Monday Muse: Hamlet at The Barbican

Hello internet friends! It’s time once again for the Nerd Cactus Monday Muse. Today we will be revisiting Hamlet (yes, again) after having attended a screening of National Theatre Live’s presentation of Hamlet at The Barbican Theatre. In case you aren’t aware, NTL is an incredible program that broadcasts live theatrical experiences into select cinemas around the world, creating a more accessible/affordable way of viewing live theatre for the masses. Yes, despite the cost of airfare to England and hiked-up ticket prices to see Benedict Cumberbatch in his sold out performance of Hamlet, C and I got a chance to see the visually stunning, electric, and erratic version of Hamlet as directed by Lyndsey Turner.

Let me start by saying how truly incredible it is that a 400 year old play can be interpreted in so many ways. Every director’s vision is different and every Hamlet brings a specific arsenal of life experiences to the role. Two months ago we were extraordinarily fortunate to see Hamlet at the Stratford Shakeapeare Festival (twice). We raved over it’s simplicity, it’s magnificence, it’s truth. Our love for Stratford’s Hamlet was neither increased nor diminished by watching Cumberbatch’s performance, because believe me when I say that the two plays we viewed are on opposite ends of the spectrum in almost every way. And it still worked. Well, of course it bloody did, it’s Shakespeare!

As is our Nerd Cactus custom when we have lots to say about plays, I’ll be putting these thoughts into bullet points… Hopefully this will help me contain my ideas and ease the reader’s experience.

– The set design was a visual stunner. Quite the opposite of Stratford’s bare use of stage and blocks, this production was set in a sumptuous palace; a space so large it almost created a sense of isolation around the characters. The second act truly transformed the stage with the addition of mounds of dirt, helping set most of the action outside and highlighting the decaying trust/morality/sanity that is rampant in the lives of Hamlet’s inner circle.

– The use of music in this one was interesting to say the least. The use of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole was an odd choice, but somehow suited to the overall production. Unfortunately, much of the scene change ambience was so loud I was repeatedly taken out of the moment because I was worried about going deaf…

– The decision to rearrange the sequence of key soliloquies and cut some scenes altogether was a touch confusing initially, but the placement was never actually questionable. The continuation of thematic climaxes worked very well and by taking Hamlet out of his reality and into his thoughts (as demonstrated by light shifts and the slow motion continuation of the action) this production did a particularly good job of pitching reality against fantasy.

– As with most pieces of theatre there were standout performances and there were a few characters who simply fell flat. Cumberbatch’s performance was so incredibly committed that some of the actors around him started to feel more like set dressing than part of the story. Laertes in particular had a sadly one dimensional performance, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did little to deserve the chuckles Cumberbatch fed them.

– Both the female leads in this production gave superb performances. In Stratford we lamented Gertrude’s inability to sustain the momentum her Hamlet had created, but we also wrote it off as a character who was not given much substance as per the script. The Barbican’s Gertrude completely put that excuse to shame. Her relationship with Hamlet was strong and stable, and the closet scene was incredibly well defined as Gertrude’s turning point in the play. Hamlet taking the distraught queen into his confidence was the most deliberate version I’ve ever seen, giving Gertrude power in her knowledge of his false madness.

– The other standout performance was given by Sian Brooke as Ophelia. While C and I agreed that hers and Hamlet’s personal connection was not as palpable as the relationship we saw on stage in Stratford we were blown away by her take on Ophelia’s madness. With an odd angularity, blank doe eyes, halting steps, and numerous facial/physical tics Ophelia’s loss of sanity was the picture of a complete breakdown without appearing contrived. The Ophelia of the first act was quiet and unassuming which worked to great affect when she came meandering out covered in dirt and chanting like a loon. She also did a great job holding her own against Cumberbatch’s manic delivery of the “get thee to a nunnery” scene. The moment in which she tried to communicate the nature of their meeting to him was wonderful as was his deliberate overlooking of that fact as his sense of betrayal became more heightened through the course of the scene.
Sidenote: whoever was responsible for dressing her in the yellow top and baggy khaki capri combo for the “Nunnery” scene should be slapped. (Note from C: Hear hear! They were awful!)

Claudius was also great. This Claudius was an ominous, chilling, and threatening businessman. The lack of real affection shown between he and Gertrude did wonders to suggest that he’d taken advantage of her to elevate himself. Ciaran Hinds is so deliberate in each look and movement that his guilt and lack of conscience is unquestionable. His reaction to the play within a play in particular was genius; conveying not only his guilt, but a growing sense of anger and urgency as he struggles to retain any hold over the increasingly wild Hamlet.

– As for Hamlet himself… Well, he was brilliant. In a very different way from the brilliance exhibited by our Stratford Hamlet. This Hamlet is built upon raw, uncontrolled, erratic emotions. One second he’s laughing, the next he’s crying. Unbridled anger played a large part of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, often seeming to blind him and throw him off course (the character not the actor). Where Stratford’s Hamlet laid deliberate plans and moved with consistent purpose towards his bloody task, the Hamlet of The Barbican is out of his element, unsure of how to proceed, and so aghast at the terrible truth that he is unable to reign in his feelings. He cannot separate one betrayal from the next and soon he views traitors all around him. His performance was energetic yet melancholy, strained by his constant grief for a lost father we are made to understand he was very close to. Hamlet is not consistent in Cumberbatch’s hands, he is a churning whirlwind of conflict and confusion both led and hindered by his agitation. His “madness” is more of a relapse toward boyhood than a jaunt into mental instability, perhaps suggesting his attempt to return to a time of safety and certainty. As with any good Hamlet it is exhausting to watch Cumberbatch’s performance and it is clear that he pours his all into the character from start to finish.

There’s plenty more to say, but I’ll leave it at that so if and when you have a chance to attend a screening there will still be some surprises. I’m not trying to inundate you with opinions I’m just trying to give you a taste of the production. Please do go out and see it for yourself (or any production of Hamlet for that matter) as everyone sees something else within the play. So keep an eye on National Theatre Live’s website for details regarding encore presentations near you.

Happy Monday!!!


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