A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to go and see Lyndsey Turner’s production of Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre; starring none other than Benedict Cumberbatch. Hamlet is somewhat of an oddity, a play that everyone knows of but nearly no-one knows. Everybody can quote some lines from it but when it comes down to understanding and appreciating the lines, there is a strange lack of knowledge. Turner’s production bore the weight of heavy expectation, but prevailed with an iconic interpretation of the Bard’s tragedy.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of the play, it appears at first glance like a Classical revenge tragedy. Hamlet is told that his father was murdered by his uncle, who is now King of Denmark and has now married his mother. Given the nature of the revenge tragedy genre, it is surprising that Shakespeare made it clear that the play was set in Christian times, the idea of what is essentially premeditated murder is impossible to square with Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness and love. However, there are several key features whereby the audience can relate to the titular character. Although indecision is seemingly Hamlet’s fatal flaw, it is a topic that is much debated and much is made of the multiple reference Hamlet makes to Christianity.
Undoubtedly the best thing about the performance was Cumberbatch himself. He was vivacious and lively, but undoubtedly with an underlying melancholy manner in the manner of Tennant’s 2009 performance. His delivery was excellent and perfectly audible (though some of the other actors’ lines required more clarity in delivery), and contained more than a nod to the manner of Sherlock, though whether viewers enjoy this or not is clearly a matter of preference. The set which was used was fantastically detailed and realistic with all manner of ornate decoration; but there was a flaw with it. The production was (rightly) very proud of it, but to the extent that it was the only background used, so much so that it felt there should have been a change of scene at some point (such as the interval) to maintain the mood of the play.
If you can get tickets to the play, I strongly advise you to go-though this is unlikely as they are like gold dust (it was the fastest selling show in the history of London theatre). If you cannot get tickets to see it live, I would still recommend seeing it at the cinema if possible, I cannot emphasise strongly enough how good Cumberbatch’s performance was, in particular in his soliloquies and lighter moments. Everyone should see this fine performance of Shakespeare’s most quoted play. The question is no longer ‘to be or not to be’, the question is now ‘Cumberbatch or Tennant’? Whose performance was more masterful and more resonant? Cumberbatch has made an excellent case for his Hamlet’s superiority, but to decide, you have to see it for yourself.