HAMLET by Shakespeare, , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Lyndsey Turner, Set design -Es Devlin, Lighting - Jane Cox, The Barbican, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet © Johan Persson

“Who’s there?” The opening words to Hamlet are usually spoken by a soldier on watch, but in this much-anticipated production, they fall to Benedict Cumberbatch’s prince. Lyndsey Turner’s staging starts, not on the castle battlements, but in Hamlet’s room, where, lost in thought, he is startled by the arrival of his friend Horatio.

The switch feels piquant, given the hoopla that has surrounded this production. Cumberbatch’s immense following has prompted frenzied media coverage, arguments over early reviews, and the lead having to beg people not to film the show. Who’s there, indeed. (In my view, critics should, in the main, respect the preview process and theatres should respect audiences by charging less for preview tickets.)

But now, after all the fuss, the play is finally the thing. And what we get is not the greatest Hamlet, but a fresh, dynamic staging with a vivid, supple performance at its heart — a production packed with ideas but marred too by rough cuts and strange bits of rewriting.

The changed opening is one of several textual interventions, and, though it loses something — the first mention of the ghost, the suggestion of a general sense of unease — it emphasises something too: Hamlet’s isolation, suspicion and fear and the significance of identity throughout Shakespeare’s play. It launches a production that plays Hamlet almost as an expressionist thriller, in which we are drawn into the prison of his mind as, trapped, spied on, lied to and muted, he struggles to dig out the truth.

This Elsinore (stunningly designed by Es Devlin) is a grand and chilly palace: the action never budges from a vast, ornate room, which becomes increasingly symbolic of the oppressive weight of the past. A programme note refers to a “conspiracy of silence” in postwar Germany and, though the setting is never that specific, the sense of a younger generation being alienated and infantilised by the secrets of a recent past is palpable. Hamlet’s words “But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” stand out.

For his soliloquies, a complete switch of lighting takes us into his haunted head and traumatised perspective: the walls suddenly appear cracked with damage, and the hidden past becomes visible. Cumberbatch delivers them with lovely, fluent ease. He slips into “To be or not to be” (now sited before the arrival of the players) almost casually, as if the thoughts fighting in his head had forced their way out of his mouth unbidden.

His Hamlet is lithe, restlessly intelligent and believable, a very persuasive portrait of a young man driven to bitter cynicism and despair by his impossible position. In his fake madness, designed to fox and taunt his minders, he dresses up as a toy soldier, parading around a children’s fort in military dress. It’s weird, funny and sardonic, expressing his enforced limbo.

As the secrets begin to spill out, the palace itself is invaded by rubble, until the characters have to pick their way across a bomb site. Nowhere is this more effective than in the brilliant delivery of the scene between Gertrude and the grieving, maddened Ophelia. Sian Brooke’s distressingly disturbed Ophelia picks out notes on a piano, and the music continues in ghostly fashion after she totters out over the debris and Gertrude, realising a moment too late where she has gone, scrabbles after her.

There’s a superb Gertrude from Anastasia Hille, who gradually caves in with remorse and grief, a gruff, sly Claudius from Ciarán Hinds and an earnest, likeable Horatio from Leo Bill.

There are, however, plenty of casualties too. Some of the cutting, tailoring and changing makes sense, but much of it grates and some seems completely counterproductive. Why reduce the role of Jim Norton’s Polonius and cut his best speeches down? Important narrative clarity and psychological detail get lost too often — Claudius’s conscription, to his own ends, of Laertes’ wrath, for instance — and the ending feels rushed and messy, with Hamlet’s death curiously unmoving.

It’s a bumpy affair then, with some hits and some misses. But this is also an epic, restless engagement with the text, highlighting the price of silence, led by a charismatic and intelligent Hamlet in Cumberbatch.


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