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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet isn’t a very good Hamlet


I attended a preview performance of Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, at the Barbican in London on Thursday night. I hadn’t bothered trying to get tickets because it sold out instantly as soon as the show went on sale a year ago, and pretty much the only way to get one at this point is to camp out overnight at the theatre in the hopes of snagging either a returned ticket (as if anyone is returning these tickets) or one of the handful of £10 tickets the Barbican releases each morning. I like Cumberbatch a lot, but not enough to camp out. But, astonishingly, a friend of a sister of a friend in the U.S. who had somehow managed to get tickets last year ended up not being able to make the trip over, and her bad luck became my good luck.

I state all that only to give you an idea, in case you’re not aware, of the frenzy this show has generated; it’s the fastest sellout in the history of the British stage. Not that anyone is buying a ticket to see a four-hundred-year-old play about a mopey prince, of course. Everyone is buying a ticket to see Benedict Cumberbatch. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what thrills you. And there’s no question that there is a thrill to being in the same room as, in the personal presence of an artist whose work you really, really like (even if they never know it’s you watching). It’s easy to get the sense that the people we see on TV and in movies aren’t real people, not really, so to see them in the flesh is a powerful thing.

And in that sense, in the “oh my god that’s Benedict Cumberbatch!” sense, of course this Hamlet is enjoyable. I enjoyed it on that level, and it was totally obvious that everyone else in the Barbican did too.

But as a play? As Shakespeare? As Hamlet? This is not good. It might be the worst Hamlet I’ve ever seen on stage. It’s a bit Hamlet for Dummies, or The Hamlet Experience. There’s no emotion or urgency to the play, because it’s more interested in rushing from one Good Bit to another than in crafting relationships between the characters or any subtext to the action. Ophelia and Gertrude have been rendered as total nonentities — we have no idea what sort of relationship either of them have with Hamlet, and it’s hard to shake the sense that someone figured it was better to spend more time with the guy that everyone has paid to see than with the women (although any fangirl could have told them that we totes want to ’ship Hamlet and Ophelia!). The play has been chopped up and rejiggered into Hamlet’s Greatest Hits: it opens with the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, which makes absolutely no sense at all if you want to tell a story that builds to its hero contemplating suicide, but perfect sense, I suppose, if this is a rock concert that has to open with the song everyone knows.

(For comparison’s sake, see what I wrote about David Tennant’s Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.)

As for Cumberbatch’s performance, it’s almost impossible to judge it when the play itself is such a mess. The whole thing simply failed to engage me on any level: I felt like the whole cast was just going through the motions.

I can say this without reservation: The set is absolutely gorgeous. It’s the huge center hall of a palace that could be anywhen in the 17th, 18th, or 19th century. (The costumes are a mix of modern casual dress and 19th-century military.) And then after the intermission, we return to find it transformed in a way that I’ve never seen done in live theatre before. It’s absolutely astonishing, and I don’t know how they’re doing this and resetting it every night.

I don’t want to rain on Cumberfans’ excitement. I hope everyone enjoys the show as much as they want to. In fact, it’s probably impossible not to, particularly for the fans who are flying in from Japan and the U.S. and other farflung places, who’ve never been on a plane before, never been to London before. (Stories about these fans are everywhere in the press.) But those people are bringing their own energy into the theatre with them. I wish there’d been a similar energy coming off the stage.

Now, I have to think about whether to go see this Hamlet again in the cinema in October, when it will be transmitted live around the world. I already have that ticket (they were easier to get), so I might as well. It could be interesting to see if/how the show develops over the next couple of months.

UPDATE 10.16.15: I did end up attending the live cinemacast last night. A few thoughts on that here.

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