by William Shakespeare
The Barbican, London
Directed by Lyndsey Turner
Designed by Es Devlin
Tuesday September 1st 2015, evening
Benedict Cumberbatch – Hamlet
Sian Brooke – Ophelia
Ciaran Hinds – Claudius
Anastasia Hille – Gertrude
Jim Norton – Polonius
Leo Bill- Horatio
Kobna Holbrook-Smith – Laertes
Karl Johnson – Ghost, Gravedigger
Rosencrantz – Matthew Steer
Guildenstern – Rhudi Dharmalingam
Fortinbras – Sergo Vares
Player King – Ruari Conaghen
Player Queen – Diveen Henry
I can’t think of another play that made the front page on at least three newspapers (August 26th). We bought tickets last year after literally hours of pressing “Refresh” for online booking.
The reviewers had been bottling up for three weeks for press night, and there’d been much discussion on the press embargo until they had completed a ludicrous THREE WEEKS of previews. Apparently the previews caused them to move “To be or not to be” from the opening scene to Act III, though still not to the proper place. While various luvvies flocked to defend the three week preview period, the consensus was that if the RSC can do previews in three days, and press night after a week, longer is indefensible, especially as all those so-called Barbican previews were full-price. What happened to rehearsals? While I know that an audience shifts timing and dynamics, much of the rest should have been established in rehearsals. Previews are normally reduced price, and they should be. I suspect they were riding for a hiding.
So how did it fare? I’ll start with a few quotes, but whether 2 stars or 4 stars, the critics agreed that Cumberbatch was excellent, the support cast, not.
Benedict Cumberbatch is a good, personable Hamlet with a strong line in self-deprecating irony, but he is trapped inside an intellectual ragbag of a production that is full of half-baked ideas.
(two stars) Michael Billington, The Guardian
Mr Cumberbatch gives a reminder that he is a top-rank stage actor. It is a pity he could not have been persuaded to do his Hamlet with a top-notch outfit like the Royal Shakespeare Company, or an ace director such as Michael Grandage. … My 17 year old daughter loved it and her reaction persuaded me to give the show the benefit of some doubt about a fourth star.
(four stars) Quentin Letts, Daily Mail
(Cumberbatch) is a blazing five star Hamlet trapped in a three star show.
(four stars) Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph
I hope that Cumberbatch does more live Shakespeare – in less insanely pressurised circumstances. What a pity he is now too mega-famous to work at the Globe.
(three stars) Paul Taylor, The Independent
We are left with a single question: To praise or not to praise … Cumberbatch gives a deeply felt, beautifully spoken, but partial performance in a production that, as another Shakespearian protagonist might put it, is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It is to be hoped, however, that for his next appearance he finds a production worthy of his talents.
(three stars) Michael Arditti, Daily Express
Much the biggest problem … is simply the other actors.
(four stars) Christopher Hart, Sunday Times
What about the ‘Batch? I hear you tut. Well, here’s the thing. He’s pretty good as the vengeful prince. Not brilliant. But very decent … it strikes me that Turner and team spent so much energy thinking about the extraordinary look and feel of this production that they kind of forgot that the play;s supposed to be the thing. It doesn’t live up to the hype, but how could it?
(three stars) Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out
My conclusion, before we even got to the Barbican, was “star vehicle.” As a student I worked at the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth, and whiled away many dull sunny afternoons (we were empty on sunny days) in the Henry Irving Room. Henry Irving was the greatest late 19th century actor-manager. It was quiet in there, because it wasn’t a popular spot even on busy days, and there was a chair. I read every playbill on the wall. I know how the actor-manager era worked. The star shone and the rest were there to feed lines. It must be incredibly depressing for the cast to read the reviews.
