… the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet.
A year after buying my tickets, I saw London’s latest Hamlet this week, directed by Lyndsey Turner and starring superstar Benedict Cumberbatch as the Danish prince.
Oh Lyndsey, why did you take one of my favourite Shakespeare quotes out of the text?
‘Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart!
It should be right there at the opening of the play between two guards, but as the solid black curtain rose on the Barbican’s grand stage, I noticed your star Cumberbatch sitting there. Okay, I thought, things have been moved around a bit. But then, I never heard the quote.
The story tells of Hamlet who has recently lost his father. The new king is now his uncle, who has married his mother. One night, his father’s ghost tells him that he was poisoned by his brother and Hamlet decides to avenge him. However, he must tread carefully. While he’s the only one to have seen the ghost, is he going mad? Or is he just pretending to be mad to seem harmless to the members of the court? This play presents so many philosophical questions, from what the point of life is to why women wear make up (God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another).
The stage at the Barbican really is quite big, and in previous visits, I noticed how one could sometimes disconnect with a play’s action. However, this week, I sat in the 2nd row, lucky me! I was quickly drawn in and noticed how well the stage was set and decorated by Es Devlin.
The first half presents us with the interior of an old mansion house over two floors, with beautiful blue walls, portrait paintings and grand doors. While the walls could have alluded to warmth, there was a cold feeling throughout the location, which was highlighted by Jane Cox’s atmospheric lighting, with light sun rays coming through certain upstairs rooms. The second half, which follows the stage and audience being submerged with dirty snow-like black confetti, is dark and rough: we are now outside. The soil is wet and rotten, and seems to be just waiting for new corpses.
The costume design by Katrina Lindsay was less clear to me, but I explain the contrasts between modern and more classic dress with the one between old and new, death and life.
Horatio (Leo Bill) wears modern geeky dress and backpack and Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) wears her hair as a sophisticated lady of today would, but Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) has a more 1930s look while the players who will stage a play for the court appear in 60s hippy dress.
Hamlet finds himself somewhere in between. As he starts showing himself to the world as having lost his mind, he dresses up as a nutcracker and walks and jumps around tables. Later, he sports a rock and roll T-Shirt. I would say that this apparent inconsistency is the first of the more experimental elements of this production.
Perhaps because I sat so close to the stage and was so drawn in by Cumberbatch’s compelling performance and that of his co-actors, I forgot the theatricality of the piece. It felt very real to me. This is why Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography, through running and dance sequences, took me out of the production’s naturalism, even though they worked well and illustrated the insanity and transition of certain characters.
The actors carried the play beautifully, smoothly creating a rhythm which never slowed down. Siân Brooke as Ophelia developed a tension in her body as the play progressed, and inspired sadness as she became weaker and weaker in her overwhelming surroundings. Ciarán Hinds was impressive and scary as the insensitive uncle Claudius.
There was nothing Sherlockian about Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and thankfully so.
Having only seen him on screen, I was so pleased to finally see him on stage and observe his full appearance. He is indeed a theatre actor who has been propelled into the film stratosphere. But one must note that the freedom of movement on stage and in front of a camera is very different. On screen, actors may seem taller or shorter, more or less muscular, and the audience focuses mostly on their facial expressions.
Watching him jump and run around the stage and question the universe/audience about his choices, whether with frustrated tears or furious jumpiness was simply pleasant and refreshing. He and Turner also succeeded in introducing a unique naturalism and humour into the character, who is equally isolated and attached to his best friends. He is very aware of his surroundings and I would say that him seeing his father’s ghost is not a sign of madness in this play.
Turner’s production of Hamlet was quite invigorating thanks to some of its tremendous actors and its very large but worrying and oppressive stage set.
The rest is silence.