William Shakespeare may be the most recited, studied, acted and investigated poets of all time, but nothing excites a theatre buff more than another adaptation of one of his classic tragedies. Add actor extraordinaire Benedict Cumberbatch to the mix, and you’ve got the recipe for the perfect play!
Staged at London’s Barbican Theatre from August to October this year, Hamlet became the fastest-selling show in British theatre history, and almost exclusively because of Cumberbatch’s involvement. He is serious hot property right now, and deservedly so. He’s played one of the world’s greatest detectives (Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock), one of Britain’s greatest minds (enigma code cracker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) one of sci-fi’s greatest villains (Khan in the modern reboot of the Star Trek franchise), and one of the LOTR cannon’s greatest beasts (Smaug in The Hobbit). Now, he’s one of theatre’s greatest anti-heroes in an eclectic new outing from NT Live.
Directed by Lyndsey Turner (Posh, Chimerica), Hamlet tells the tale – as I’m sure you all know – of a country and family at war. Forced to avenge the brutal and calculated murder of his beloved father, Prince Hamlet rages against the impossibility of his predicament, threatening both his sanity and the security of the state.
Cumberbatch’s last filmed and broadcasted theatre stint was in Danny Boyle’s steampunk adaptation of Frankenstein, in which he alternated between the roles of the Creator and the Created with Jonny Lee Miller. A stunning success both on stage and in cinemas, Cumberbatch proved his acting chops in sensational fashion in a dual role many thought would be impossible to trump. Enter, Hamlet. His hero is epically bi-polar. Nasty and neurotic one moment, witty and wondrous the next, there’s an intensely exhausting method to his changeable madness. He begins the play broody and alone in his bedroom listening to Nat King Cole croon from a gramophone, shielded by his hoodie like a grumpy teenager. The delivery of iconic lines are refreshing too, as Cumberbatch alternates between heartbroken and distressed to bumbly and even slightly camp.
It becomes pretty clear that the visual world of the play is quite contemporary. The events and language is still very much of the period (although chopped and changed slightly), but costume and prop wise, it is not of the era. Hamlet’s best friend Horatio (portrayed by Leo Bill) is presented, basically, as a hipster complete with fluffy beard, neck tattoos, flannelette shirt and oversized glasses. British actress Sian Brooke’s beautifully fragile Ophelia is expectedly all tear-stained and flower sniffing, but also in modern dress and carrying a camera wherever she goes. Hamlet wears a tailcoat with the words KING sprawled on them in glow-in-the-dark paint, and at one wonderful point, even sports a comical David Bowie t-shirt.
Irish actor Ciaran Hinds is a solid Claudius, villan-y, but at times wooden. Cumberbatch’s Great Dane becomes a Great Pain for Claudius, as he begins to reveal the circumstances of his father’s death, and killing him off as well becomes the next plan of attack – for both of them. Anastasia Hille (best known recently for horror films such as The Awakening and The Abandoned) is one of the best Gertrude’s in a long time. See-sawing between devotion for her late husband and her lust for her new one, Hille’s confused Queen doesn’t play the Oedipal complex so hideously and nakedly explored in the Glenn Close/Mel Gibson version, for once giving Gertrude the chance to break down and break out (her scene in the bedroom with Cumberbatch is a revelation).
When discussing Hamlet, there are some scenes you can’t avoid. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is an iconic early sequence, and acting veteran Karl Johnson (the blind man alongside Cumberbatch in Frankenstein) does a good job of making him mysterious yet sweet, in a shroud of greenish fog and thunder. The “to be or not to be” suicidal monologue comes quicker than expected, and Cumberbatch delivers the lines as if for the first time. The “alas, poor Yorick!” skull sequences is another quiet moment of wonder, allowing Johnson to reappear as the gravedigger with some well timed and place humour.
Supporting cast wise, it’s a good lot. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith brings fleeting intensity to his Laertes (a fantastic black actor despite casting a white father and sister) and Jim Norton looks the part as Polonius, although he does lack the humour the script encourages. Matthew Steer and Rudi Dharmalingam are solid as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively, with the former playing the fool ever so slightly for the audiences benefit.
Set design wise it’s nothing special – a bit medieval glam gothic with chandeliers and stuffed animals – but it’s what the actors do with it that counts. Cumberbatch dances atop dining tables, along balconies and in model castle cubby holes, and Ophelia winces barefoot through mounds of rocks. Paired with a subtle yet emotive score by Christopher Shutt, the result is fluid and consistent. Bret Yount creates good fight sequences, but the background movement pieces by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui are stunningly subtle and poignant.
Running at over three hours, this play is a marathon event. Cumberbatch commands the stage for almost every minute of it, and I dare you to take your eyes off him. I may be bias because I’ve been lucky enough to meet Cumberbatch and experience his excellence up close, but there’s no denying Shakespeare has been made proud in yet another theatre outing for Hamlet. To see or not to see? What a stupid question. Yes, obviously!
Hamlet screens on December 3rd, 5th, 6th, 17th and 18th at Cinema Nova. Tickets selling fast!