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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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.

posted in:
stage buzz
  • Jemcat01

    I think I might be Hamlet-ed out. I thought Rory Kinnear’s NT was excellent. Unfussy, lucid, no big flash sets, no rock star vibe. Just the performance and words.

    I’ve been flicking through the social media brouhaha about this current Barbican production as someone who loves a bit of backstage theatre gossip and it’s been fascinating. It’s been lovely reading the unfiltered excitement of the Cumberbatch fans as well as more measured responses. There has been a fairly consistent level of buzz, if not hyperbole for Cumberbatch but interestingly as much for the set. My favourite tweet to date was from someone who simply described the production design as ‘lickable’

    It does appear that the production team are playing with the text quite a bit during the very long preview period – three plus weeks? Honestly that seems somewhat generous. Very interesting that the 2B soliloquy has been taken out from the front of the production over the last few days and restored to its usual location, possibly to assauge some early criticisms. That does make me think though that the director either hasn’t settled on the shape she wants to give the play or doesn’t have the strength of her own convictions. Either way, it is strange that something so fundamental hasn’t settled in a production which has been in preparation for more than 12 months.

    I wasn’t intending to see this at the cinemas but the set alone is tempting as I do love to see the craft of production design and how this supports performance and I will be very interested to see how the final shape of the play has ‘re imagined’ Hamlet.

    Friends who have seen it are divided between whether the whole thing works or has sacrificed the text for novelty (although one saw it before they moved the 2B from the opening curtain), both were impressed by Cumberbatch but one felt he wasn’t quite ‘there’ yet, one thought him already transcendently great and both came back singing the scenery. Still in two minds though as to whether this is more an event rather than Hamlet. In today’s Instagram age, maybe it doesn’t matter anymore as the social media coverage, not the play’s the thing.

  • Jurgan

    “it opens with the “to be or not to be” soliloquy”

    Say what? Is this in medias res?

  • Jemcat01

    Apparently over the last couple of performances, this has now been dropped by the director and the soliloquy has been restored to its usual place. It’s quite bold to chop the play up in the way the first week or so of previews had it. Wonder why it was changed though? Does it affect the director’s bigger vision? How does it affect the set and layout. As it’s still in previews, maybe they are trying out a few different versions before they settle on one for the formal run. I’m really intrigued now.

  • I also think that three weeks for previews is ridiculous, particularly for a run that’s only 12 weeks in total.

    “The whole text has been sacrificed for novelty” is a perfect way to describe what I saw. And it’s hard to see how that can change at this point.

    This too: It’s more than a bit cheeky to ask £65 to see what is essential a rehearsal, if that’s really what they’re doing with this production. It seems like they’re doing a lot more work than is usual during this preview process. The play *is* the thing, but maybe they should have decided what they wanted to do with it before they started showing it to the public.

  • rattilia
  • Bluejay

    Wait, it’s still in previews? Isn’t it customary to withhold reviewing a play until it actually officially opens? A *lot* can change in previews, and gauging how well it works for a live audience is part of the process.

  • RogerBW

    If you’re letting the public in, and charging them, it’s not a “preview”. It’s a performance.

  • What do you think is interesting about it?

  • Well, usually previews are open to the public, but they don’t charge full price for those performances.

    I think it’s safe to say that most of the audience for this show probably doesn’t care about much except seeing Cumberbatch on stage. He could be reading the phone book for all they care.

  • That’s true. But unless the Barbican wants to invite me to the press night, this is my only chance to see the show. Note that I did not label this a review: it’s just my reaction to the performance I saw, as a paying member (at full price!) of the public.

  • Bluejay

    It could easily be taken for a review, though, since it’s a well-considered piece of moderate length (longer than some of your movie reviews) written by a professional critic on a review website (and you’ve said your reviews ARE your personal reactions to what you see). Perhaps a clarification in the article that what you saw was a preview performance?

    I’d be interested to see you *officially* review the cinema broadcast of the play and see if there’s been any improvement.

  • Peter Radcliff

    Broadway’s previews used to consist of out of town tryouts that lasted much longer than three weeks. People know that they are attending a preview, and if they’re willing to spend the money, so be it. You can’t open a show without performing before a live audience.

    The idea of a critic reviewing a show before it opens is abhorrent, yet I see everyone has done this to Hamlet. Previews are a time to work out the kinks and to see what works – yes, in front of a live audience. It’s up to you whether you want to be part of that audience.

    It wasn’t your only chance to see the show – people bought these tickets a year in advance and there are exchanges and cancellations happening all over the Internet. You could have waited. You didn’t. You wanted to write a review – yes, a review – while it was in preview.

    This will be a different Hamlet as the director is aware that there will be people seeing this who have never seen Shakespeare and perhaps have never been to the theatre. They are the ones you want to have in the seats in the future because the rest of us will be dead. In Turner’s effort to make it understandable and fun for the audience, she is probably experimenting with different things.

