Hamlet is invariably a role that comes with a lot of baggage — all those that have come before, for starters, including (on this same Barbican stage) Japanese actor Tatsuya Fujiwara just a few months ago, and (during the RSC's original residency here), Mark Rylance, Alex Jennings and Samuel West, not to mention other star Hamlets in recent years, including Ben Whishaw (before he was a star, but signalling he was certainly going to become one, when he played it at the age of 23 at the Old Vic straight out of RADA), Simon Russell Beale, Rory Kinnear, Michael Sheen and of course David Tennant.
I say "of course" Tennant, because not since that casting has there been quite such a media furore — or stampede for tickets — than has attended the Barbican's new production starring Benedict Cumberbatch, whose entire run sold out faster than any production in London theatre history when it went on sale almost a year ago. Tennant was riding high at the time he did it off the back of his Dr Who celebrity; but Cumberbatch is in another league again, globally known now as the Oscar nominated star of The Imitation Game and TV's Sherlock. And while screen work makes actors into stars, both Tennant and Cumberbatch share the fact that they'd both earned their acting stripes first in the theatre, with Cumberbatch starting out at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park and appearing at the National and Almeida to great acclaim.
Nevertheless, fame has a distorting quality, too, and it has certainly led to unprecedented attention being placed on his stage return in the title role of Hamlet. Some 'quality' newspapers even joined their tabloid cousins in unprecedentedly reviewing his very first public performance in the role, and Cumberbatch has himself made a stage door appeal to his fans to not photograph him on their mobiles while he's trying to act onstage.
So, after all that, there's one big question: how was he? At 39, he's at the higher end of the age spectrum to play him, but he still has a youthful ardour and fresh-faced, curly-haired boyish appeal, and he brings a brooding intensity and intimacy to the role. There's plenty of unfinished business this Prince needs to deal with, from his as-yet unexplored romantic life with his girlfriend Ophelia to his resentment at his mother for a o'er hasty marriage to his uncle, just months after his monarch father's untimely, seemingly premature, death.
But the real unfinished business is, at times, Lindsay Turner's production itself, which is so stuffed with ideas, concepts and effects that it threatens to overwhelm him, however confidently they are achieved. There's lots of big theatrical flourishes, including a windstorm before the interval that leaves the stage utterly devastated afterwards, with mounds of debris pouring out of the doors. This isn't a lean, stripped-back Hamlet but a positively operatic one, complete with the largest chandelier seen on stage in many a year in the vast receiving hall of a palace that the production is handsomely set in.
Es Devlin's gorgeous, wide-screen set is certainly a treat for the eyes, though it isn't always successful at conveying locations beyond the palace, as when it has to incongruously become a burial ground. And Turner's staging, which its cast strangely going into slow-motion or adopting freeze-frame poses, also has incongruous moments.
But it is, at least, home to some riveting performances: as well as Cumberbatch, there's brilliant work, too, from Anastasia Hille as his mother Gertrude and Ciaran Hinds as his stepfather Claudius, Leo Bill as his loyal friend Horatio and Kobna Holbrook-Smith as Laertes, brother of his girlfriend.
People have been queueing up overnight for the day tickets that are released every morning. But you could simply see it in the cinema, when it is broadcast live from the Barbican as part of NT Live on October 15.
What the popular press had to say...
"Benedict Cumberbatch is a good, personable Hamlet with a strong line in self-deflating irony, but that he is trapped inside an intellectual ragbag of a production by Lyndsey Turner that is full of half-baked ideas."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The actor commands the stage with a whirling energy but we rarely feel soul-to-soul with this Hamlet, party because he's often made to deliver the soliloquies against distracting freeze-framed or slo-mo action, partly because we don't sense that the actor is laying himself bare too as is the case with the greatest exponents of the role such as Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"But – and ay, here’s the rub – he is, in truth, a blazing, five-star Hamlet trapped in a middling, three-star show. The evening’s energies are dissipated not intensified by the confining Elsinore dreamed up by designer Es Devlin, and director Lyndsey Turner’s tendency to hack the text."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"But when a director throws out such tantalizing gimmicks, she had better be prepared to follow through on them. Here they just seem like avant-garde window dressing."
Ben Brantley for The New York Times
"At times the set's gigantic dimensions overwhelm the play's psychological subtleties, and key relationships don't feel well defined. For instance, there is no sense of the chemistry that has drawn together Hamlet's mother Gertrude and his uncle Claudius."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard