nowhere to turn and no one to trust, you really felt that Gertrude was isolated in her own palace.Gertrude

Anastasia Hille as Gertrude in one of the most moving scenes of the play

Siân Brookes’ Ophelia was spine chilling though especially as the character descends into madness, as she walks barefooted off stage after her final performance it was very hard not to get emotional about it especially when Gertrude reveals the contents of the trunk Ophelia had been carrying around and works out what Ophelia is off to do.

OpheliaSiân Brookes as the tragic Ophelia

The fencing scene that descends into chaos showed the cast working together at their best although each death felt quicker than it deserved in particular Gertrude who lost her final lines, as she realised she had been poisoned, to Horatio.

Es Devlin’s set design was amazing and very fitting to the tone of this production of Hamlet, an exquisite banquet hall that shows the importance and majesty of court that after the interval descends into a dilapidated ruin.

For me Hamlet had a lot of potential to be one of the greats but it just did not click together as it should have done. Sometimes a big celebrity name and a larger budget do not always make a show work. For me the production had some flaws that were hidden behind the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch was in the title role.

As a final thought I will say that many young audience members were probably seeing Shakespeare for the first time through Benedict Cumberbatch and if they go on to appreciate and by inspired by Shakespeare and his work then the performance has done its job.