Hamlet @ the Barbican Centre, London

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I recently became one of the privileged few (thousands) to sit through the latest production of Hamlet, this time staged at the Barbican. Even more privileged to have seen one of the last preview performances, when the first days of hysteria and distracting red lights of camera phones were gone, the audience was well behaved and the two-and-a-half weeks of a preview radio silence were almost over.

So, now that the massively high profile press night, marking the end of the preview period, is behind us and opinions about the performance are blasted all over the media, one review in particular, that of The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington, caught me by surprise, once its two-star banner popped up on my screen.

The production does have its feeble points and I share some of Mr Billington’s views, but two stars? This is rather severe, especially coming from the heart of Britain’s  longest-serving theatre critic. That said, the following excerpts express my sentiments exactly:

Michael Billington
‘After all the hype and hysteria, the event itself comes as an anticlimax. My initial impression is that Benedict Cumberbatch is a good, personable Hamlet with a strong line in self-deflating irony, but that he is trapped inside an intellectual ragbag of a production by Lyndsey Turner that is full of half-baked ideas. Denmark, Hamlet tells us, is a prison. So too is this production. (full review here)

Ben Brantley, New York Times
Mr. Cumberbatch is no stranger to heavy lifting onstage … He is in fighting trim here, and brings energy and precision to every word and movement, including the climactic fencing match. Yet this Hamlet seldom seems to relate to anyone else onstage. In the big dialogue scenes, you’re conscious of Mr. Cumberbatch riding Shakespeare’s rushing words like a surfboard, as if saving his interior energy for the monologues.

Quentin Letts,the Daily Mail
After all the hype and excitement, how does the Cumberbatch Hamlet rate? Does small-screen beau Benedict bring home the Dane’s bacon? Yes. But his performance is better than the rest of the show. This is a fine Hamlet in a patchy, occasionally puerile production.

In my humble opinion as a spectator – and admittedly not a Shakespeare expert – the fact that all attention is directed solely to the protagonist from beginning to end, renders the rest of the cast, well, inconsequential.

Cumberbatch is Hamlet – no doubt here.  But he might as well have been alone on the – in every sense – magnificent stage, alone with his anachronistic objects-toys and his monologues. An actor with Cumberbatch’s charisma could easily outshine anyone without the help of a direction focussed entirely on himself. Allowing the supporting cast to come out of the shadow and deliver a strong performance would perhaps have been the defining factor between a very good and a great show.

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As things stand, with the exception of Jim Norton’s Polonius, a really enjoyable performance, I couldn’t find any memorable moments from the rest of the cast, try as I might.

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So, was it worth the struggle of negotiating the on-line queue (I was 25.326th in line or something close to that figure), the frantic search on different social media for other approved ticket agents, the 140 euros for a seat (add travel and accommodation expenses – and we all know what the latter means in London!), the long wait?

Totally!

Would I go through the torture of a 24-hour camp outside the Barbican, hoping to get hold of those precious ”30, £10 tickets available for sale each day in person”?

Absolutely not!
(Then again, I wouldn’t have done that for anything except if I was promised 10 years additional lifetime, in good health and relatively young age).

Verdict?

A live performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet is, in itself, an experience. Add the brilliant scene design, the minimal music by non other than Jon Hopkins (see here about my first encounter with his addictive ”Open Eye Signal”), the flowing movement by Belgian dancer & choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and the very cinematic special effects – so cinematic in fact, that I believe they would have been more at home in a movie than a play, and the result is a memory I will cherish for years to come.

The autograph signing, the excited screams, the adoring crowd after the show was an added  bonus.

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The man in a blue t-shirt

PS: If you can’t make it to the Barbican, do not despair! There will be screenings of the play in the UK and around the world, from 15th October. Find details here.

Viewed on 21 August 2015

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