Review: Hamlet at the Barbican

They say good things come to those who wait. And we certainly waited. Over a year after managing by the skin of our teeth to grab some tickets for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, the day finally arrived last Saturday. I’d been going out of my way not to read any reviews, but couldn’t avoid the headlines – unscrupulous newspapers, famous speeches being put in the wrong place, public appeals for audience members to behave – and after all the hype, I was interested to see if the actual production would live up to expectations. So did it? Mostly…

I might as well start with the obvious question – how good is Benedict Cumberbatch? And the answer is – not entirely surprisingly – very good. Unlike some previous incarnations of the character, you have the feeling his Hamlet is always more or less in control of events (although perhaps that’s just because we’re so used to seeing him outsmart everyone in Sherlock, and so naturally assume he knows what he’s doing). And in a play that’s notoriously short on good news, he breaks the tension with his ‘mad’ scenes, which see him playing at soldiers while his uncle, the king, prepares for the possibility of a real war with Norway. He certainly owns the stage any time he appears, and in a more intimate setting, I imagine his performance would have been pretty mesmerising.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet
Credit: Johan Persson

But the Barbican is not an intimate setting; it’s a huge space, and, particularly for those of us sitting further away, a little of this emotional connection gets lost. Not to mention that the entire cast are completely dwarfed by Es Devlin’s jaw-dropping set. Seriously, it’s been a week and I’m still coming to terms with the sheer scale and magnificence of it; it just goes on forever. I’m not complaining – it’s a visually gorgeous set – but it does distract a bit from the performances, because there’s just so much to look at on the enormous stage.

Hamlet at the Barbican
Credit: Johan Persson

Hamlet is, of course, not a one-man show – but if Cumberbatch is good, what about the rest of the cast? I enjoyed Leo Bill’s anxious nerd Horatio (although it wasn’t totally clear why he always had to be carrying his massive backpack around), and Jim Norton is an entertaining Polonius, whose tyranny towards his daughter seems born of genuine concern. Sian Brooke’s Ophelia really makes an impression in the second act, when she’s heartbreaking in her madness; her final exit, as she stumbles slowly off into the distance, is one of the most powerful scenes in the whole production. Ciarán Hinds, unfortunately, is a bit of a mumbler as Claudius; both he and Anastasia Hille, who plays Gertrude, are at times inaudible. True, we were sitting in the back row, but we still needed to know what was going on.

Hamlet at the Barbican
Credit: Johan Persson

The play itself is Shakespeare’s longest, and even with some scenes cut, the first act comes in at a bottom-numbing hour and fifty minutes, ending with a dramatic climax that may or may not have been designed to startle anyone in danger of nodding off. The second act, in contrast, is a whole hour shorter; then again, the interval does fall at the most appropriate point in the story, so maybe we have to blame Shakespeare for that one.

Anyone who knows me will realise this is an unusually critical review, from someone who’s usually irritatingly positive about everything. So just to be clear – I really did enjoy Hamlet, and had it not been such a big deal, I’d probably be raving about it right now. Lyndsey Turner’s production is massive and dazzling, and makes a long play which – let’s face it – involves a lot of talking and not a lot of doing, feel like a tense psychological thriller. The problem is that the bar was set so incredibly high that the play would have had to be perfect in every way to live up to everyone’s expectations, and it wasn’t – quite. So perhaps it didn’t blow me away, but I still loved it.

Hamlet at the Barbican
Credit: Johan Persson

And – bonus – there was not a mobile phone to be seen. Well done, Benedict.

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