|Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet, at London's Barbican Theatre. (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)|
Tickets went on sale for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet a year before it opened at the Barbican, and sold out faster than any play in London theatre history. Cumberbatch’s formidable success on British TV – and world-wide – as a twenty-first-century Holmes in Sherlock has made him fantastically popular, but he’s not just the actor’s equivalent of a rock star; he’s a magnificent performer, in apparently every medium. (The best of his film work has been biographical: as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate and as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.) The production of Hamlet in which he’s been starring kicked off this season’s NT Live series yesterday, and it’s no doubt the series’ major draw.
His Hamlet is splendid, with a go-for-broke emotionalism that is quite surprising from a contemporary actor in this role. Though the setting is modern, he doesn’t play the Danish prince as sour or pissed-off; it’s a far cry from Rory Kinnear’s unforgettable punkish Hamlet in Nicolas Hytner’s National Theatre production five years ago. What you get from Cumberbatch’s version is a demonstration of Hamlet’s agony in a style that is closer to Romantic than modernist, even though he’s often playful and sometimes hilarious. When he puts on an antic disposition, he marches through the palace like a toy soldier to loud martial music, and when his college pals Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingham), are sent for by King Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) to see if they can get to the bottom of his behavior, they find him in a playroom hiding inside an outsize toy castle, surrounded by man-sized Nutcracker figures. But as soon as he’s alone with his friends, he drops the game and displays his wounds. His anger at the people he loves whom he feels betrayed by – certainly his mother, Gertrude (Anastasia Hille), unfairly his girl friend Ophelia (Siân Brooke), and eventually Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he accuses (in one of Cumberbatch’s most affecting scenes) of playing on him like a pipe because he knows they’re spies for his uncle – is sublimated pain. Cumberbatch uses his staggering command of the language, including his celebrated verbal wit, to plumb the depths of the character’s sorrow.
He also employs it to make the text sound as close to naturalistic as possible, and that’s a surprise too. In the soliloquies he varies the rhythms of the verse, pausing, lingering, examining; they have a pristine clarity and an in-the-moment vividness. In terms of the language, the keynote of Lyndsey Turner’s production is an effort to make it limpid, almost informal; you spot it very early, in the scene where Ophelia and Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) say goodbye before he goes off to France, after playing a piano duet together and after his failed efforts (in this reading) to get his sister to agree to consider exercising more caution in her relationship with Hamlet. The only exception is Jim Norton, who plays their father Polonius as such a self-delighted verbal embroiderer that everything that comes out of his mouth sounds rehearsed. (When he advises his son, he reads the series of mottos and lessons out of a small leather-bound notebook he carries with him at all times. It’s where, for instance, he gets the complicated description of the players when he announces their arrival at Elsinore.) I don’t mean this as a criticism: I think Norton, one of my favorite character actors, is excellent in the role.
This relaxing, if that’s the right word, of the text works in tandem with Turner’s editing to defamiliarize this most famous of plays and keep the audience alert. I’m not suggesting it’s a Brechtian production, but when you know the play like the back of your hand and suddenly a scene or a soliloquy appears in a slightly different place, you’re caught off guard. This Hamlet does away with the opening scene (the first sighting of the Ghost) and opens with Horatio (Leo Bill) and Hamlet; “To be or not to be” precedes the moment when Polonius and Claudius set Ophelia in Hamlet’s path and let her know they’ll be watching the couple’s interaction; Turner pauses the Hecuba speech by the Player (Ruairi Conaghan) to cut to Hamlet, lit by a special, soliloquizing (“O what a rogue and peasant slave am I”). The ideas behind these alterations are of variable quality, but none of them seems gimmicky or grafted onto the play, and all of them have the effect of making the material seem newly thought through.
|Anastasia Hille and Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at London's Barbican Theatre. (Photo: Johan Persson)|
The last time I saw Hamlet live, in a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford in 2013, there were so many puzzling touches in the direction that I wasn’t sure what the hell I was watching; afterwards, a friend observed that between the RSC and the Globe and the National, there must be so many versions of the play on offer over any given three- or four-year period, all attended, of course, by the same coterie of theatre critics, that you have to feel sorry for the poor bastard who has to dream up the next one. Turner’s choices don’t seem random or desperate in the way that RSC mounting did, but aside from her efforts to give it a more natural sound, I didn’t spot an overall concept. There are some fine images (like Ophelia’s bier and her mourners trekking across rubble) and some clever interpretations of individual moments (when Hamlet insists that Horatio and the others who have seen the Ghost take an oath of secrecy, the moment for all its seriousness, has the feel of boys-club camaraderie). Hinds plays Claudius as a narcissist, so when Horatio shows Hamlet a plate with the king’s photograph engraved on it, the moment is a humorous twist on a character choice. The pace is very fast, and the scene changes are accompanied by percussive music by Jon Hopkins that enhances the visceral excitement of the show in the first half.
Turner calls the intermission after Claudius’ brief second soliloquy about sending Hamlet to his death in England; we return to Fortinbras (Sergo Vares) and “How all occasions do inform against me,” but then Cumberbatch is gone and the production starts to come apart. That is, of course, always the danger with Hamlet, especially if Ophelia’s mad scene doesn’t work (and it doesn’t) and Laertes can’t find a way to bring some emotional color to his rabble-rousing and plotting with Claudius (and Holdbrook-Smith doesn’t). Siân Brooke’s neurotic Ophelia in the first half reminded me of Julia Stiles, who was so good in the 2000 Michael Almereyda film, but her physical choices in the mad scene just feel actorish. And the problems in Es Devlin’s set design are compounded after intermission. It’s a huge set, with an upstage staircase that bifurcates the horizontal space and suggestions of corridors and rooms and vacant spaces that certainly lend the Barbican stage a palatial grandeur as well as an aura of mystery (which Jane Cox’s smoky lighting accentuates). I love the staging opportunities it gives Turner, such as having Cumberbatch approach Claudius from above when he considers killing him at his prayers. But the various parts of this extremely complicated set particularize it in ways that make it impossible for the actors to localize each new environment as they move from one to the next. Since the second half begins with Fortinbras’ soldiers marching across a field toward the hill they’ve targeted, the lower level acquires a roughness during intermission (the rubble) that we’re stuck with for the rest of the performance, which works out fine for the graveyard scene but feels like an intrusion whenever the play moves back inside the castle.
I didn’t care for Karl Johnson as the Ghost; he lacks authority, and he’s weird in ways that aren’t accounted for by his supernatural essence. (Johnson is better as the Gravedigger.) But the only major actor whose performance didn’t work for me at all was Hille’s as Gertrude; I found it impossible to figure out her character. Generally we see who Gertrude is through the way she and Claudius interact, so if you’re going to make Claudius as solipsistic as Hinds does (successfully, I think), then the Gertrude has to make a particularly strong choice from the outset in her scenes with him, and Hille comes across as oddly bland. The most striking moment in her performance is her almost hysterical retreat down the stairs when Ophelia arrives, determined to speak to her, for the first time since her father’s murder, but it doesn’t make much sense.
Cumberbatch isn’t quite able to galvanize the fifth act, though his reading of the “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” speech is very sensitive; it’s really the duel that brings the show back to life. (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui supervised the movement.) But though the production isn’t entirely a success, the emotional power of his performance is a complete reason for seeing it.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.