Theatre review: Hamlet at the Barbican

Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) in Hamlet at the Barbican. Picture: Johan Persson

Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) in Hamlet at the Barbican. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Benedict Cumberbatch shines as the tortured prince and while too dark at times, Hamlet is worthy of the hype, says Bridget Galton

‘The play’s the thing’ says Hamlet. But in the frenzied anticipation to this production’s opening – convention busting previews, pesky mobile phones and all – the focus has been more on who, rather than what, was on stage.

The excitable Cumber-fan sitting next to me certainly didn’t seem to know what she was seeing, but for first-timers to this five act tragedy, there’s a helpful plot summary in the programme.

So what of the stage business? Lyndsey Turner’s nigh-on two hour first half has the clarity, freshness and momentum of a thriller. From the moment Es Devlin’s visually sumptuous Scandi-inpsired baronial home is revealed at the wedding banquet, until Claudius orders Hamlet’s death, we are bowled along by this tale of a grief-stricken young man dismayed by the wickedness that surrounds him.

There is much sardonic, dark humour in the play, and Cumberbatch is a gifted physical comic actor, but there’s little levity here. Apart from the moment he assumes Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ feigning madness dressed as a tin soldier in a giant play fort and firing at his enemies – he is all anguish – a suicidal rather than vengeful Dane.

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In the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene, his viciousness to Sian Brooke’s febrile, painfully sensitive Ophelia is cast as justified paranoia, as she desperately tries to warn him of the listeners at the door, he’s just lost one of the few he could trust.

His face-off with Anastasia Hille’s nervy, guilty Gertrude sees them both grappling in misery on the floor.

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By the end of a downbeat second half in which the rotten state and threat of war is embodied in mountains of debris blocking the grand doorways, Brooke offers a harrowing depiction of Ophelia’s madness, and Gertrude looks increasingly trapped in her second marriage, I could have done with some lighter moments amid the gloom.

The usually excellent Ciaran Hinds makes for a stiff rather than menacing Claudius, and I never did work out why in a production whose visual inspiration drifts from fin de siècle to the 30s and 50s, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet was toting trainers and Yoda Tee-shirt.

But if this lavish, richly layered occasionally thrilling Hamlet didn’t quite carry me along to the end, it certainly justified the hype.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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