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Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Hamlet at The Barbican

Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) in Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. Photo credit Johan Persson
Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) in Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. Photo credit Johan Persson

As Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the mantle of the Prince of Denmark, does he make a great Dane or a passably good one? That is the question, and as the star turn, he is certainly the brightest thing about this production.

It must be tricky to bring freshness to lines so familiar they have almost become cliched, but this sweet Prince does his level-headed best, causing hearts to melt at the “Oh, too solid flesh”, jumping on tables and shrugging off the slings and arrows of a few barbed reviews.

Director Lyndsey Turner aims to shed new light on Hamlet’s soliloquies by making the rest of the cast move in slow motion around him, a device used most effectively at the wedding feast, when Hamlet’s regal mother Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) marries his scheming Uncle Claudius (Ciaran Hinds).

All the complex emotions running through Hamlet’s mind are voiced in the time it takes the guests to rise from their seats and turn away from him, oblivious to his inner anguish.

The set by Es Devlin is in the style of a sumptuous stately home, dominated by a huge chandelier and grand piano, walls covered in family portraits and an armoury of weapons. A rocking horse, doll’s house and other toys lie hidden in the stairwell, mourning an innocence lost, as a grown man must put away childish things.

Faced with his father’s ghost and his mother’s betrayal of her late husband’s memory, Hamlet feigns madness and embraces his inner child, who comes out to play in a scene with toy soldiers and a castle.

The flashes of humour provide welcome light relief from the sense of impending doom which pervades the play, underlined by a musical score which is at times rather heavy-handed. Karl Johnson brings gallows humour to the role of grave digger and Polonius (Jim Norton) cuts a tragi-comic figure destined for an unfortunate end.

Ophelia (Sian Brooke) is highly strung from the start, which lends psychological depth to her subsequent breakdown, but leaves little room for a greater contrast in her moods, with barely a hint of the happier times which had gone before.

She finds comfort only in music, that lightning conductor of moods, singing sweet songs in the purest tones, and playing a moving piano duet with her emotionally volatile brother Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). In a world full of deception, music is the sole form of expression which strikes a true note.

Most of the cast deliver their lines with clarity and conviction, but a few tend to rush their words at times, perhaps aiming to keep within a performance time of three hours, but making their speeches harder to follow.

Dismissed by some reviewers as a dumbed-down version, this production changes the order of the original text and may not please the purists.

This is a performance for people who come along to see TV’s Sherlock in action, and end up getting what the Bard is all about. This is for families bringing children who have only ever experienced Shakespeare in the confines of a classroom, and are hearing the lines brought to life on stage for the first time.

If making Shakespeare accessible to a wider audience is the main aim, this sell-out production, due to be broadcast live in cinemas in October, is a runaway success.

4 and a Half stars

Review by Angela Lord

directed by Lyndsey Turner
starring Benedict Cumberbatch
5 August–31 October 2015
Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title role in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Directed by Lyndsey Turner (Posh, Chimerica) and produced by Sonia Friedman Productions, the Barbican presents an exclusive twelve-week run of this compelling new production in summer 2015.

As a country arms itself for war, a family tears itself apart. Forced to avenge his father’s death but paralysed by the task ahead, Hamlet rages against the impossibility of his predicament, threatening both his sanity and the security of the state.

Produced by Sonia Friedman Productions
Presented by the Barbican
Monday to Saturday 7.15pm
Matinee performances 1.30pm every Sat from 15 August 2015


1 thought on “Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Hamlet at The Barbican”

  1. I have read Hamlet several times and seen it performed quite a few times. I can not wait to see Mr. Cumberbatch in the live broadcast here in the States. Thank you for the thoughtful review and the opportunity to comment.

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