Review: Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet


To be or not to be - that is the question. Whether, as initially reported, Shakespeare's most famous speech had been diminished by opening the play - or, by showing Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet to be a tormented soul for whom suicide has long been a hovering possibility - Lyndsey Turner's hugely anticipated production had found a new way to explore the Danish prince's state of mind.

As it turns out, the speech has been moved again since those prematurely reviewed preview performances. The order of things is still rejigged. We don't open on Elsinore's battlements but with Cumberbatch's Hamlet listening in solitude to records like a sullen teenager.

It's an image of regression explored to the hilt after Hamlet realises his dad was murdered by his uncle. He doesn't so much throw his toys into the corner of the room as take them out. This psychological response can make sense. But the problem with this approach is that Cumberbatch's prince is so worldly, witty and urbane that it comes across as a self-indulgence that he'd ridicule mercilessly in anyone else. He dresses in a soldier costume plucked from an old toy chest. Oddly - really oddly - it still fits. What else has he got in there that can illustrate the insecurity induced by knowing that your mother is sleeping with your father's murderer - a big nappy?

So, in Es Devlin's astonishingly beautiful set, most of the action takes place in Elsinore's panelled interior of aquamarine, which works much less well when the play's action is located beyond the castle's walls - an initially arresting idea ultimately ends up serving the play less well than it should.

And although Cumberbatch - pale, sinewy and noble - deploys a great deal of comic irony as he bangs his toy drum and marches around in his red soldier's tunic, there is not enough irony in the world to make sense of this very adult Hamlet behaving like a spoilt schoolboy.

More telling still is that the production's most moving moments relate to the condition of others rather than the grieving prince - when Anastasia Hille's Gertrude is forced by Hamlet to confront her taste in men since her husband's death, or when Sian Brooke's Ophelia stumbles like a lost child down one of Elsinore's gloomy corridors towards her destruction.

Still, if his Hamlet doesn't move the emotions the way he should, Cumberbatch still mesmerises with technique. The language is spoken with crystal clarity. And what the Sherlock actor lacks in vulnerability he makes up for in sheer stage presence. Well almost.

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