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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To film or not to film, shouldn’t even be a question

Oh, Benedict Cumberbatch. As if we didn’t love you enough already.

Exactly a year ago today, I’d just triumphantly completed my booking for Hamlet at the Barbican, after several hours monitoring multiple browsers and waiting impatiently to make my way up from 8,000th in the queue to number 1.

I won’t be seeing Hamlet until September, but a lucky few already have; the production finally opened for previews at the Barbican last week… and it’s already making headlines.

First, there were all the fans who flew in from across the world to catch a glimpse of their idol, whether they had tickets for the play or were just hoping to spot him outside the theatre.

Then there was the controversy caused by the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, who published reviews based on the first preview, rather than waiting until press night like everyone else. (If we can really use the word ‘review’ to describe Jan Moir’s gushing report, which included illicit and poor quality photos, and totally ignored the rest of the cast. Who knew Hamlet was a one-man show…?)

And now Benedict Cumberbatch himself has made a special stage door appearance to plead with fans not to record during the play. Which really should be common sense – but apparently isn’t.

Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would want to record a live performance. Doesn’t that sort of negate the whole ‘live’ part? If you’re watching it through your phone, then you’re not really watching it, and even if you view your video again later, it’s hardly the same thing. It’ll probably be pretty poor quality, and a bit wobbly, and the sound won’t be great, and you’ll realise, too late, that maybe you should have watched it live in the first place. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I see Hamlet next month, I want to remember watching and experiencing the play – I don’t want to remember filming it.

Then there’s the fact that it’s really distracting – for people sitting nearby, and, more importantly, for the actors. It always amazes me how many theatregoers don’t realise that when their phone lights up, they’re not the only person who can see the glow, especially in a dark theatre.

And finally, there’s the all-important question of respect. The actors on stage – any stage – have worked for months to prepare for this performance; it’s not like they’ve just rocked up on the day like we have. So don’t we owe it to them to sit quietly, pay attention and listen? And if not, there doesn’t seem much point in going to the theatre at all – we might as well just wait for the inevitable DVD version.

I don’t honestly know if this latest appeal is going to have any impact (neither Kevin Spacey nor James McAvoy seem to have had much luck getting people to put their phones away), and I’m willing to bet most of the fans who were at the stage door, and – ironically – recording, were more excited to have seen Benedict Cumberbatch than interested in what he was actually saying. But hopefully the fact that the video’s gone viral will at least get people to consider the issue, and think about why it’s so inconsiderate. We live in a generation that’s programmed to take photos first and look later – but there’s a time and a place for that, and the theatre is neither.

We’ve all waited a long time for this, so let’s not ruin the experience – for the actors, for the audience or for ourselves.

Hamlet at the Barbican

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird at the Barbican

Unbelievably, until late last year I’d never read Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. (My school made us study Of Mice and Men instead.) And so, in a moment of madness, I decided not to see the production at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2013 – then regretted it, when everyone started telling me how good it was.

Well, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again, so when the production transferred to the Barbican at the end of a national tour, I jumped at the chance to go and see what all the fuss was about. And now I get it.

For anyone else like me who’s been in the dark all this time, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about innocence and injustice in the Deep South, seen through the eyes of a young girl, Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch. Scout and her brother, Jem, live a comfortable life in the small town of Maycomb, surrounded by the eccentric townsfolk and morbidly fascinated with their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley. Then their father, Atticus Finch – who both children think is pretty old and boring – is hired to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Suddenly Jem, Scout and their friend Dill are exposed to a new world, in which an innocent man can be condemned because of the colour of his skin, and the most unlikely characters can suddenly become heroes.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Barbican
Zachary Momoh as Tom Robinson. Credit: Johan Persson –

The charm of the novel lies in its narrator, Scout, who makes us reconsider the horrifying events of the story from a child’s perspective. Timothy Sheader’s production captures that childlike spirit to perfection, as the company take it in turns to read aloud from the novel, slipping into costume to play their part in the story, and crawling around the stage on their hands and knees to draw a rough outline of Maycomb in chalk.

The three young stars of the show – on this occasion played by real-life siblings Jemima and Harry Bennett, with Leo Heller as Dill – give incredible performances. I couldn’t believe it was Jemima’s professional debut; she’s warm, funny and has all the simple innocence of a child, and yet there are moments, particularly when dealing with the men in her life – Jem, Dill and Atticus – where a matter-of-fact young lady can be glimpsed hiding just beneath the surface.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Barbican
Jemima Bennett as Scout.
Credit: Johan Persson –

Meanwhile, the true hero of the story, Atticus, is brought to life by Robert Sean Leonard. Seen first through the eyes of his children, he seems a little dry – but his wry smile, and, later, his fierce passion as he stands up for what’s right, soon reveal him to be a far more complex character. Leonard’s performance is spellbinding; I’ve rarely heard a theatre so silent as the moment when he sums up his defence case, with the desperate look of a man who knows it’s probably futile, but is determined to try.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Barbican
Robert Sean Leonard as Atticus Finch.  Photo by Manuel Harlan

What I enjoyed most about this production, though, is its loving homage to the original text. Each member of the company, as they file on to the stage, picks up a copy of the novel and holds it aloft in a silent salute, before beginning to read. There’s no need for a fancy set or dramatic effects – the production allows Harper Lee’s work to speak for itself in a faithful retelling of a classic story. After all, why change something that was already perfect to begin with?

If you get the chance to see this production before it closes on July 25th, don’t pass it up, because you might live to regret it. To Kill a Mockingbird, like the novel on which it’s based, is deeply troubling and yet, at the same time, utterly charming. It makes you question things that as adults, we tend to take for granted, and leaves you feeling a little like a child yourself. But I think we all need to feel that way from time to time; being a grown up is overrated.

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