Review: Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet

It’s unlike me not to be on-the-ball when it comes to theatre performances and the release of tickets, but a combination of a diploma, a new job and a festival meant that I missed out on nabbing tickets for the production of Hamlet at the Barbican. So, I was thrilled to find out that NT Live would be beaming the production into cinemas this month.

I am, and have always been, a huge advocate of NT Live for the simple fact that it’s bringing affordable theatre to people all over the world. And theatre of the highest quality, too.

This production was, of course, all about Cumberbatch, who is now loved and recognised the world over. The role was perfect for an actor like Cumberbatch who breathes intensity and sincerity into everything that he does. It’s just a shame the technology couldn’t keep up.

[video: align:center]

Accessible for everyone

Lyndsey Turner’s production of the Shakespeare classic must be commended for being a Hamlet for people of all ages. It’s always a difficult task to make Shakespeare understandable – both the language but also the way he imagined relationships and families. Turner and her cast mastered this perfectly, engaging with Shakespeare’s lines as though they were the lyrics of a well-known pop anthem.

Cumberbatch, sporting crumpled jeans and trainers and listening to an old record, was a recognisable figure in the opening scene as any young person who has experienced the loss of a loved one. It was almost like cinema – the hum of the sad music, a sob wracking his body as he looked through his father’s old possessions. Throughout the play, despite working hard to master Hamlet’s madness, Cumberbatch came across as understanding, almost affable. He’s just like you or I, only wracked with grief.

This relatability continued throughout the play with great success. A tattooed Horatio (Leo Bill) was a touch too enthusiastic but very real and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern smacked of those friends from university you’re not sure you really liked and didn’t think you’d ever see again. The production criss-crossed between modern and traditional costumes, risking inconsistency and confusion, but instead aiding its flow. It wasn’t trying to be the kind of 21st century Shakespeare that Rory Kinnear embraced in 2010, but the effect was similar.

Humour in the madness

Thankfully, Turner did not make the common mistake of trying to write off the supernatural elements of the play. Hamlet’s father’s ghost, portrayed brilliantly by Karl Johnson, appeared in glorious flashes of white light to eery, echoing sound effects. The set itself was a beautiful gothic construction of twisted metal, old oil portraits and, in Act Two, piles of ash and rubble.

Cumberbatch took a unique approach to Hamlet’s madness by making it funny. The audience were undoubtedly thrilled to see him dressed as a toy soldier, complete with cardboard fort, but quickly questioned themselves for laughing as Hamlet’s total distress shone through. 

Cumberbatch’s ability to switch between eloquence, confusion and misery brought new life to Hamlet’s well-known story.

Supportive, but not outstanding

The cast surrounding Cumberbatch took to their roles with aplomb, but many seemed to speak a more stilted version of the Shakespearean script when compared to Cumberbatch’s fluency. Anastasia Hille, as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, was enjoyable as a more defiant queen who was more open to both Hamlet and Ophelia’s suffering. Siân Brooke performed a short-lived Ophelia – she would have been better served if given a chance to progress into madness rather than dissolving immediately into a shaking, snivelling mess.

As a screened theatre performance this production was also let down by niggling problems with the technology. Sony 4k is supposed to the ultimate way to view live performances these days, but Vue and Sony’s partnership failed to impress. In terms of shots, the attention to detail and close-ups paid off in order for audiences to see Cumberbatch in vivid detail, but overall it detracted from the vast majesty of the set and production. A small screen, flashes, and issues with the sound were also disappointing.

Mercifully, NT Live usually provides much better quality at a much better price and its innovation of bringing award-winning theatre to the masses must always be applauded. Thanks to them, millions of people around the world will have had the fortune to see Cumberbatch tackle Hamlet masterfully and at the perfect time in his life. It is harder and harder to make Shakespeare seem new and worth watching – perhaps the best way to do so is to get an international star to perform the lead role and make him humble again.