Anyone could see that ‘Sherlock does Shakespeare’ was going to attract an enormous amount of interest, but it is arguable that nobody predicted just how much. When tickets went on sale for Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at London’s Barbican, it became the fastest-selling production in the history of the West End. Of course many of these will have been sold to the army of the leading man’s supporters, but it still left the production with very big expectations to meet.
During early performances, the production gained attention for the poor behaviour of its audiences. This even caused Cumberbatch to make a statement pleading for people not to film or take photographs during the performance. There was even some talk of audiences saying the lines of famous speeches along with him, cheering and clapping when they made an appearance.
Director Lyndsey Tuner originally chose to relocate the play’s most famous soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”) to the beginning. One might wonder why this decision was taken, as it is perhaps not as effective when not contextualised with the linear plot. It would be like Juliet pondering Romeo’s whereabouts before they had even met. But by the time the play was broadcast as part of NT Live, the speech was back in its rightful place. NT Live has made several recent broadcasts of productions which have not been staged at the National Theatre itself. This can only be a good thing. It allows people to see theatre they many otherwise not have seen.
In this case, it is impressive that the production lives up to the hype. The main set is a dining hall/living room, with a looming staircase. Props and other set pieces are brought on and off as required, and a wild wind sweeps through the property at the end of Act 1, leaving piles of leaves and debris in its wake. The set and lighting design, by Es Devlin and Jane Cox respectively, impress throughout the play, and add an eerie quality to an already macabre piece.
Cumberbatch himself gives a strong performance. His Hamlet is a very urgent one, dashing around the stage with grand gestures and often sounding out of breath. This is Hamlet’s desperation being represented quite literally. It is in stark contrast to another recently screened portrayal of Hamlet by Maxine Peake (my review of which you can read here), who played the character very cocky, self-assured and practically intoxicated. That was also a very sparsely staged production, whereas the Barbican is much grander in its approach.
One may also almost feel sorry for the supporting actors, who have been somewhat eclipsed in the marketing of the show by their co-star. Special mention should therefore be made to Siân Brooke as Ophelia, who perfectly displays the character’s descent into madness.
This production had a lot to live up to and, although not perfect, it certainly gives a different take on the play, if not an entirely fresh one. The actors, particularly Cumberbatch, even manage to elicit a surprising amount of humour from the text. It would be tempting for most directors and producers to approach Hamlet with a bleak, dark vision and present a very depressing piece. This, thankfully, is not the case.