    I’ve probably seen Hamlet five times. The one I enjoyed the most was a production done by the Old Globe. The Hamlet was very young and really mined the humor. The audience was with it every second.

    Go ahead and spread the word that the soliloquy is in the beginning – even though it’s out now, I’m sure that will stick with people — and prejudice audiences who have seen it before so they will be sure to hate it. Cumberbatch isn’t “there” yet. Really.

    The London Times reviewed the first preview and said he didn’t have the necessary “quiet” for Hamlet. In the first preview. The Times deliberately sent someone who has trashed Cumberbatch in the past, who complained that he showed up at the interment (which she referred to as INTERNMENT, hotshot writer that she is) of Richard III.

    Face it – he’s too popular and too charismatic to have any snob appeal. He was written off by the elite the moment this play was announced.

  • bronxbee

    “Well, usually previews are open to the public, but they don’t charge full price for those performances.”
    i’m afraid those days are gone for good… here in nyc, previews cost the same as performances. i remember when “mezzanines” were called “the first balcony” and they were much cheaper than orchestra seats (and i preferred them for musicals), now they’re the same price as orchestra seats.

  • Laura Cantrell

    I am a Cumberbatch fan and I will be going to see this in October. Not only are flights cheaper in October, but it will give the theatre plenty of time to work out all the bugs that might be there during the opening week. I didn’t buy a ticket when they first went on sale because they sold out so fast. I signed up for newsletter from the Barbican and bought a ticket when they released more tickets for sale a month ago, cheeky theatre that they are.

    I have been going to plays for long enough to realize that not every play is the exact play that was written, and sometimes it’s vastly different from the original written play. Having seen Hamlet a few times and having read the play it would seem rather impossible to do that in under 3 hours on stage. I wouldn’t say it can’t be done, but there is a lot to the story to have everything exactly as it was written. That being said, and for as much of a Benedict Cumberbatch fan as I am, Mel Gibson was the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen, even if it was on screen, and Helena Bonham Carter will forever be the world’s best Ophelia, in my opinion.

    That being said, I am not the typical Cumberbatch fan that you read about (or at least as the media focuses on, media doesn’t focus on the normal or boring do they?) I would never refer to myself using the nomenclature someone decided on that has unfortunately become the popular term. I would never dream of filming or photographing someone on stage, no matter their celebrity status, or what they were portraying. There is a theatre etiquette that should always be followed out of respect of other theatre goers, the cast, and the crew, and the entire staff of the theatre that worked so hard to put together the play. It’s rude to film or photograph anyone on stage unless specifically told that photography is allowed.

    I am going to see whatever version of Hamlet the producer/director/writer decided on because Benedict is a phenomenal actor and has the ability and talent to become whatever character given him. I don’t care if they only took the most widely known soliloquies out of Hamlet and made that the whole play, or if they rearranged the whole thing and changed the story line, I really want to see him perform Hamlet, however it is envisioned. I also want to get his autograph, hopefully he will still be offering them in October, or maybe I’ll catch him around the city during my week there. I wasn’t able to get his autograph at The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug premiere, and I have been anxious ever since. I actually wanted to tell him I admire his ability and that my favorite role of his was Hawking.

    As for being the fastest show to sell out in Britain, that’s not surprising when you consider how popular Benedict Cumberbatch is; of course it sold out fast. I could only imagine it being similar to if George Clooney were to appear on stage in America, it would be sold out incredibly fast, not because of the play, but because Clooney would be in it. I can only hope that out of those who go see Cumberbatch as Hamlet, it gives people an introduction to theatre, if they don’t already have it, and people rediscover what it means to watch a play being performed live, in front of you, and the amazing experience that theatre going can be.

  • RogerBW

    Even if it is true that a production needs a preview run with a live audience (which many productions don’t get, so obviously it isn’t), if this is something for which people can pay money then why shouldn’t it be as fair game for reviewing as anything else?

  • The cinema broadcast will not be the same experience as being in the theatre, though.

    Interestingly, Digital Spy has posted what amounts to a review, and I haven’t seen anyone comment (either there or elsewhere) that that was inappropriate. Of course, they’re very cheerleading.

    Made small change to the post to indicate I saw a preview.

  • I’m not “the elite.”

    Broadway’s previews used to consist of out of town tryouts that lasted much longer than three weeks.

    Are you suggesting that that is in some way comparable to the way this show is being presented?

    When I acquired my ticket, I had no idea it was for a preview performance. Nothing on the ticket says it’s a preview. And generally only the theatre press knows when a press night is.

    Cumberbatch isn’t “there” yet. Really.

    I didn’t say that.

  • I hope you enjoy the experience!

  • Bluejay

    I haven’t seen anyone comment (either there or elsewhere) that that was inappropriate. Of course, they’re very cheerleading.

