Hamlet at the Barbican

We all know the sorry tale of this Danish Prince. Performed hundreds of times every year around the world, if you are going to mount a production, you better make damn sure it’s a good one. Tickets for the Barbican production starring Benedict Cumberbatch sold out before it was even close to premiering so for starters we must say that it is damn good business for the Barbican, and damn good business in theatre is hard to come by so for that well done.

The problems with this production are clear from the start. The Barbican stage is an absolutely mammoth space to animate. Filling it with Shakespeare’s tragic tale would present a challenge to most companies, unless it were performed as a circus piece with the doomed prince flying across the stage on a trapeze. As such we were presented with the most beautiful interior of a Danish palace more or less set in the 1930s  with turquoise walls and doors mounted with oil paintings, swords and antlers. Beautiful as it was, it seemed more like the set of a movie. Instead of being filled constantly with the action, it felt like it was being filled by extras, courtiers and servants, tidying things up and faffing about in the background.

The lighting was used very interestingly at times, with strange spiderweb like projections creeping onto the walls. Hamlet, in the course of his personal discourses would be accompanied by dramatic changes in lighting. Benedict Cumberbatch was tremendous as the protagonist, but the direction of the piece given the challenges of the enormous space was overdone. The introduction of a large toy castle and life-size toy soldiers, whilst used to support his feigned madness, seemed to be geared for laughs. What of characterisation: the young man brooding on his father’s death abruptly adjusting his youthful idealism to a deeply cynical understanding of the adult world in which his nearest family members have so blatantly transgressed?  Frenetic, manipulative and often a fury in the egotism of the young he goes headlong to death.

Although being quite beautiful to look at, and having a starring actor so adept as Benedict to portray Hamlet, the production didn’t quite seem to gel. Casing point would be the moment Hamlet goes to stab Laertes. The lights change, everything goes into slow motion, and all the people standing around start dancing. A bit odd. At other times, other smaller roles delivered lines very strangely. It was a bit of a shame as we had hoped for more from this production. In the end, the Ninegawa company’s Hamlet earlier this year conveyed the drama more effectively. Had it been in a smaller more intimate venue it would have been better, although what-ifs mean nothing in the real world. If you are going to do something so overly performed as Shakespeare you must make sure you do it in an interesting way. Sadly for this show, they brought nothing new to the table.

Highlight of the show – the sword fight.

Wigs 3/5

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