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Second thoughts: Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet, Barbican Theatre

Definitely warmed to Benedict Cumberbatch's Prince Hamlet on second viewing. First time around he felt a little out of joint with the rest of the cast but with a few more performances completed (and those pesky video incidents in the past) the company and production is starting to gel nicely.

The biggest change to be made since the early previews is moving 'To be or not to be.." from the opening speech to the middle of his feigned madness episode. I liked it at the beginning but it does work really well in its new slot giving Hamlet a moment of brooding introspection amid his rather eccentric behaviour - more madcap that mad I would say.

Now the play starts with Hamlet's exercise of quiet reflection interrupted by the return of Horatio (Leo Bill). It immediately establishes him as a person who has friends, someone who is liked. When the scene then moves to his mother's wedding reception he shares a moment with Ophelia adding another to the list of his fans.

BC's Hamlet feels slightly volatile but self aware and trying to keep it in check. He is definitely a Hamlet with flaws: his ego surfaces occasionally, he can be petulant and contemptuous - he's very human in that respect. He isn't wholly likeable but he carried my emotion more readily this time partly because his inner struggles were more visible. It makes the question of his madness more ambiguous. Is he genuinely losing his marbles but having moments of lucidness? There is a moment when he seems to see his own death and becomes resigned to it.

There is still a little ambiguity in his relationship with Ophelia. When she describes how he held her at arms length while looking at her it seems out of context with how she was helping him dress up in a soldiers jacket a few moments before. And I'm still curious as to why she writes something down during the 'baiting' scene when she is returning his belongings. Is she trying to warn him that her father and his uncle are eaves-dropping? He doesn't see what she writes and neither do we. (Talking of drawings got a great view of the cartoon like skull that he sketches during his feigned madness.)

When Ophelia herself has gone mad she half sings the lines of the love letter from Hamlet accompanied by some very simple piano and it is really poignant moment.

Ciaran Hinds's Claudius feels more prominent, (perhaps I'm paying more attention second time around) he's a quietly calculating villain. Equally Anastasia Hille's Gertrude was more noticeable, there is a moment when she seems to foresee the danger Ophelia is in and chases after her. I've always wrestled with whether Ophelia's death is accidental due to her mental state or whether she intends to kill herself. Here the implication seems to be the latter. When Gertrude reappears the bottom of her skirt and her arms are wet as if she herself waded in to try and save Ophelia from drowning.

One definite improvement is in Polonius' killing. First time Hamlet stabbed one side of the arras and Polonius fell out the other side. This time there were couple of good stabs before he falls out blood stained from behind the right spot.  (Still think Hamlet's own death is missing a bit of stage blood but I do have a general dislike for bloodless stabbings.)

Something I've liked both times but didn't comment on in my first thoughts is how it is Hamlet that plays the role of the murderer during the play within the play. He has 'King' daubed on the back of his jacket just in case Claudius was unsure as to who was being insinuated and perhaps a premonition of what is to come. It's a nice touch to put Hamlet into the heart of that particular bit of action and also helps fuel his mother's emotional response in the closet scene.

I think the biggest sign that things have changed for me is in how I felt at the end. I did find BC's Hamlet a little annoying first time around which meant his tragic demise wasn't quite as sad as it can be. The heart strings were definitely being tugged this time around. It still doesn't top my Hamlet list but it has definitely risen up the rankings. 

You can read my first thoughts here.

 

 

 

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