A Short Review of Cumberbatch's Hamlet

Some Thoughts on the 2015 National Theatre Production of Hamlet , with Cumberbatch at the helm

The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently touring its successful 2016 production of Hamlet , a UK-wide tour that somewhat bizarrely will end in Washington D.C. on May 6th 2018. Paapa Essiedu has received wide acclaim for his performance as the prince, but three years ago Benedict Cumberbatch did not make quite the same waves.

The critical reviews for the 2015 production, directed by Lyndsey Turner, were bafflingly mixed. Some thought Cumberbatch too boring, a good but unremarkable Hamlet, whilst others raved about him but were disappointed in the production as a whole. Let’s not forget though that it received a total of four Olivier Award nominations, from set design to best overall revival of a play. Personally, I enjoyed what Turner produced; here’s what I made of it all.

Whenever a major production company revisits one of the really famous plays, the world of theatre drives itself into a frenzy wondering what ‘take’ will be put on it. Turner’s Hamlet was no different, and courtesy of having Cumberbatch at the helm the play sold out a whole year in advance of the performance, with tickets selling at record speed. Personally, I hoped and prayed that Turner had not chosen to apply a painfully modern twist to proceedings on the grounds that no one needs another experience like Alex Cox’s 2002 adaption of The Revenger’s Tragedy …of course this is just my opinion but I found it scarring.

Firstly, Cumberbatch himself was a powerful and captivating Hamlet. The famous soliloquys showed him at his emotional best, happily stamping down Branagh’s Hamlet with his sheer breadth of expression. Comedy too featured large, and much of this was due to Cumberbatch’s ability to retain humanity whilst portraying a homicidal and wholeheartedly bitter malcontent. However, for me Mel Gibson and David Tennant still hold the crown of greatest modern Hamlets; they chose to stress his anger and madness respectively, where Cumberbatch strove for balance.

The production itself originally caused controversy by placing the English language’s most famous quote, “To be or not to be”, in the very opening scene. Critics were quick to beat this down, screaming in horror until Turner hastily restored order. After a potted start, I found the directorial side of Hamlet very enjoyable. Some elements of the script were altered but worked nicely, and the focalisation on Hamlet by means of slow-motion achieved tastefulness instead of the tackiness that it perhaps sounds close to. The use of special effects and dramatic lighting did not detract from the cast as some have suggested, and really were in-keeping with the macabre atmosphere.

One facet I considered a little bit disappointing (though her nomination for an Olivier Award disagrees with me here) was Es Devlin’s set. It transforms the Castle of Elsinore into a regal stately home, not problem in itself, but I thought that in the end the single set simply couldn’t adapt itself well enough to the variety of locations Shakespeare’s tragedy visits. To cover the outdoor scenes in the second half of the performance, the entire set is simply covered in a two foot deep blanket of woodchip. This does look quite impressive (particularly for Ophelia’s climactic journey to her death), and I’ll happily concede that a focus on the characters is no bad thing, however given the amount of special effects and dramatic lighting used the set seemed strangely static and conventional.

Elsewhere, Ciarán Hinds was suitably austere as Claudius, Anastasia Hill wonderfully meek as Gertrude and Jim Norton as good a Polonius as any other before him. From the rest of the cast only Ophelia (Sian Brooke) stood out as a little flat, but to her credit I’ll forever be comparing Ophelias to Helena Bonham Carter's supremely raving 1990 film interpretation.

In summary, Turner’s Hamlet is well worth a watch, regardless of whether you are a diehard traditionalist or are watching it independent of past precedents. The cast is strong and between the actors and Turner’s careful direction Shakespeare’s play retains the raw emotion that can be so easy to lose when modern effects come in to play. Only minorly let down by a couple of unfortunate components, it was a thoroughly emotive and deeply intriguing performance that is likely to appeal to thespians, casual audiences, and of course avid Cumberbatch fans.

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