Event Review Hamlet @ The Barbican

August 26, 2015

Every year, there is one theatre event that steals the limelight from every other show in the West End. It’s such an event that the newspapers cover it en masse, various reviews seeping out before the review embargo is officially lifted, while feverish fans defend their idol from the various criticisms that are no doubt lobbied their way. This year, the theatre event of 2015 is undoubtedly Hamlet at the Barbican, where Benedict Cumberbatch is taking on the titular role as the Prince of Denmark as all around him critics descend into madness. When really, it should be the other way around...

The Barbican is a hell of a venue. That’s the first thought that crosses my mind as we take our seats, the ushers holding up signs to ensure nobody takes photos and that all phones are switched off. Not silent, but off. They take things seriously at the Barbican, perhaps in lieu of Benedict Cumberbatch’s plea to his fans to enjoy the performance and maybe, you know, not record it? There can’t be anything more annoying for an actor than a red dot in your eyeline. Or indeed, for an audience member to see the glare of Cheryl’s phone shining back at you as Hamlet begins one of his many famous speeches.

Thankfully, the audience are well behaved on Saturday night and the Barbican’s safety curtain duly lifts revealing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in all his glory. He’s casually dressed and listening to a record player. Early previews apparently kicked off with “To be or not to be...” but this has been moved back in tonight’s performance. Who’s to say where it featured on the official opening last night? Horatio (Leo Bill) interrupts Hamlet’s record session and after a brief chat, the wall lifts to reveal the majesty of the stage in all its glory. The Barbican no doubt sports one of the largest stages in London and with Lyndsey Turner (Posh) taking the reins, the production has made full use of their space, creating a gargantuan glimpse into the dining room of a grand palatial home. No matter where you sit, there is no chance of seeing any stagehands. This is a truly immersive theatrical experience.

The work from the set designer Es Devlin and lighting designer Jane Cox - and no doubt their team - is truly something to be admired; there must be six or seven different entrances and exits for the ensemble cast to make use of, mostly in the form of double doors, with the diegetic and non-diegetic sound design from Christopher Shutt combining with the visual spectacle to create many breathtaking moments. Time slows, characters rewind and the piano provides a gorgeous way in which to tell the tragic tale of Hamlet; Ophelia’s (Sian Brooke) exit beautifully composed. But do not despair, the play makes use of humour and will strike a chord with young and old alike due to its stunning and playful approach to one of William Shakespeare’s most impressive works.

And what of Benedict Cumberbatch? Indeed, it is he that garners most excitement from the crowd - one need only cast their eye towards the stage door upon leaving the Barbican for that to be confirmed; swathes of fans eagerly stand in the night sky desperate for another chance to see the man they’ve just spent three hours observing. Added to this, it is his name that has no doubt created such fervour – it features prominently in all the promotion and the play itself is even billed as ‘Hamlet Starring Benedict Cumberbatch’ on the official Google listing. William Shakespeare surely never predicted that. In short, Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is superb. He has something about him which makes him an eminently engaging performer and delivers his various monologues with deft transference. Be it on a table dressed as a soldier or simply pondering his future, there’s a lot to admire. Cumberbatch imbues his Hamlet with sarcasm and neat comic timing that is rarely seen, creating a well-rounded character that the audience is able to get behind from the get-go; Ciarán Hinds’ Claudius proving the perfect foil.

The play itself is delivered in timeless fashion – when is it set? Who cares? There are rotary telephones in bright red and green (certainly coloured to draw the eye), typewriters and Converse trainers on display. Traditional but modern with it. The stage too transforms in the second half, bringing to mind the destruction of the World War but then, the fencing jacket in the play’s final act is undeniably modern. In short, Hamlet is a timeless play, Benedict Cumberbatch does a sterling job and everybody involved deserves high praise. This is a wonderful production that deserves to push ‘Cumberbitches’ and theatre fans into madness, a rather beautiful irony that works perfectly considering many were calling the initial decision to have the definitive speech at the opening of the play, a destruction of Shakespeare’s original intent in some form. Enough perhaps, to have one looking to take some form of revenge..? Do not be deterred, this is a production you’ll want to see.



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By Henry Fosdike