Benedict Cumberbatch, Hamlet Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo by Johan Persson

Hamlet
By William Shakespeare
Barbican Theatre, London #hamletbarbican
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

The curtain goes up and there HE is, alone and palely loitering, listening to Nat King Cole's 'Nature Boy' on a small record player. The Cumberfans have made it this far and applaud gently, probably for themselves as much as for him. This could be Broadway, and not in a good way.

No, he doesn't launch into "To be or not to be". They moved that back to Act III (you don't keep up with the popular press do you?) but boyhood is a central motif of Lyndsey Turner's epic new production for Sonia Friedman Productions. This is a Hamlet who still clings to childish things, dressing up as a Toy Soldier and ever keen to tease the doddery old Polonius with word play. Jim Norton is in excellent form as the "foolish, prating knave".

There seems to be two broad approaches to The Dane. There's the hot-headed youth who, whilst banished to England, rediscovers his inner Prince and darts back to Elsinore with the swagger of an Errol Flynn. Then there is the Madman interpretation. The former is preferred of movie stars (all that swashbuckling) while the latter is for the Method boys, who choose their particular mental disorder and take it from there. Benedict Cumberbatch aims for a Third Way and tries a bit of both. Sadly it doesn't add up.

Everything that is notable about Cumberbatch the actor is all in evidence: the keen intelligence, the beautiful voice, the physical grace, the utter mastery of the verse speaking (his soliloquies are exquisite) but his Hamlet is too steady and too self-aware to be believable as the quixotic procrastinator.

The supporting performances are all solid. Ciarán Hinds perfectly captures the dark, wily Claudius and Anastasia Hillie gives us a Gertrude who is almost an innocent, bewildered by the dark forces she's unwittingly unleashed. Sian Brooke too finds a centre to the ever-thankless part of Ophelia.

The upside of all the media brouhaha and the money cascading in, is that they gave lots of it to Es Devlin to spend on a fantastic set. It's a gloomy Edwardian country mansion, a vast hall with a grand staircase fit for Lucia di Lammermoor and it fills the huge expanse of the Barbican stage. It all has a whiff of Balmoral about it.

Katrina Lindsay's costumes are a melange of periods but the young ones are of course dressed modern and casual, in short, cool. God forbid they mightn't be 'relevant' for the fans. This is a flaw. Hamlet was never cool was he? During a party he'd be outside the window peering in? Thus star power trumps the text.

Devlin is probably the hottest stage designer in the world right now, with Kanye West and Lady Gaga tours and the Olympics under her belt and she does deliver the wow factor here. Sadly however she then ruins it in the second half by flooding her set with dirt. Having the cast hobble across mounds of muck and rocks is a mistake, like trying to put stillies on in a coal shed and it unsteadies both the actors footing and our engagement with the play.

Design burdens apart, Turner's staging is crisp and the ghost scenes, for example, are handled with an adroit simplicity. She cuts an hour from the text and, blessed with actors who are pros at The Bard, can focus instead on giving the piece momentum. This makes it an admirable introduction for the neophytes but the downside is that it often appears rushed and so loses emotional nuance.

Cumberbatch could just recite the phone book and gals from Tacoma to Yokohama would still be camping outside overnight. He probably isn't the best casting for the Dane but you do have to admire his gumption.

Tickets: hamlet.barbican.org.uk

Benedict Cumberbatch, Hamlet Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) and Anastasia Hille (Gertrude). Photo by Johan Persson

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