    I think premature reviews are unfair by definition, but perhaps a premature negative review is seen as *more* unfair than a premature positive review; a production’s flaws can be addressed before opening night, whereas a production’s virtues will probably remain constant throughout.

    True, the cinema broadcast isn’t the theatre; but it *will* be kinda like a movie, and you’re good at movie reviews. :-)

  • Danielm80

    I think there can be value in hearing a critic’s reaction to a preview. Specific feedback may be more useful than a general sense that something isn’t working. If early reviews convinced the director to move the “To Be or Not to Be” speech, that’s probably a good thing. And, of course, adjustments have been made to shows even after they’ve already opened (or an actor can have an off night), so no one is ever really reviewing the final version of a live show.

    But an early review can be harmful if readers think it’s a description of the show that’s officially going to open. The people working on the play may be afraid to take risks, and potentially make mistakes that will improve the show, if the reviews will dissuade people from seeing it. That may not apply to Hamlet, which has long since sold out, but it applies to the next production at the same theatre. So I think critics should be very cautious about reviewing a show in its early form, and should be very clear that the play they’re reviewing may not be the show anyone else is going to see.

  • Beowulf

    I agree….and yet….

    Here in the States, the NYT review can by itself often make or break a play in terms of its success. So one would have to be very careful to label a review of a preview as just that–a review of an unfinished product. Some classic shows had horrible previews night after night and then got it together by opening night and became triumphs.

  • Confused

    Thank you for this excellent review. You caught all the things which struck me as weird as well. I went to the premiere and really wondered about the missing relationships and chemistry onstage. Not only Ophelia and Hamlet lacked this but also Ophelia and her father, for example. “Going through the motions” is very good description.
    I fully agree with you when it comes to the stage setting and also thought the sound/music was really good.
    I will see it once more in September and lookk forward to seeing what they might have changed in the meantime. I read a couple of times that changes have been made and I hope they are for the better.

  • For me, the question really is what constitutes premature in this case. The show is before a paying public at this point, and as with all theatre, which is different at every performance, a review can only be said to apply to the performance it refers to. And if there’s ever been something that’s review proof, it’s this show: it’s been sold out for a year.

  • Peter Radcliff

    I have no idea what you’re talking about in your response about out of town tryout. I was trying to make the point that there is nothing wrong with previews lasting three weeks.

    You didn’t know it was a preview. Really, you should have asked me. I’m in the states and I knew when it officially opened. I also know what night is press night regarding performances.

    Turner is going to fool around with this Hamlet to find what best gets her particular vision over to an audience that may not be familiar with it.

    Once you knew you were at a preview, whenever that was, you could certainly have written that you’d seen it and some of it was rough, you hoped certain things changed — but I feel here you have written a review even if you didn’t intend to.

    By the way, that soliloquy has been moved before, notably in Ingmar Bergman’s production. After all, Hamlet is suicidal pretty much all the time.

    It’s not as if it’s the first time people have done different things with these plays. In the original script, Hamlet doesn’t kiss his mother, but that hasn’t stopped Hamlets from doing so.

  • Danielm80

    Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it’s going to work in this theatre in this production with this cast and director.

  • Peter Radcliff

    exactly – that’s why there have been changes and there will continue to be changes. That’s what previews are for.

  • Danielm80

    But why bring up Bergman’s Hamlet, or any other Hamlet, as though previous versions somehow vindicate this specific production?

  • Beowulf

    I’m hoping they put the car chase back in and that the little dog doesn’t die after drinking the spilled poisoned wine!

  • RogerBW

    “Not to be.”


  • Danielm80

    I hope they got Tim Minchin to be the voice of the dog. He’s hilarious.

  • Bluejay
  • Danielm80

    But Tim Minchin is from Australia, so he has an authentic English accent. You need an authentic English accent for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

  • Bluejay

    Heh. :-)

  • Tonio Kruger

    And don’t forget Ophelia’s famous nude scene. No production of Hamlet would be complete without that. ;-)

  • Mary Josefina Cade

    Saw Hamlet last night, and I totally agree with this post. I last saw Hamlet in May, also at the Barbican, and in Japanese,(!) the Ninagawa production. It was passionate, commited ensemble playing, creating a believable alternative world and involving the audience in a thrilling way.

    The Cumberbatch Hamlet was a strange disengaged experience for me. Benedict Cumberbatch seemed to be acting by himself, under his own spotlight. Plus I couldn’t understand what many of the actors were saying due to poor projection and word swallowing! I don’t speak Japanese, but the Ninagawa actors lived the play in a way that was missing here.

    SO disappointed!

  • LaSargenta

    Enunciation. A dead skill, apparently.

  • Benedict Cumberbatch seemed to be acting by himself, under his own spotlight

    Yes. Not his fault, of course. I suspect the director worked hard to pander to the perceived audience.

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