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First thoughts on Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet, Barbican Theatre

First visit to see Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet this week and these are very much first thoughts on a big production that will no doubt evolve and gel over the coming weeks.

It is certainly a memorable production in many ways but I do have a few reservations. *spoilers follow*

Director Lyndsey Turner has done some interesting things with the text, moving some of the speeches and switching some of the dialogue. This is most notable in the opening scene. Normally you have the ghost appearing to the watch, instead we see Hamlet alone, listening to Nat King Cole on an old record player (great use of Nature Boy).

He's sorting through crates of belongings. There's an old toy boat and clothes. He takes a jacket and smells it in that way you do when you are nostalgically drinking in the memory sparked by an aroma. It reminds him of someone - his father presumably from the style of the jacket. And when he speaks it is 'To Be or Not To Be."

Now @polyg didn't like this, felt it took the speech out of context with no opportunity to warm up to it. I disagree. It was an impassioned, tear-filled eyes, rendering that set up Cumberbatch's Hamlet as very much the thinker, an over thinker, a melancholic who is lost in grief and isolation in his own home.

Nature Boy, the boat and later when he plays at toy soldiers in his 'antic disposition' all seem to suggest a yearning for his childhood, a time presumably when he was happy.

Where I have my reservations is in the disconnect I felt between Hamlet and those around him (I had similar problems with the Sheffield Crucible production that John Simm starred in - review link below). His soliloquies become very isolated with everything else that is going on and occasionally feel like spotlight moments which never quite tug on the heart strings in the same way as the opening 'To be or not to be' did. Cumberbatch's Hamlet has a certain charisma but it isn't quite enough just yet to elevate him fully into our hearts and affection.

What is spectacular is the set. An opulent drawing room complete with landing and grand staircase makes great use of the large Barbican stage. It also gives numerous entrance and exits points on the stage and glimpses into adjacent rooms. It screams palatial.

When everything starts rapidly falling apart the space is distressed with piles of mud as if the palace has been caught up in a land slide and it's poured through the windows and doors.

There are on occasions theatrical embellishments which don't feel necessary in such an opulent setting - synchronised slo-mo and stuttering and an explosion of confetti (those sat near the front stage right get covered).

Ophelia is a notoriously difficult character to pull off and I would probably say Ruth Negga, in the National Theatre version opposite Rory Kinnear is the only one I've really subscribed to so far. There isn't much that passes between Sian Brook's Ophelia and Hamlet to suggest a love or connection. There is perhaps a hint that they are conspirators or she's trying to come clean to him when she's 'planted' by their parents to test him but without context it is difficult to tell.

Her mad scenes work well though with another script shuffle.  Her speeches are in part made up of lines other characters have said to her or that have related to her. It gives you some inkling as to how pawn-like she's been treated.

This production does get bonus point for not highlighting Hamlet's age. Regular readers will know of my problems with Hamlet still being a student in his 30s.  Whether I just missed them or whether they've been removed, I don't know, but I didn't feel the constant references to 'young Hamlet' and Wittenberg felt just like a place to return to rather than University.

At the moment I would describe this as a memorable production but not my favourite Hamlet but that doesn't mean I am not excited to see it again in just over a week.

Hamlet runs at the Barbican until October 31 and was about 3 hours 10 minutes including interval when I saw it but that may change. The first half is long, one hour and fifty, and there is no re-admittance if you leave the auditorium. I re-reviewed and you can find my second thoughts here.

A selection of other Hamlets I've seen:

The female Hamlet:Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

The young Hamlet: Ben Whishaw at the Old Vic (V&A archive video recording)

Another young Hamlet: Adam Lawrence at the Riverside Studios

The loner Hamlet: John Simm, Crucible Sheffield

Youthful and energetic Hamlet: David Tennant RSC

The angry Hamlet: Jude Law, Wyndhams Theatre

The mental Hamlet: Michael Sheen, Young Vic

The intelligent and present Hamlet: Rory Kinnear, National Theatre (also my favourite Ophelia)


This breaks the rules because it's a future connection and I'm sure PolyG will be having words but Ciaran Hinds plays Claudius in this and he's going to be appearing with Mr W in the Crucible next year. Sorry but I can't resist that one.