Shakespeare’s Hamlet is blessed with an absolute corker of an opening scene. The “who’s there?” barked tersely into the darkness of the Danish night, sets our teeth instantly on edge. As wrapped up as we might become in the psychological drama of Elsinore, we are first reminded that this whole world is under palpable threat. It was a sign of what was to come in the Barbican’s much-hyped production that director Lyndsey Turner decided to jettison it entirely (notwithstanding the fuss over the last-minute reshuffle of “To be or not to be”).
The hushed awe that greeted Benedict Cumberbatch as he rose up from beneath the stage in the re-worked opening, languishing over jazz records, made it seem like the eponymous character was the most important thing in this play. Which, of course, he is – but only because of the way he expresses his relationship with things that are far bigger and more important than him; the sort of things that threaten Elsinore in that chilling opening to Shakespeare’s original.
Unfortunately, despite a decent stab at it (no pun intended), Big Benedict never really gets a look in at that sort of expression in this production, overwhelmed by a tide of half-baked ideas. The directorial gimmicks are so many and so wildly various that it is difficult to wrap them into a single sentence. The walls of Es Devlin’s stately home set are periodically illuminated with inexplicable UV cracks, Jane Cox’s lighting breaks down into inexplicable strobe bursts, the supporting cast break into inexplicable dance sequences. Most inexplicably of all (and that’s a high bar at this point) the stage is filled just before the interval with an explosion of – soil? Rubbish? Rubble? Whatever it was meant to be, or meant to symbolize, it was quite easy to tell what it really was (shredded bits of rubber) from the way that the actors spent the entirety of the second half comically bouncing over it, trying to pretend it wasn’t there. Meanwhile, the play became a scrap of cake gradually drowned beneath a slush of multicoloured icing.
Cumberbatch, then, had a hill to climb. He certainly didn’t do badly – his Hamlet was personable, likeable, instantly relatable, intelligent and human. But he was constantly being either exorbitantly over-directed, caught up in the apparatus of some palatially obscure directorial vision, or woefully under-directed, with stage mannerisms and some tinny acting left unchecked. The former was in evidence in the first madness scenes, in which long-suffering Benedict was dressed up as a toy soldier, marching mechanically around the castle taking pop-gun pot-shots at Polonius. Reminding us of Hamlet’s naive obliviousness to the geopolitical pressure on Elsinore is not an unsound idea in itself, but this was a particularly ham-fisted means of doing so. When he climbs in and out of a giant toy castle, surrounded by life-size toy soldiers, it simply doesn’t ring true – apart from anything else, where the hell did he find all this stuff? Was it just lying around the castle, or in a special wardrobe marked “mourning/childhood regression”?
And so, the first three hours ricocheted schizophrenically along, picking up motifs and dropping them again, like an over-excited dog on a walk in the park, sniffing lamp-posts in a frenzy. Meanwhile, the actual play served merely as a weary-looking owner, tugging the leash desultorily but persistently towards its destination. On top of all that, the supporting cast were too weak to provide Cumberbatch with any secure foot-holds. Ciaran Hinds was a one-dimensional Claudius, seemingly without the foggiest notion of why he wanted to get married to Anastasia Hille’s flat Gertrude in the first place.
Sian Brooke as Ophelia provided sparks of interest, as did Leo Bill as a pally Horatio. But none of them could lift this Hamlet to a level that could merit the 12-hour queues outside. If Turner had taken Gertrude’s advice to Polonius of “More matter, less art”, then Cumberbatch’s eminently satisfactory Hamlet could have been a great one; sadly, the opportunity went begging.