Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet, review: Pointedly subversive Prince lacks spontaneity

We never quite get the sense that the actor is laying himself bare

With his great gift for portraying the brilliant misfit and racing, ironic intellect, Benedict Cumberbatch is natural casting for Hamlet.  But I wonder if a bit of him now wishes that he'd tackled the part at some point before the global success of Sherlock rocketed him into the celebrity stratosphere.

Lyndsey Turner's production may be the fastest-selling show in London theatre history but the unprecedented degree of hype and hysteria it has generated has come at a price, with certain newspapers sneaking in to review the very first performance and with Cumber-fans having to be admonished about filming him on their mobile phones. 

The principle that previews are a part of the artistic process, allowing theatre-makers to experiment and refine their work before the critics pass judgement, certainly needs to be respected.  After nearly three weeks of these (a period that seemed longer and more troubled than the Siege of Mafeking) the production has now officially opened. Has it been worth the wait?

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The actor commands the stage with a whirling energy (Johan Persson)

I think that it's a rather mixed affair – stunningly designed by Es Devlin, with a fair bit of text and story-line shifted around by Turner, to sometimes eloquent, sometimes irritating effect.  We start not with the ghost appearing to the watch on the battlements, but with Hamlet alone listening to Nat King Cole's “Nature Boy” on an old-fashioned gramophone as he sorts through crates of his dead father's belongings, nostalgically sniffing a jacket. 

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Cumberbatch alongside Anastasia Hille as Gertrude (Johan Persson)

The “To be, or not to be” soliloquy that he prematurely delivered at this point in the early previews has been restored to Act 3, though ahead of where it usually comes.  Instead, the emphasis is on Hamlet's pining for lost innocence of childhood, a desire that we also see savagely self-parodied when Cumberbatch's Prince, in a fit of potty, regimented brio, parades around as a fully costumed toy soldier in a playpen-fort during his first bout of feigned madness..

The actor commands the stage with a whirling energy but we rarely feel soul-to-soul with this Hamlet, party because he's often made to deliver the soliloquies against distracting freeze-framed or slo-mo action, partly because we don't sense that the actor is laying himself bare too as is the case with the greatest exponents of the role such as Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale. 

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Cumberbatch has some exquisite quiet moments (Johan Persson)

In an epic existential touch, Devlin's panoramic Singer Sargent-like set – a palatial hall with turquoise panelled walls, grand staircase and enormous chandelier – is reduced to an apocalyptic wasteland at the point where Hamlet is sent to England, with piles of rubble pouring through thedoors and windows as if Elsinore has been caught up in some terrible landslide.  It's over one of these mounds that Sian Brooke's ultimately heartbreaking Ophelia makes her final exit occasioning what is, for me, the production's most unexpectedly moving moment.  Anastasia Hille's Gertrude gazes after the girl and suddenly realises what she may be about to do, rushing off too late to prevent it.

 

Cumberbatch's Prince is pointedly subversive if insufficiently spontaneous.  In “The Mousetrap”, he takes over to play Lucianus, the nephew who pours poison in the sleeping monarch's ear.  He outrageously wears a frock coat labelled “King” just in case Ciaran Hinds's highly intelligent and affable-seeming Claudius hasn't got the message.  And he has some exquisite quiet moments, too, as when, in the line, “There is providence in the fall of a sparrow,” he emphasises the name of the small bird not belittingly but with tender surprise to enforce his point. 

The production, however, often feels curiously uninvolving, as though it lacks a central impulse.. I hope that Cumberbatch does more live Shakespeare - in less insanely pressurised circumstances.  What a pity he is now too mega-famous to work at the Globe.

To 31 October; 020 7638 8891. Live broadcast to cinemas on 15 October, details at ntlive.com

Book tickets for Hamlet with Independent Tickets

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