Criticism is irrelevant. It was an instant sell out. Tickets are exchanging hands at stupid prices. There were two empty places next to us, the only ones in the theatre. They asked for ID as you went in, not that they looked hard, but it’s an anti-scalper measure. If you haven’t got a ticket, your only chance is watching NT Live. That’s a good prospect in fact, as cameras and a director for the filming may get over the first major issue. The vast set on a vast stage completely dwarfs the production. There is no sense of the intimacy you get even in bad seats at the RSC or the Globe. The Olivier and Royal Shakespeare Theatre have huge stages too, but you surround them. At The Barbican it’s all behind the proscenium. We were in the Circle, a long way back which didn’t help.
The best moment of the entire play is two minutes in when the front set raises to reveal the palace with its long balcony, vast staircase and towering doors. It’s immense. You gasp. Phew! There’s a long long table set for dinner, flowers hover overhead. Hamlet joins the white dress-uniformed guests as Claudius and Gertrude descend the Ruritanian palatial staircase. This is going to be amazing you think. It is Hamlet as a spectacle. It brought in a new audience profile which is a good thing. In the interval two women were enthusing on how wonderful it was. According to Time Out, the “right wing press” called it “Shakespeare for the kids.” I hadn’t read those reviews. Hopefully the fans who came for Cumberbatch will get to see Shakespeare REALLY well done next time and see the difference.
There were at least three occasions where Hamlet did a long speech, a follow spot lit him, and the rest of the cast went into slow motion. Clever once, but really distracting. Also the long tables and elaborate props had armies of servants moving stuff around during scenes. Also very distracting.
Overall, it was much resequenced (that To Be or Not To Be moved from its preview first scene, but also to the wrong, or to be polite, less normal position). A bizarre decision was to run the first part at one hour 50 minutes, and the second part at 55 minutes. It must have caused issues because for thirty minutes before we had recorded warnings stating the length of part one, and that there was no readmission. The fast walk to the loos in the interval turned into a run for some. A bit dangerous really as at the Barbican the loos are set two floors below the theatre, while the great concrete spaces of the building are otherwise loo-free.
Gertrude and Son (Anastasia Hille, Benedict Cumberbatch)
The general criticism of the cast is fair, but blame the director. Claudius was just a middle-aged bloke. Unthreatening. Unimpressive. Gertrude had zero sexuality with Claudius. The scene with Hamlet in the bedroom had zero sparkle too. No sexuality with Ophelia either. Polonius was plain dull, not that he had much chance. What happened to that wonderfully comic Neither A Borrower nor a Lender Be scene? His death was merly an inconvenience. The ghost’s voice was odd. We winced for the barefoot Ophelia clambering over stones and shingles in part two. With her bare feet steaked with black make up, she looked like a hobbit. The most bizarre choice was Horatio. He had a plaid shirt and a large rucksack festooned with torches etc, and he continually has to take the rucksack off. With his wool cap, he looked exactly like Where’s Wally, which meant he could not capture gravitas for the end. And what was it with the suitcases? People were perpetually coming on with suitcases. Ophelia had to drag a metal cabin trunk downstairs. Was this the “Luggage Hamlet”? That’s how we’ll always remember it. There was a lot of blocking with backs to the audience. People spoke with back to the audience. It’s a proscenium stage. Why? I’ve never seen the players scene fall this flat. Apart from a couple of lines of Hamlet giving stage directions to the Player King it was dire. I don’t blame the actors. They had nothing to do except recite the lines on a crowded inner stage – just room for two.
In the second part, the whole stage has been filled with black shingle, a slagheap pouring in great slopes through the doors like the aftermath of a mining disaster. Fortinbras and his boys are sitting round in tents like World War One among the black stones at the start. Is it a Barbican speciality? Have they got a shingle mountain out back? They did the same in the abysmal Calixto Beico “Forests.” Shingle, shingle everywhere. Fortinbras had a long military walk through with his army in part one, and at the start of part two, Hamlet does the fine earlier version (1604) speech about the futile battle to come in Poland. That was a good ‘renovation’ which is signalled in the programme.
