When Lyndsey Turner’s production of Hamlet first arrived at the Barbican in 2015, it was one of the most anticipated and hyped-up shows in the history of London theatre. Ticket sales went through the roof, not least because Academy-nominated actor Benedict Cumberbatch was set to play the infamous and tragic lead. Mesmerising, innovative, and haunting, the production’s 2017 encore, screened two years after the success of its first run, is credit not only to superb and near-faultless acting, but also to Turner’s powerful artistic vision and daring.
Cumberbatch delivers a performance that is electric, multifaceted, and unexpectedly playful. This playfulness in particular is what sets Cumberbatch so clearly apart from the recent actors who have gone before him. Unequalled in eloquence and intellect, equipped with a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet embodies a unique confidence and cockiness that allows him to mock to the point of cruelty without ever coming across as dislikeable. Unlike this decade’s much-admired performances by David Tennant, Jude Law, and Ben Whishaw, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is admirable and even affable: he lights up, joyful and delighted, as he embraces his friends, and expresses as much deep sorrow and misery at others’ suffering as he does his own. Cumberbatch defies convention in that he makes Hamlet less cruel, less isolated, less prone to rage, and altogether more sane and easier to sympathise with than any of his predecessors. It is difficult therefore to despise or even truly feel threatened by Hamlet when he lacks the unpredictable and dangerous volatility of a man on the edge, and is instead usually rational and agreeable. The calculating menace of Hamlet’s schemes and indeed the internal personal torture that he undergoes are quickly diminished, if not forgotten, in the face of Cumberbatch’s personable glee as he enthusiastically orchestrates events, moving about with boyish vigour and excitement.
Similarly, though Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is surprisingly funny, rather than benefitting the narrative, this is oftentimes reductive; his quips are delivered with such pace and flippancy that they tend to lose their edge, and, under Turner’s direction, Hamlet appears to treat most scenarios with a sense of humour that is, as opposed to portraying further madness, simply out of place. When Hamlet wiggles his hips to jazz, crawls into a toy castle, or parades across a table-top in a bright red costume, he is as far detached as possible from the dark and serious soliloquies, ugly murders, and disturbing fits of passion that characterise the play. At first glance, this can leave audience members feeling confused and unimpressed. The tragic nature of the play is certainly at risk of being lost in these moments of absurdity, and it is harder to take Hamlet for a serious and realistic character. Nevertheless, the satirical, superior nature of Hamlet’s criticisms, juxtaposed with his moments of tearful and erratic grief (as the other characters are plunged in darkness), reveal that there is a significant difference between Hamlet’s light-hearted persona and his tumultuous emotional reality. With this in mind, the farcical elements of Turner’s production become all the more tragic; we can’t help but pity Hamlet as he attempts bravado, being all the while suffocated by people of inferior minds who constantly attempt to deceive him, fatally aware of his tragic role in avenging his father’s death. On seeing Cumberbatch’s desperately moving, stilled sincerity in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, where he starkly shifts the tone from comic to tragic, it is impossible not to commend the casting choice and emote with and for the character. Turner, in choosing this direction, questions the extent to which Hamlet really is mad, and how much he is a victim of the corruption of those around him.
As well as sensational casting, a huge contributor to the play’s acclaim and success lies in the fact that the show is a visual masterpiece. Designed by Es Devlin, the set’s permanent structure resembles a grand mansion, palatial in its decadence and yet clearly decomposing. Perhaps once vibrant, the opulent carpets are faded, and the tarnished blue-greens of the walls appear both archaic and painted-on; you can almost see the brush strokes. With gorgeous chandeliers, hundreds of candles, and an overflow of trinkets, Devlin introduces us to a world of unapologetic extravagance and splendour, yet subtly refers both to nature and death throughout, most noticeably through the littering of animal skins, antlers, and stuffed birds across the splendid dining table in the opening scene, and in the overflow of earth and dust that has poured into the space come the second half. Devlin’s set impresses not just because it is specifically and relentlessly symbolic, but because it is unnecessarily beautiful: Ophelia’s contemporary obsession with photography, though of little relevance to Hamlet, seems strangely appropriate given the stunning aesthetic of the set; we too are compelled to pay attention to small and deliberate details. It is no wonder that the set has been criticised for distracting from the characters themselves, but Devlin’s design is such a display of creative genius that it is part of what makes theatre so uniquely enjoyable to witness, and the play is the better for it.
Turner’s decisions to use modern dress, dramatic monochrome lighting, slow motion surrounding a point of real-time, variable music, and the transitional sounds of advancing locomotives results in an imaginative blending of the contemporary and the Shakespearian – Turner has been utterly fearless when it comes to reinventing the text, translating it into a distinct production that is both attention-grabbing and poignant. The show detaches itself from conventional confines and does a superb job of incorporating new forms of theatre and technology in a way that enhances the piece but does not entirely reinvent it.
Though the show is no stranger to criticism, and even seeing it streamed through a screen, there are moments in which this production left me breathless. From the atmosphere created during Ophelia’s heartrending downfall to Cumberbatch’s stoic yet vulnerable delivery of Hamlet’s most striking and emotive lines to the outstanding visual artwork, it is no surprise that this was the fastest-selling play in British history. Once again, the National Theatre Live proves its prowess in producing and broadcasting some of the most incredible theatre of the moment.