«Hamlet» at the Barbican
Whether ‘tis nobler in the (audience) to suffer......Wed 05 August 2015 - Sat 31 October 2015 Barbican, London
«Hamlet» starring Benedict Cumberbatch has been one of the most anticipated theatre productions of this year. It is running now at the Barbican to sold out crowds until mid October, but no chance to find a place. Perhaps some numbers to prove the point. The production has been announced approximately 2 years ago and a year ago Barbican opened the booking line to purchase tickets. They were sold out in minutes. MINUTES. Mascha from Russia managed to snap the tickets, but not without becoming the Patron of the Barbican in the meantime.
Financial success of the production was guaranteed, but the big question on everyone’s mind (including my own) was whether the production will indeed be a masterpiece, or a spectacular flop.
Luckily, or perhaps not so much, it was neither. It was one of these “interesting and amazing experiences” that in the English language is almost a euphemism for expectations being half met and slight tingling of disappointment.
Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor. No, wait, Benedict Cumberbatch is a WONDERFUL actor, whether on or off the screen. He is powerful, compelling, physical and absolutely modern in his approach to this timeless piece. He breezes through the tongue-twisting Shakespearian verse, even jokingly intonating it in a modern way to highlight the almost unchanged subject matter of the humour. He breaks down the cognitive barriers and reaches out right to the audience: Shakespeare’s humour is our humour, the disgust and torment is our torment. The only place where this chemical bond starts to break down is when he has to pretend to be mad. He is just too logical, too rational. There is a murmur of non believability in the audience, despite very much enjoying the view of Mr.Cumberbatch dressed as a tin soldier giving us a complete pantomime performance. In reality, this is more of a question to the director than the actor.
Don't get me wrong... Cumberbatch tackles this role with ferocity and vigour and a tsunami of talent, which outshines the rest of the cast. Yes, that’s quite harsh, but unfortunately the casting of the production was more than dubious with a lot of the actors (as good as they might be in other plays where I have seen them) were just not able to hold their own in this production. Some were overpowered by the language, struggling to articulate and not forget the words, some (and unfortunately that includes most of the female cast) just wanted to portray clichéd and outdated take on female hysteria and neuroticism. This was especially strange since the director and most of the creative team are themselves women.
In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch could have easily carried off this play as a one-man show, similar to what Kevin Spacey has done in “Clarence Darrow” at the Old Vic Theatre. It would have stretched and challenged him further and made for an intense and intriguing viewing. The current production just felt lacking in vision and message (besides the well delivered “To be or not to be".
The set design was elaborate, ornate, detailed and clearly expensive. The explosion of confetti styled black rubber bands onto the stage at the end of act one was a pure delight. Act 2 opened with the stage quite literally drowning in the very same rubber little pebbles over which the actors, as best as they could, were walking, crawling, struggling through. It made for a beautiful visual representation of decay and “rottenness” of the state. The mise en scènes during the soliloquies were inventive, with the cast largely present on stage breaking into slow motion, hushing conversations mid sentence to an articulated silence. It was a very cinematographic and hallucinogenic trick for the audience, and very well executed too.
But no one should complain if they get to see Cumberbatch live in “Hamlet”, its just a shame that it wasn’t “Frankenstein” in which he starred with Johny Lee Miller. Throwback moments. Alas!