Disclaimer: I’m no theatre expert. I haven’t even studied Hamlet – it wasn’t part of my school curricula. I just read it on my own, with the Italian translation next to it, because I can understand Latin better than Shakespearean English. So I won’t remember whether a line was missing, or a passage wasn’t pronounced right – soz. But I queued online for three hours last year to get tickets to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet off the Barbican website, and I’ll be damned if I don’t review it. Here’s what an average Joe like me can expect from the most talked-about play of the summer.
Cumberbitching. This is what brought thousands of people – men and women, teenagers and grown-ups – to queue online for ages just to hear (and see) the man himself say:”To be or not to be.” Hell, I’ve even seen a bunch of people camping outside the Barbican with blankets and shit at 6 am during my morning run.
When I got into the theatre last Saturday, the hype was high. Stage three is probably one of the few theatres where the scene is actually bigger than the space reserved to seats. So after a few minutes of swooning over the sinking-ship/slipper slope type of scenario you encounter if you could only afford gallery seats, I sat down crossing my fingers for a good performance that I could actually see from so high up.
Turns out I could – really well. When the curtain opened on Benedict Cumberbatch, I was drawn in by his towering height and his mighty voice. Needless to say, his Hamlet was absolutely marvellous: hearing that voice shout and engage in mad Shakespearean soliloquy does something to you. You can definitely see Cumberbatch’s path as an actor in his Hamlet: his training together with the Sherlock playfulness and his faster than the speed of light Imitation Game monologues carried the whole production making it as current and relatable as it could be for people of all walks of life.
But Benedict Cumberbatch is only leading a production already perfect in itself. In this play directed by Lyndsey Turner, the towering scenery by Es Devlin isn’t unlike a decayed yet still grand colonial Louisiana mansion. Katrina Lindsey’s costumes are modern yet not shallow, a mixture between Hamlet’s laid-back dark jeans and t-shirt and Gertrude’s elegant yet sombre silk dresses, passing for Claudius’s classy Boardwalk Empire type suits.
Claudius himself (Ciarán Hinds – known to the general public for interpreting the Wilding commander Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones) rivals Benedict Cumberbatch in his powerful delivery of the play. A strong, musical voice, always accompanied by the performance’s apt choice of music, a cross between the modern electronic, the jazz rave and the classical, contributing to the drama like a character.
A modern-day Ophelia (Sian Brooke) with a short, playful bob haircut proves to be the most interesting character in the play, her madness a perfect blend of all our modern shows, almost reminding me of the whimsical David Lynch heroines.
When the curtain fell, the auditorium exploded in a never-ending applause. Ultimately, we were all there to see one of the most talented actors of this generation deliver his version of a classic play. If a line was switched, or a passage was reinterpreted, who cares? Isn’t that what we wanted to see, a version of Hamlet, rather than its copy-pasted interpretation from previous performances?
Surprisingly, there was no major outburst of Cumberbitching during the performance, no crazy screaming or swooning. Judging by the stage door pictures on Twitter, I just wouldn’t have wanted to be Benedict Cumberbatch, signing all those autographs with a terrorised stare.
This version of Hamlet, a modern rebirth of the classic play, was a triumph. But then again, I might be slightly partial…
Pictures by Johan Persson for The Barbican
For the Italian version of this review, please check Italian Kingdom.