Long queues for the ladies’ room before the performance and during the interval tell a story. A heartthrob star is taking the stage to go through the ritual that all leading actors of a certain age feel obliged to undergo, giving us his take on the Prince of Denmark. The largely female audience could include many newcomers to Shakespeare, but, if they have the intelligence to negotiate the maze of the Barbican to get here, they will surely get something more than just an ogle at a star from the experience. Some of the questions they could be asking themselves may include: why doesn’t the Danish crown pass from father to son as in every sane monarchy? Why has everyone in London who has currently got a cough gathered in the same place at the same time? Who the Hell is Polonius? What cataclysmic event reduces the palatial set to rubble during the interval? How am I going to find my way out of this place before midnight tomorrow? These are the questions, but, every five minutes or so, muted gasps of “so that’s where it comes from”, following phrases now in common usage, indicate that discoveries are being made. Of course, anything that introduces new audiences to theatre and to the Bard must be a good thing. Good too, very good, is Benedict Cumberbatch as an animated, excitable, playful Hamlet, but, as an accomplished theatre actor for many years before his Sherlock fame, he was never going to be anything less than that. Lyndsey Turner’s production, set in the mid 20th Century, is conventional, lucid and lavish, offering an impeccable reading of the text. The set (designer Es Devlin) represents the main hall of the Danish Royal Palace, with a grand stairway leading to an upper balcony. It fills the entire, large Barbican stage and, when the company is spread across it, there are difficulties in picking out who is speaking, particularly as some scenes take place while an army of stage hands is clearing a banqueting table or making other changes. Turner could be acknowledging this problem when she chooses to freeze action for the soliloquies and isolate Hamlet with a spotlight. Other characters do not get the same service, which may explain why such distinguished actors as Ciarán Hinds (Claudius), Anastasia Hille (Gertrude) and Jim Norton (Polonius) do not make quite the impact that perhaps they should and why relative newcomers Kobna Holbrook-Smith (Laertes) and Siân Brooke (Ophelia) struggle to achieve the prominence that they merit. Turner’s production is an excellent introduction to Shakespeare, but those of us who have seen this play perhaps 500 or so times before look for new insights, originality and much greater fire than is on offer here. At the curtain call, Cumberbatch makes an eloquent and heartfelt plea on behalf of Syrian refugees and this carries more emotional impact than anything in the preceding three hours.
Performance date: 15 September 2015