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Review of Hamlet at the Barbican

Dom O'Hanlon
Dom O'Hanlon

After months of news headlines, PR stunts, puff pieces and endless speculation, the 'theatrical event of the year' has finally opened to the press at the Barbican Theatre. Having created a potentially intentional furore following two reviews going live following the first preview almost three weeks ago, it seems like much has changed with the production throughout the preview period, and these thoughts I hasten to add are from before the piece was officially frozen.

There is no doubt that this is an excellent production, but it's far from definitive. At times you're thankful for the heavily edited text that clocks in around three hours, but some scenes are so streamlined that it feels like much of the heart and a number of key relationships suffer as a result. The over commercialised nature of the production (exit via the gift shop...) unfortunately finds its way onto the stage, and at times it feels like Theme Park Shakespeare - wherein we're all here to oggle at the main attraction.

The pace is consistent and driving, resulting in a truly gripping production that never lets your mind wander. Those coming to the play for the first time, and in some cases even Shakespeare will not feel threatened by the language, which manages to feel timeless in a finely drilled vocal delivery.

The production blends naturalism with expressionism, boldly divided between the two acts. Using the interior setting of Elsinore for the atmospheric and claustrophobic pre-amble in a functional way, the second act turns this on its head and we're presented with a multi-purpose 'every space', that jars with the realism that has gone before it. The court may certainly have been destroyed by Claudius' plans, but the sense of danger doesn't ever feel real or imminent.

Having seen the production before the "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy was reinstated to its intended space in Act Three, it's clear to see why Turner jettisoned the framing device that never really took off, or was fully realised. The move smacked of a Producer wanting to hook the audience in straight away with the star name giving the star speech, much like a rock band opening with a memorable hit to set the tone, rather than a strong directorial stance that set up the structure of the play, and I'm glad this important internal discussion has been reinstated to its original place. Diving in at this moment of Hamlet's mental state and train of thought left us with no where to go - we were then looking at the court of Elsinore through that pensive lens from the beginning, with no natural climb or sufficient exposition ahead of the first sighting of his father's Ghost.

The age differences between the main cast upsets the balance of the piece. Cumberbatch feels too mature to carry the philosophical weight of the young prince, and the innocence that should drive his development is lacking. Against his youthful contemporaries Guildenstern and Rosencrantz the age gap suffers significantly, and we never feel that sophomoric connection that holds their relationship together. Opposite Anatasia Hille's Gertrude, all realistic family context is thrown out of the window, and the vital mother-son relationship that for me is a key entry into the text just doesn't sit with the audience.

Sian Brooke's Ophelia is left to wander the stage in a sort of catatonic daze, feeling far too modern and distant to attach to the characters around her. Her performance was so mannered and deliberate you couldn't care for her affections, and I would have happily shoved the stones in her pockets myself. By contrast, Jim Norton's Polonious was affecting and less bumbling than usual that allowed a new dynamic to be reached, and his death as a result proves to be a true climax of the first act.

The overall delivery was succinct, clear and solidly spoken. I've very rarely seen a Shakespeare production that was as easy to follow, or where the lines were delivered in the most natural and accessible way. There were few hammy mannerisms and everyone but Sergo Vares' Fortinbras resisted the urge to overplay the lines, which made the text feel effortlessly fresh and inviting. The result of this however made some of the diction, particularly from Leo Bill's Horatio and Ciaran Hinds' Claudius get lost amongst the vast set, at times not getting beyond the mid stalls.

Despite the issues around respective ages, Cumberbatch gives a masterful and controlled performance that resists the otherwise 'star vehicle' the production seems to have been championing. Unlike other celebrity led productions he downplays the character within the ensemble that allows the dynamics to continually shine, taking his moments at the appropriate times but never clouding the production as a whole. The geography of his mental state is hindered by Turner's reallocation of the text, which disjoints his initial descent, and I'd be interested to see how this change has altered the overall performance.

To me, the true star of this production was Es Devlin's set. The Barbican mainstage has rarely looked so impressive, opening on a stunning recreation of Elsinore Castle that seemed to extend forever. Visually this was a beautiful and jaw dropping production that supported and aided the performances which despite the scale never felt overwhelming, thanks to careful lighting design by Jane Cox.

Turner's vision at times felt as conflicted as Hamlet himself - from the framing device which pushed Nat King Cole's 'Nature Boy' thematically to the forefront, to the small moments of slow motion and rewinds, as though stuck on an old turntable. She allows Cumberbatch to overplay some moments of comedy which felt indulgent and deliberately pointed at the audience who were ready to lap up any relief he could throw at them. At a time where such modern context could be applied to the play, this aspect is rarely pushed, and instead our focus remains on the central relationship between the Royal Family.

So many words have been written on this production - by the time you're reading these reviews you're unlikely to feel anything new has been said. I'd happily advise those hoping to still grab a ticket to attempt to do so, but those who aren't as lucky can enjoy a NT Live screening in your local cinema - where you won't have a member of staff watching you watch the production almost daring you to make a sound. Time will remember this production for one thing - Cumber-fever at its most heightened level. I for one am dreading the day the first member of One Direction finds his way into a West End musical. We all know it's going to happen...

Dom O'Hanlon
Editor at Londontheatre.co.uk & NewYorktheatreguide.com

Originally published on

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