Friday, 28 August 2015


Benedict Cumberbatch is quaveringly alive as the tortured prince

Written by Michael Coveney
MichaelCoveneyBenedict Cumberbatch, vastly experienced on the stage before entering superstardom as Sherlock Holmes, was always going to be an exceptional Hamlet, and he’s played the moody Dane just in time (in his 40th year) in an exciting, sold-out production at the Barbican.

Lyndsey Turner’s production is so fast-moving (all over in three hours) that she cuts the opening scene – the first sighting of the Ghost (‘Who’s there?’) on the castle battlements, described by a former critic of this publication, the venerable JC Trewin, as the most exciting scene in world drama – and too many other narrative corners, too, in presenting a European-style vision of a political system spinning into chaos. Elsinore’s a spacious, yet suffocating, prison, the stage filled with rubble as the army invades Denmark and Ophelia’s grave is dug.

Cumberbatch’s prince, though, is a total success. His opening line of ‘Who’s there?’ is directed at Leo Bill’s Horatio, an earnest, companionable Dr Watson type, the perfect foil to Hamlet’s inquisitive, combative detective; this Hamlet’s mission of revenge is a complicated one of flushing out his father’s murderer as well as the purpose of life itself (‘To be or not to be’ comes a full act earlier in the play than is usual).

As a brain-on-a-stick actor, Cumberbatch’s only rival is Simon Russell Beale, whose own Hamlet was far more glazed and cerebral; Cumberbatch is quaveringly alive and ‘in the moment’ from the off, leaping on the banquet table to wish his sullied/solid flesh would melt, not as an expression of defeat but as an experiment in human consciousness.

This makes absolute sense, as the greatest soliloquy of all (‘How all occasions do inform against me’) is the one speech that places his tragic dilemma in the wider context of humanity as a whole, soldiers fighting for a barren patch of land and going to their graves like beds.

Cumberbatch charts this journey of discovery with fiery intelligence and growing self-awareness. He’s always in charge of his own madness, which takes the form of playing toy soldiers in a child’s castle. Ophelia (an excellent Sian Brooke) has been switched off for ages, photographing goblets and picking out stray notes on the piano with her brother Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). An aghast Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) is left holding her camera as she strides out, and over the rubble, to the glassy stream.

Prussian military uniforms jostle with Horatio’s checked shirt and backpack, unspecified modern costume, Frank Sinatra on Hamlet’s gramophone (‘Why not take all of me?’), and Hamlet’s sweatshirt and ‘King’ cloak for the players’ scene. Thus the feeling is reinforced of responsibility to the state acting as a brake on personal expression, and that’s exactly Hamlet’s situation.

Voltemand and Osric (denuded of his camp banter) are both working ladies in suits at the court, Fortinbras is played by Estonian actor Sergo Vares and Ciarán Hinds is an imposing Claudius. Jim Norton’s Polonius, among others, disappoints, but once the general level of performance has cranked up a few notches, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet might prove memorable beyond his own star turn.

Until 31 October at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (30 seats on sale daily at the box office; broadcast to cinemas on 15 October): 020-7638 8891,

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