Theater/Cinema Capture Review: Hamlet at the Barbican

Thursday night, I skipped watching my Bruins play Stanford in a college football game (thank goodness… we got our asses kicked), and instead headed down to my local cineplex to watch the “live” stream of Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet from the Barbican in London, as part of the NTLive (National Theatre) series. I’m going to be very curious to hear what any of you thought… because I’m thinking I may be in the minority here.

I’m sure Benedict Cumberbatch is a great Hamlet or has one inside him. It’s just that this ain’t it, people.

A couple of years back, Cumberbatch was in another NTLive production, Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein, in which Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated in the roles of the doctor and the creature. Why do I mention this? Because this production, this Hamlet, as directed by Lyndsey Turner, was for me a lumbering beast, pissed-off, violent, trying desperately to be eloquent but coming off as merely a monstrosity.

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet (the characterization, not the play), however, is not monstrous in any way. And I’m not sure that’s a positive. He’s the sanest of the Danes I’ve seen. There doesn’t seem to be any moment when his antic disposition is anything but an act, no moment when either we or he wonders if maybe it might be more than an act, when his hold on reality isn’t completely rock solid. And while that doesn’t diminish the sense of danger in his external situation, it does limit the fear we feel for him in his internal life.

This might have worked in a production where everything else was in the same human scale as he was, but the production is–with apologies to The Donald–YUUUUGE. The stage: huge. The props: huge. The lighting and sound effects: huge. The music cues, so oppressively huge that you just want to turn down the volume. And the less said about the inexplicable first act-ending hurricane of debris that covers the stage with rubble for the second act, the better.

Anyone who’s been around this blog for a while knows I LOVE it with they play with the text. Starting the play off with Hamlet listening to a phonograph of his father’s favorites songs (yes, it’s modern-dress… to the point where some snarky critics was calling it the hoodie-Hamlet) and seeing his palpable grief: cool. Horatio coming in alone to be reunite with his friend: that works too. Move next to Act One, Scene Two and the court scene: I’m in. Losing much of Act One, Scene One (the exposition is actually moved to the next time we see the sentries waiting for the ghost), that works not as well as the other alterations, but I’m still good with it. But the movement of The Speech to its “Bad Quarto” location earlier in the play? It didn’t seem to have a purpose or payoff. Nor did the move of Claudius and Laertes’ scheming to kill Hamlet from Act Four to after the graveyard scene. NOTE: according to some reports, in some of the early preview performances, The Speech was actually at the beginning of the play. Now, I want to see how THAT worked (but I guess it didn’t since it was moved back to its current location). So from a text perspective, I didn’t have many problems with the changes/cuts (though I did miss some of the more bawdy aspects of Ophelia’s first mad scene).

The performances, while not bad, did not for the most part  come up to Cumberbatch’s level. Which is just further proof to me that Cumberbatch does have a great Hamlet in him… just not this one.

Would love to hear any dissenting opinions…

btw, for the last few days on the treadmill, I’ve been watching Slings and Arrows on HULU… man, I love that show…

here’s the Hamlet-related first season theme song…

So, no, I don’t recommend the CumberHamlet, but I highly recommend Slings and Arrows

2 Replies to “Theater/Cinema Capture Review: Hamlet at the Barbican”

  1. I am sooo relieved to find that I am not the only one who felt this was less than stellar. My gosh, you and I are on the same page. One of the things you didn’t mention is the inconsistency in Hamlet’s actions. He has the energy to act mad, to rage loudly whenever possible, yet we are supposed to believe that he thinks himself a coward for not taking revenge. Hell I almost forgot this was supposed to be about revenge; it felt more like a play about a guy who wanted to give his new step-dad a hard time.
    Not only was time out of joint, I felt the scenes were out of joint, oh and don’t get me started about the final act. It was like watching speed dating.
    What was up with the rubble??

    1. Yup… you nailed it.

      Giving step-dad a hard time is not exactly Shakespearean-level stakes.

      As for the rubble, I guess I get the symbolism: Denmark is screwed up. But here’s the problem: are we supposed to believe that this “rotten” state happens all at once… ONLY AFTER Hamlet is sent away? No, it was messed up long before that. I would have bought it more if we saw tangible evidence growing throughout the first act: a boarded up door here, a broken staircase there, paintings falling off the walls… THEN when Claudius sends Hamlet away, you can let loose with the rubble.

      Great commentary, Sari!

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