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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Barbican Theatre


  Anastasia Hille and Benedict Cumberbatch/ Ph: Johan Persson

After a year or more of speculation, anticipation and a raft of bizarre stories in the press including its leading man having to defend himself against his own plaintive appeal that his hyper-fervid fan base behave itself, Benedict Cumberbatch has finally opened as Hamlet in a production from the director Lyndsey Turner that – against the odds – privileges the visuals over any individual performer.
That much is certainly surprising given an off-the-charts level of interest in a production that sold out a year in advance of opening and that, in purely Bardic terms, adds little to our gathering comprehension of arguably the most famous tragedy in the canon. Indeed, it surely won’t be lost on its eminently capable man that Cumberbatch is occupying a role that has been played at different times by five  other actors all currently or very recently to be found on the London stage: John Simm, Rory Kinnear, Ben Whishaw, Edward Bennett (who was David Tennant's excellent understudy and went on for quite a lengthy run)  and Jonathan Slinger. The Sherlock star can hold his own against any of his predecessors and – in the compare and contrast sweepstakes – is probably closer to the physically agile, visibly pained Danish prince memorably essayed a quarter-century or more ago by Daniel Day-Lewis, the difference being that Day-Lewis cut so emotionally to the quick that he had to exit the production before doing himself undue psychic damage. He walked off the stage of Richard Eyre's National Theatre production claiming that he had seen the ghost of his own, not long-deceased father. 
Cumberbatch doesn’t walk that febrile a knife edge (thank heavens, otherwise he’d go mad even if the character might not), and neither his performance nor Turner’s production has that element of danger – or is remotely moving. The shortfall in terms of sheer feeling surely owes something to the pictorial grandeur of a portrait-laden, staff-filled Elsinore (set designer: the protean Es Devlin) that is capacious in the extreme and against which the actors near the start look like so many stick-insects jockeying for position. Cumberbatch’s rather hokily spotlit soliloquies notwithstanding, the cast only begins to come into focus once the set fills in the second act with rubble and debris, the rot in Denmark having come home to roost in a scenically interpretive gesture toward the text that put me in mind of the famous Stephen Daldry/Ian MacNeil An Inspector Calls from 1992.
A manchild first seen in thrall to the plaintive Nat King Cole recording of “Nature Boy” (“a very strange enchanted boy,” so the lyric goes), Cumberbatch’s Hamlet has the agility of a gazelle as he leaps on and off banquet tables, struts into view dressed as a toy soldier and play-acts a degree of emotional devastation one suspects is no joke. The performance is beautifully articulated and well-spoken, and its ready engagement tends to eclipse a large chunk of the supporting cast, too many of whom count for surprisingly little – Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude, beehive hair and all, especially (not that Ciaran Hinds’s parched, physically unimposing Claudius gives Hille much to work with).
Jim Norton has a moment or two as Polonius, and this fine actor is too wily to let the edits to a truncated text – the performance runs just in excess of three hours, so notably short for this play – do too much damage. Sian Brooke, to her credit, is one of the very best Ophelias I’ve seen: a difficult role here taken without breast-beating or emotional grandstanding but as a wounded spirit who takes to the piano in despair before taking herself to an early grave.
The audience was quiet and respectful – and noticeably young, which is always gratifying to see at an art form assumed forever wrongly to be dying. And I didn’t notice a single instance of the disrespect that had prompted early columns in the press pointing to a fan base that didn’t seem to know how to acquit itself in public. Quite what they will take away from so serviceably clear if emotionally remote a production is anyone’s guess given an evening that perhaps can’t help being anti-climactic and, in terms of its affect, opts for distance and disengagement over the necessary Hamletian thrill of danger. 


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