Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? This is the question on everyone’s lips at the moment. I am, of course, talking about whether this will be the greatest Hamlet any of us has ever seen, because I’m increasingly coming round to the idea that maybe there’s one perfect Hamlet out there for you and when you’ve found him (or her) then that performance will be the benchmark for every other Hamlet that follows. The Guardian’s eminent theatre critic Michael Billington recently wrote an interesting article suggesting that actors can never fail in their depiction of the character because there is so much scope for individual interpretation which can never be ‘wrong’, but I would take that a step further and say that we as the audience bring our reading of this play along with us, whether we’ve studied it, seen it 100 times or never, at some point an actor’s version and our own will intersect and bam you’ve got your Hamlet.
Without making this sound like an insipid rom-com, you’ll probably only find one ever, maybe two if you’re really lucky. That’s not to say you won’t appreciate, enjoy or love other Hamlets, but deep down somewhere there’ll be only one that really got to you. Mine was David Tennant in 2008, which even 7 years later I can happily gush incessantly about. I’d seen other impressive versions including Alex Jennings and Sam West (both at the Barbican incidentally) but Greg Doran’s 2008 RSC production showed me Hamlet as I had never seen it before, as a thriller, moving at an incredible pace to it’s inevitable conclusion. I had studied this play for A-level, knew it inside out, yet I was on the edge of my seat almost willing the story to turn out differently. And Tennant was everything I’d ever wanted Hamlet to be, consumed with devastating grief that spoke of so much pain, agonising over life and death, mercurial but turning wonderfully on a hair’s breadth between comedy and tragedy. It was electrifying.
And there have been many other recent Hamlets that may have been the one for you – Rory Kinnear, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Sheen or Ben Whishaw – and these are just the ones since 2000. So, given the openness of the text you pretty much have free reign to like any Hamlet you want if you think the actor brings the right qualities to the role – although honestly if you think Mel Gibson was a perfect Hamlet you should expect exile as minimum punishment. Yet I can’t recall a Hamlet that’s created so much off-stage drama as this new Barbican version; Cumberbatch refusing to sign autographs, critics sneaking in to publish unethical early reviews, rows about fans filming the production, the cost of preview seats – and amid all of this what is really sad is that no one is talking about the work, so let’s do that now.
What everyone really wants to know is how good is Cumberbatch? And the answer is fairly good with potential. Now I need to caveat this by saying it’s still a preview performance, although it’s now got 10-12 shows under its belt and 20 days of previews is unusual. Not that I knew I was booking a preview a year ago having waiting 3 hours in an online queue of 4000, given just 5 mins to book some seats – back then the press night would not have been set. Anyway, Cumberbatch’s take is an outraged and angry Hamlet, and we first see him sentimentally packing his father’s things suggesting their close connection. This sense of outrage is then fed through the performance which Cumberbatch uses well to make sense of Hamlet’s frustration with his mother, disgust with Claudius and anger at his own failure to act.
The soliloquies have everyone sitting forward in anticipation and Cumberbatch feeds the anger through them so each one builds into a tirade against the circumstances of his life (purists will be delighted to know that ‘To be or not to be’ is back in its proper place). He has to fight against the scale of the set to put across the intimacy of these internal struggles so all credit to him for almost winning that battle, and as the evening draws on his performance grows in confidence. Cumberbatch is particularly adept at drawing out the humour and this is one of the high points. There are still things to work on though, particularly I felt at the beginning where he’s not quite connecting to the depths of grief necessary for the ‘Too, too solid flesh’ speech, and although this is clearly a production choice there’s not quite enough emphasis on the philosophising side of Hamlet, particularly in the early contemplation of life and death, and the later acceptance of fatality. These are things he can quite clearly do as his fantastic lead in After the Dance at the National pre-Sherlockian fame proved, but overall it felt that other decisions in this production somehow mute the depth he was trying to convey and actually do his performance quite a disservice.
Its set in the hall of a large country house with sweeping staircase, littered with paintings and memorabilia that emphasise the military life and country pursuits. Designer Es Devlin has created another beautiful set and while the scale of it may infer the grandeur of court, it destroys the tension of a small group of people holed up together. It just doesn’t feel claustrophobic enough so you never quite get that sense that events are teetering on a knife’s edge. Lyndsey Turner’s has made the same mistake here that she did in A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, there’s lots of talking but it didn’t feel like it was building to anything. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy so there should be a certain inevitability driving this; from the moment he agrees to act he is doomed, but that over-arching shape to the production, which the director gives, is lacking. So even the final scene felt botched, with all the tension dissipated – as the bodies stacked up it should feel epic but was a garbled rush that was slightly unsatisfactory.
There are several reasons for this, one is that the other characters felt pale and in the background, which is no reflection on the crop of very fine actors here. Lots of the text has been cut so while Polonius is often a viciously controlling, verbose and creepy character, here he just seemed a bit quirky being dispatched before you’d even noticed he was there. It also takes a long time to get insights into Claudius and Gertrude, and until pretty much 2 hours in when they get their own focus. Ciaran Hines is completely compelling in Claudius’s prayer scene to the point you almost sympathise but we’re not seeing that danger early on. Anastasia Hille is very good in the Closet scene which is transposed to the Grand Hallway, as her Gertrude pleads ignorance but the motherly tenderness of concern for her son is not embedded early enough. Similarly there is restraint in the other characters too, including Laertes who reacts to the death of his father and sister with a surprising sense of ‘oh well’ which doesn’t quite align with the later demand for Hamlet’s death. All of these performances could be more colourful, and it seemed liked they’d been asked to hold it back. Maybe they’re saving it for the press but maybe it’s also to ensure the light stays on our star-Hamlet, which is fine but in doing so they give Cumberbatch less to bounce off and less reason for his character’s predicament, thus undermining his deeper portrayal.
This is by no means an awful production and I enjoyed watching what has clearly been designed to be a visual and accessible version of the play. There are also some interesting ideas which made me think, particularly the emphasis on childhood (seen on that cryptic poster) and games demonstrated through Hamlet’s toy soldier fort and the player’s toy theatre onstage. It’s hinting at questions about the infantilization of Hamlet as a character through the close connection with his parents and disgust at his mother’s remarriage. So there is an almost rites of passage element to this where he must pack away childish things and deal with adult themes of murder and lust. I think that’s a really interesting interpretation of the play but there’s only a surface engagement with that at the moment and something that could really set this apart from other productions.
So there you have it, a lot of unrealised potential and some unfortunate directorial choices. Cumberbatch is very good in spite of those choices and it’s clearly a mark of his skill that you can see him fighting to give a deep performance in a stylised and at times superficial production. I almost wanted to lift the entire cast out of this toy theatre and plonk them into another version to let them fully realise all their roles, and I fear that the shape of this production won’t ever let them do that. But I await later reviews eagerly. Perhaps fundamentally the production still needs to position itself on the key questions and even if you decide not to address the politics, or the philosophy of it, the production itself needs to enhance rather than restrain the acting. Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? Not for me but he will be for lots of people and I hope the rest of the run gives him the space to develop it, he certainly deserves that.
Hamlet is at the Barbican until 31st October. Advanced tickets are sold out but 30 seats at £10 are available each day plus returns so check the website. NT Live will be broadcasting to cinemas on 15 October but best to book now as that is also selling quickly. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1