EXCLUSIVE: After three weeks of previews marked by a level of press scrutiny rarely witnessed on the London stage, including “reviews” of the first night’s performance, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet made its official bow tonight at the Barbican Theatre. Given the media circus that has surrounded the event, the opening itself was comparatively low key, especially when measured against the flashing bulbs and red carpet treatment afforded some of the splashier musical theater openings.
A roster of Cumberbatch co-stars thronged the auditorium to cheer on their man. Led by his wife, the theater and opera director Sophie Hunter, guests included Mark Gattiss, co-creator and star of Sherlock, and former Downton Abbey alumni Dan Stevens (who worked with the actor in The Fifth Estate) and Allen Leech, from in the Cumberbatch-starrer The Imitation Game.
An afterparty in the Barbican lobby kicked off following the final curtain, as reviews of the production — which sold out its initial allocation of tickets more than a year ago — began to trickle in. The controversy stoked by Kate Malby’s 2-star review for the Times, which called out director Lyndsey Turner for moving Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy to the front of the play, called into question the role of the preview window. Tonight’s audience saw the speech restored to its original place, though whether that was in response to the criticism or an expected by-product of preview experimentation remains a topic of debate.
And the show itself? It’s a grand production on a scale that would have been impossible absent a big star in the lead. Cumberbatch is exceptionally good, merging character and actor without the latter dominating. This production knows Cumberbatch’s star is going to draw people unfamiliar with Shakespeare, so the staging is broad and unsubtle; it doesn’t bring anything drastically new or profound to the material. So what? Shakespeare wrote for nobles and commoners alike, and while star-driven productions can bring new audiences to the plays, Turner’s choices will doubtless leave some critics cold.
No expense seems to have been spared on the production. Every inch of the enormous Barbican stage has been transformed into an outsize Baroque chamber reaching into the rafters, dwarfing the cast and giving a stunning sense of what’s at stake here. Its transformation in the second half into a war zone — all piled rock, campfires and discarded skulls — is fiercely dramatic, transforming the mood as well, as the climax approaches.
The production is resolutely modern, with printed T-shirts and Adidas Classics by way of regal military dress uniforms and dinner suits; how you might imagine life inside Windsor Castle today. It’s stylised through a jazzy, punky lens. The play opens with a blast of Nat King Cole’s classic singing of Nature Boy, and Cumberbatch at one point dresses as a toy soldier — a recurring motif that may not be subtle but which gives a pretty clear indication of where this man’s mind is at. When Hamlet soliloquises, the lights drop and decay is projected onto the walls of the set — something literally rotten in the state of Denmark. Again, unsubtle, but effective (although having the rest of the cast in the scene affecting slow motion around him was a bit too too).
The show falters at the climax, when Laertes’ death suddenly becomes a weird dance and light show. It’s the first of a quick series of fumbles suggesting that the production wanted to go out with a flourish but couldn’t figure out how. Hamlet’s death is Cumberbatch’s only misstep; he reacts as if struck by lightning, and the broadness of it is jarring even in the context of this production. And as we’ve seen nothing but guns and rifles to this point, it’s most odd when Hamlet and Laertes duel with foils — even if the idea of the royal classes settling disputes with fencing isn’t totally inconceivable in the modern world.
There will undoubtedly be much debate among academics and purists about changes made to the text. But the audience was gripped throughout at a critics’ preview shortly before the opening. More important, Cumberbatch doesn’t unbalance the play. Ciaran Hinds and Jim Norton are standouts as Claudius and Polonius. Sian Brooke’s Ophelia is excellent too, her scenes with Cumberbatch suitably charged. Cumberbatch is never bigger than the company. He telegraphs Hamlet’s inner turmoil compellingly and lets his natural intelligence battle the character’s emotional distress. Hamlet’s madness is handled such that you’re never quite sure if it’s for real or if he’s putting it on to serve his own purposes. That’s exactly as it should be.