“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” Hamlet tells his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Unfortunately, the director (Lyndsey Turner) and designer (Es Devlin) of the Barbican’s Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, do not seem to have listened. With the vastness of the Barbican stage transformed into an exquisite castle and Shakespeare’s text chopped in a way less than flattering to the supporting characters, Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet is a production scrambling to keep up with the stardom of its lead, yet continually falling short.
From the earliest previews, this Hamlet has been embroiled in critical controversy. The Times’ two-star review called it “Shakespeare for the Kids,” the Daily Mail gave it five stars, claiming, “nothing is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and the Telegraph calls Cumberbatch, “a blazing, five-star Hamlet trapped in a middling, three-star show.” As both a proud member of the Cumbercollective (we can all agree to retire the label “Cumberbitches,” can’t we?) and a PhD student in Renaissance drama with a particular interest in the text of Hamlet, I was beyond excited to snag tickets for two performances in early October and see for myself.
Originally, the production came under fire for opening with the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. By the time I showed up in October, the speech had long been reinserted into the body of the show, but a myriad of other textual cuttings and rearrangings remained. Some were genius: placing Hamlet’s soliloquies in the middle of the action, with the other actors moving in slow-motion around him, perfectly captured how most of Hamlet’s action takes place in his brain.
Other changes only obscured the play’s meaning, like eliminating the opening ghost scene and replacing it with Hamlet and Horatio (Leo Bill) casually chatting. The dialogue in this section originally leads up to Horatio telling Hamlet about the ghost, but since the spirit has yet to appear, their discussion merely ends. Even worse, Polonius’ part (played unusually speedily by Jim Norton) was heavily cut, missing many individual lines and even a whole scene. I will admit Polonius’ platitudes are hardly central to the plot, but removing them not only weakens Polonius but also Ophelia (Sian Brooke) and Laertes (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), as well as eliminating a host of much-needed comedic moments.
When secondary characters get a chance to command the stage, they do indeed manage to shine, but only briefly. Ciarán Hinds’ Claudius was alternately sympathetic and genuinely terrifying during his few solo moments onstage, but in Act Two he was reduced to sprawling on the floor at gunpoint or slumping against the banisters as Hamlet forced him to drink the poison. Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, similarly, brought real feeling to her description of Ophelia’s drowning, but her own death was glossed over and her final lines given to Horatio.
What the play lacks in textual integrity it attempts to make up with an ever more bizarre, if stunning, array of set pieces and props. The wood-panelled halls of Elsinore, complete with staircase, balcony, double doors, and banquet table, were superb, but the decision to use every corner of the stage meant that several key scenes (such as the ghost’s appearance or Hamlet’s chance to murder Claudius) were completely out of sight for a chunk of the audience. Hamlet’s toy soldiers and play-castle were amusing, if slightly overblown, but Ophelia’s camera was puzzling and her piano duet with Laertes teetered between sweet and gimmicky. The (comparatively) simple lighting and sound was effective, but the over-the-top stylized movement was distracting (do we really need a quasi-interpretive dance as Hamlet stabs Laertes?)
All that said, Cumberbatch’s performance makes this a Hamlet to remember. Cerebral, yet always accessible, hilarious, but dark and serious, channelling a terrifying stillness before erupting into motion, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet combines the genius we all loved in Sherlock with the sincerity of his Oscar-nominated performance from The Imitation Game. His chemistry with the other actors may be somewhat lacking—I never believed his love for Ophelia or friendship with Horatio—but, after all, Hamlet is not a character who plays well with others.
Ultimately, Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet is a self-defeating project. In casting Cumberbatch as the lead, the production has thrown itself into a spotlight that it valiantly tries to deserve, but the expansive set and quirky props cannot make up for the textual cutting that only serves to further fix Hamlet in the central position he already held. As both a Cumberbatch fan and a Hamlet nerd, I showed up at the theatre waiting to see a brilliant performance. As I left, overwhelmed with the technical aspects of the production and unable to fully appreciate the acting, I could not but think, like Hamlet, “Yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”