The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.377 Wednesday, 26 August 2015
Date: August 26, 2015 at 12:23:08 PM EDT
Subject: Review: Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Hamlet’
Review: Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Hamlet’
By Ben Brantley
Aug. 25, 2015
London — He is, he complains sulkily, “too much in the sun.” That is correct on so many levels.
When the title character of “Hamlet” offers this self-diagnosis early in the highly pictorial production that opened on Tuesday night at the Barbican here, the image matches the word. For the Prince of Denmark is at that moment standing at the exact center of a lavishly appointed banquet table. And while it is presumably nighttime, the sun’s rays seem to have followed him there, and haloed him.
It’s not just that he’s the only one wearing black, or scowling, that sets this guy apart. He is cocooned in his own special (and literal) radiance, the celestial equivalent of a spotlight devised by the lighting designer Jane Cox. He looks, for all the world, like a saint in an old-master painting, embracing both martyrdom and apotheosis.
Well, what better way to frame an actor whose appearance in Shakespeare’s best-known tragedy has turned the Barbican into an international shrine? That actor, of course, is Benedict Cumberbatch, star of stage, screen and “Sherlock,” and the object of a vast, worshipful cult whose raison d’être I have never quite fathomed. (I think you might have to be female to fully understand.)
Before I go any further, let me say that Mr. Cumberbatch is good enough as Hamlet to make me wish he were even better. But about that blinding glare that has fallen upon him and this production, which has been staged with stately pomp and madcap flourish by the director Lyndsey Turner (“Machinal” on Broadway) and the set designer Es Devlin.
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It began to seem as if stupefying fame surely qualified as one of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and that this Hamlet would wrestle as much with the shadow of his portrayer’s celebrity as with the usual issues of vacillation, procrastination and suicidal tendencies.
It thus pleases me to report that at the (officially sanctioned) critic’s preview I attended, everyone behaved impeccably. There was never any hint of Dionysian communion between idol and idolators. There wasn’t even entrance applause for Mr. Cumberbatch, whose Hamlet (in this rejiggered version) is seen onstage alone (listening to Nat King Cole singing “Nature Boy”) in the show’s opening moment. What’s more, the audience sat, silent and respectful, until the final curtain, a brisk three hours later. Nobody ever seemed restless.
Nor should they have. Full of scenic spectacle and conceptual tweaks and quirks, this “Hamlet” is never boring. It is also never emotionally moving — except on those occasions when Mr. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is alone with his thoughts, trying to make sense of a loud, importunate world that demands so much of him.
Eschewing the chic black-on-black minimalism of London’s last celebrity heartthrob “Hamlet” (starring Jude Law, directed by Michael Grandage), Ms. Turner’s version is an extravagantly royal affair. Ms. Devlin has created a grand, cavernous stateroom in a Danish palace that has seen better days but still looks intimidating. (Katrina Lindsay’s costumes mix timeless ceremonial uniforms with 21st-century sportswear.)
The photo-realist detail of the set might lead you to expect a purely naturalistic production. But wait. This kingdom comes equipped with king-size symbols. So when Hamlet decides to feign madness (to lay a trap for his wicked uncle, Claudius, played by Ciaran Hinds), he dresses up like one of those giant toy soldiers he keeps in what appears to be his childhood playroom, along with what looks a big bouncy castle.
When Claudius sends Hamlet to his death (or so he thinks) in England at the end of the first half, his announcement of these evil plans is accompanied by a tempest of flying detritus. When the audience returns after intermission, the stage is covered in ash and rubble, as if Denmark had been bombed by its enemy, Norway.
All of this looks pretty fabulous, but it doesn’t always correspond to what’s happening. And some of the interpolations are seriously irritating.
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The supporting cast — I use the term advisedly — scarcely registers throughout except as mobile scenery, though Mr. Hinds’s soft-talking, “Godfather”-like Claudius is at least a defined character. The women in Hamlet’s life — Ophelia and his mother, Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) — are such whispery, self-effacing presences you expect them to evaporate.
Though embodied by the fine actor Jim Norton, Polonius has had his garrulous part so shrunken that it’s hard to credit him as the pompous windbag of others’ descriptions. Leo Bill’s bespectacled, backpack-toting, plaid-shirted Horatio is a geeky sight gag. And it’s never a good sign when those immortal nonentities Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Matthew Steer and Rudi Dharmalingam) emerge as the most colorful of the secondary characters.
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