To rave or not to rave, that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the stares and artistry of outrageous Cumberbatch. Or to take arms against a sea of fangirls…
Hamlet is one of those roles that most great actors strive to take on at some point in their career. This theatre season came the turn of Benedict Cumberbatch, Academy Award nominee and star of Sherlock, with the performance being shown on cinema screens around the world due to popular demand.
The play’s run at the Barbican this year is the fastest selling London theatre show in history, something I experienced myself in not being able to get tickets to the live performance. The show was advertised extensively and persistently; although, with a leading man like Cumberbatch, who can blame them?
Going into my cinematic experience, I was unsure what to expect – Cumberbatch is a fantastic actor; anyone can see that, but I was intrigued as to how the whole production would fit around its star. My answer: pretty seamlessly. With a spectacular set, the scene changes were rehearsed down to a tee, the cast bouncing and gliding from one side of the stage to the other, creating a both energetic and enigmatic spectacle.
Though some critics have noted Cumberbatch’s tendency to outshine the rest of the cast, it is not his fellow actors that drag this production down. What I found occasionally tedious was the tendency to dwell on whimsical humour. The play itself begins with Hamlet sitting onstage with an old record player, listening to music and going through his dead father’s possessions – with Cumberbatch being six-feet-whatever-he-is, this all seemed a bit twee. We later get an instance of Hamlet playing dress-up, him prancing around on a table set for dinner, dressed like a toy solidier. While I can see that this allows Cumberbatch to bring out the sassy flamboyance we sometimes see from him in Sherlock, I was not entirely convinced by its appearance in Hamlet. The frequent use of childish humour made Hamlet likeable, but somewhat detracted from the introspective element of Hamlet’s character – with an actor like Cumberbatch, Hamlet could have been explored so much further psychologically.
That being said, Cumberbatch is radiant in every scene he graces. Some of the best scenes are the Nunnery scene, with Hamlet and Ophelia (a mesmerising Sian Brooke) bringing both the best and worst out of each other, and the scene of Polonious’ death, Anastasia Hille’s Queen Gertrude suddenly coming to life in the presence of Cumberbatch’s slowly maddening prince.
It is, however, during the titular character’s signature soliloquies that Cumberbatch comes into his own. Elevated by the camera’s ability to take close up shots of those piercing blue eyes, his drawn-out performance oozes concentrated introspection – you really feel it. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet slides seamlessly between personas – one of the most multi-dimensional performances of the character I have seen.
In essence, a great Hamlet makes a great Hamlet, and this production is most definitely worth a watch.
National Theatre Live – Hamlet at the Barbican – My verdict: 8/10