As I said I've had a year to build up to the production with only the poster art to whet one's appetite. The design of a troubled younger Hamlet, with trademark Cumberbatch hair, staring out while other unhappy kids - maybe Laertes, Ophelia, Horatio and Fortinbras? - mope about in the background at a miserable party, is really not reflected in the final production, who knows if it ever did?
To be honest, after all the press and social media jabber about Benedict Cumberbatch stepping up to the plate to play the melancholy prince, I actually wasn't looking forward to seeing the production. It all seemed whipped up and over-blown, and more importantly, we had seen Lynsey Turner's dire over-conceptualised production of LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE at the National which made me fear the most. But there I was last Monday, taking my place in the front row - THE FRONT ROW - with my over-sized £10 programme. I resisted the tshirts and mugs on sale in the foyer.
At first my heart sank as Hamlet was revealed listening to a Dansette playing Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" but I didn't dare grind my teeth as Cumberbatch was only a stone's throw away - and we all know how distracted he can get by his audience! Turner has dropped the opening scene on the ramparts and gallops straight into the first court scene, all the quicker to get her star on the stage as quickly as possible.
The subsequent action all takes place on Es Devlin's extraordinary, angled set which suggests a low ceilinged Middle-European palatial hunting lodge, almost CinemaScope in aspect as it reaches across the large Barbican stage. It's painstakingly detailed with mounted stags-heads, royal family portraits and, tellingly, an old rocking-horse and boxes of toys stored almost out-of-side under the impressive staircase and first-floor landing. It could have been somewhere Nicholas and Alexandra might have stayed when they wanted to be a 'normal' family in the summer months.
When we first we see it it is also festooned with large hanging white garlands to celebrate the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude with a long table attended by courtiers dressed in bright colours - apart of course from Hamlet in his inky coat of mourning. His first monologue "O that this too too solid flesh would melt..." is played direct to the audience with him climbing over the table while all around the others do their best sloow-motion acting.
Turner's streamlining of the text focusing all on Hamlet makes for a swift first act although the interval was placed quite late in the action after Hamlet is shipped off to England and as if to make up for it closing on a non-Cumberbatch scene, Turner has the doors of the set suddenly blow open as leaves and dust swirl through them engulfing the solo figure of Ciaran Hind's Claudius. It did leave the nagging feeling that Elsinore was the latest venue for SLAVA'S SNOW SHOW.
Sadly the second act built on the niggles I felt during the first act and possibly because Cumberbatch was offstage for awhile, the pace slackened and never really recovered. A main contributor to that was the fact that in the interval the set is changed to a desolate shell of it's former self with the the stage now covered in mounds of dirt and rock. Yes it's a good visual flagging up of the fact that the second half of the play focuses on the spiralling paranoia within Elsinore and the threat of war without but it didn't help the flow of the scenes with the cast gingerly climbing over the mounds like worried mountain goats in Jane Cox's gloomy lighting.
In retrospect I think the production highlights all of Lyndsey Turner's worst aspects of vision and direction - the visual over-emphasis and the feeling that the actors are playing in their own sealed spaces and not connecting onstage was all very prevalent. I also found the whole visual idea for Hamlet distracting: his mad scenes are played while dressed up as a toy soldier and he even finally resorts to dragging on his own large fort to hide in. It all felt overly-cute and done to get easy laughs for Cumberbatch to the cost of the rhythm of the play - and why for the play scene did he sport a Ziggy Stardust t-shirt??
I had expected Ciaran Hinds as Claudius to really put a stamp on the production and give Cumberbatch a run for his money but he made only fitful impressions, usually when he was in scenes with others. Anastasia Hille isn't an actress I particularly like but I also felt she was colourless as Gertrude - at no time did I feel any connection between her and Claudius and in particular between her and Hamlet - the closet scene might as well have been two people standing at a bus stop.
I was looking forward to Jim Norton as Polonius but he too seemed to gave a muted, underplayed performance while Ophelia was played by the colourless Sian Brooke. Turner has thrown greater emphasis on Ophelia in this production, she wanders around snapping away with a box brownie camera during the first act and in her final scene, she drags on a large trunk which Gertrude opens to find hundreds of her photographs and her camera, then watches as mad Ophelia walks away from her up one of the rubble dunes to her watery death. The trouble is that Brooke does nothing to impose any personality on the role. Nice black lacy frock though....
The current trend seems to have been to cast a black actress as Ophelia but here the non-traditionalist casting is switched so Kobna Holdbrook-Smith plays Laertes and he at least has a forceful presence when he returns as the avenging angel. There is also a strong performance from Sergio Vares as Fortinbras, demonstrating the strength of purpose that shows why he will thrive where Hamlet failed. Karl Johnson, although anonymous as the Ghost was excellent as the Gravedigger. These three actors all stood out in the moribund second act.
The duel scene at the end of the play again showed the frustrating quality of the production, the swordplay was good but Gertrude's poignant last line was allotted to Horatio, her positioning was off to one side away from the action and in the final injustice, absurdly ended up doubled over on one of the mounds with her bum in the air. Claudius's demise was also oddly bungled, happening upstage and behind the banister on the staircase, it was almost like they had to positioned to be as far away from the centre of the stage which was Cumberbatch's permanent domain.
The whole reason the production was there however was not for Lyndsey Turner's direction, Es Devlin's set, Anastasia Hille's Gertrude or Jim Norton's Polonius... it was for Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. To be honest he gave the performance I expected to give - he shot through the first act like an arrow, he spoke the text with clarity, waspish humour and with an intelligence that showed genuine understanding and radiated a real star wattage.
And yet.. and yet... and yet... at no time did I feel Hamlet had taken over him, he remained Benedict Cumberbatch at all times. This is of course what a star does, they give us various facets of an established persona and there was plenty here to please the 'Sherlock' fans in the house particularly in the cutesy business in the dress-up madness scenes.
But he didn't move me, not like the best Hamlets I have seen have done. Derek Jacobi (1980, BBC TV), Simon Russell Beale (2000, NT), Rory Kinnear (2010, NT) and the greatest of all Ian Charleson (1989, NT) have all broken through to the real soul of the part so that by the end, when "the rest is silence", you mourn the loss of him in his world and in ours.
In a few years Cumberbatch might have a chance of playing the role again, only hopefully with a director who can possibly connect him to a more integrated production and cast.