Review of Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Like most who tried, I was unable to procure a ticket to the theatrical event of the year – Benedict Cumberbatch playing the lead in Lyndsey Turner’s direction of Hamlet. My period of mourning ceased when it was announced that, courtesy of NT Live, thousands of cinemas across the world were to live-stream the October 15th performance. Apart from a few initial glitches, which released a wave of panic across the room of the Leamington Spa Vue cinema, the stream was solid, and I did not feel as though the lack of the usual theatrical intimacy was a serious impediment to my enjoyment of the play.

There is a sense in which Hamlet is more famous than Hamlet; the Great Dane is larger than the play itself. He is infinitely more interesting and wittier than all of the other characters (besides the grave-digger) and his mind is clearly engaged in thoughts loftier than the brute, earthly facts of murder and statesmanship. Hamlet’s character is complicated, and the two most insightful observations made about him come from the literary critics A.C. Bradley and Harold Bloom. Bradley stresses Hamlet’s state of melancholy, pointing out that it began before the death of his father and that, by all accounts, up until that point Hamlet was a garrulous and impulsive man of action; a witty Fortinbras. Bloom largely concurs, adding that Hamlet’s defining trait is his all-encompassing genius.

Modern and idiosyncratic Hamlet

Benedict Cumberbatch, who despite Hollywood success has never hidden his ambition to play this role, manages to capture elements of both melancholia and genius, while adding an injection of zest and energy that suggests a near brimming over of his affected “antic disposition” into the real thing. His is a thoroughly modern and idiosyncratic Hamlet, strutting around the stage in David Bowie t-shirts, and his boundless energy is so pure that it often reverts to childishness, as when he plays a solitary game of toy soldiers. This bold and novel energetic streak, which does not completely submerge the melancholy one, allows Cumberbatch to avoid the pitfall that players of Hamlet often face; trying to be all things to all men. Hamlet is universal in the text, but the key is to turn him into an actual human being on stage.


This is not, however, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and it is a credit to the production (and to the other actors) that his performance does not overshadow the rest. Ciarán Hinds is stately as Claudius, and Jim Norton brings a lightness to the role of Polonius which has not often been explored on stage. Sian Brooke as Ophelia gets better as the play moves along, as her folksy portrayal works best when confronted by the loss of innocence that defines her second act. Her death is visually stunning, giving Gertrude (well-acted by Anastasia Hille) an excuse to launch into one of the most beautiful passages in all of English literature, that of the willow growing aslant the brook.

A perfect illustration

The staging of this production can only be described as gorgeous; the castle almost feels like a major character itself. Flashy visual effects are used quite sparingly, and they are all the better for it. The second act is a visual illustration of the prescient statement uttered by Marcellus, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, and the crumbling and decrepit ruin of Elsinore perfectly illustrates Shelley’s point about the delicate fragility of all institutions of power.

Even if one believes, as a lot of the critics do, that the production is a little too modern, Lyndsey Turner has successfully translated her own quirky vision of a 21st century Hamlet onto the stage. If this can produce a new generation of lovers of Shakespeare, then Turner and Cumberbatch have done a real service to literature and to theatre.