One bit of direction I Iiked was the gravedigger throwing skulls about, not that it was as funny as it can be. Cumberbatch was good in this scene, but we had the distraction of Where’s Wally Horatio with his stupid intrusive rucksack. But then, when the gravedigger was finished with, he stayed on set, fiddling around with his wheelbarrow, chucking shingle into the grave, yet again taking our eyes off Hamlet and Horatio.
The final fight scene was perfunctory, except when strobe lights came on and everyone in the background started waving their arms about pointlessly. There was a good bit on the stairs, but the amount of time actors have to spend in fencing lessons leads you to expect better fight choreography.
Hamlet as toy soldier
Benedict Cumberbatch escaped the criticism that the rest of the play received, everyone lining up to say he was a great actor in a faulty or second-rate production. He is very good. Technically. He does all the right things. He sounds good. Phrasing and diction are splendid. Runs about, shouts, declaims. But there’s no concept in his Hamlet. The daft gimmick of bringing on a toy fort and full size wooden soldiers makes him look like a spoilt rich boy with too many toys. Like this whole vanity production really … a film star’s toys. We thought he was trying to play Hamlet as adolescent. Perhaps why there was no undercurrent of sexuality with Gertrude or Ophelia. Hamlet without hormones? He’s 39. Poor choice. I’ve seen many famous film actors on stage. Most reveal why they became so famous and have instant charisma. He hasn’t, or rather he didn’t tonight, perhaps dwarfed by the overbearing set as was the entire cast. Set design gone mad. Set design supports a play, rather than takes it over. As celebrity Hamlets go, Jude Law in the Grandage Season, five years ago, just before I started this blog, was in a different higher league altogether. No competition. Full marks to Jude. Dr Watson beats Sherlock. I would say that of the recent “stage actors” rather than film stars, I much preferred Michael Sheen, Rory Kinnear and Jonathan Slinger as Hamlet to Cumberbatch.
But look at the critics. One says what a pity it is that Cumberbatch wasn’t doing it at the RSC, or with Michael Grandage directing (as did Jude Law), and another bemoaned that he wasn’t doing it at The Globe. In spite of a very large cast, tons and tons of money on the set, this never approached RSC or Globe standards. Or Grandage season, or for that matter National Theatre, Old Vic or Young Vic standards. I’d also like to see Cumberbatch in a production where he’s just “cast” as Hamlet by a strong company which had already decided to do it, rather than as the be-all and end-all of a one-off production. There’s usually something in a major Hamlet production that makes you think, ‘They shed new light on that scene, or that’s the best that scene has been done.” It didn’t happen here.
I have an applause / standing ovation meter in my head. The benchmark is Book of Mormon, first week of its run, instant 100% standing on first bow. Last week, Michael Ball and Rebecca LaChance got 90% on second bow. Tonight? 5% at most on second bow, in spite of the famed Cumberbitches. We got a taxi right outside. He asked what we thought of it. ‘Not great,’ I said. ‘They mostly say that,’ he replied.
A five star Hamlet in a three star production? Michael Billington was the lone two star voice. I think he’s right. He so often is. A three star Hamlet in a two star production? That’s fair. This won’t make my Top Ten Shakespeare productions of 2015. Of the last six Hamlets I’ve seen, I’d place it fifth.
I never understand those critics praying for the RSC to return to the Barbican. The theatre itself is OK, though for a theatre space, I far prefer the Olivier, The Globe, the RSC, both theatres at Chichester. But the maze of floors and halls is awful. The toilets are inaccessible, and we can see the architect of the place was misguided in every way, but why put great brass plates on all the glass loo entrances, then never clean them? Back to the Russell Cotes Museum and Henry Irving. I spent hours polishing brass plates on doors.
I’d almost deduct a star for the insulting price of £8.50 for a programme which is about as good as The National Theatre at half the price, but nowhere near as good as The Globe or RSC at less than half the price. The photo of kids on the cover made me expect some kind of flashback. There wasn’t. What was the point? Nice photo though.
Hamlet, RSC 2016 Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet, Stratford