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26 August 2015updated 27 Aug 2015 5:38am

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet: a vast, sweeping production with a low-key leading man

Against a big, blowsy set, Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a deliberately un-starry performance (shame about the slow-mo).

By Helen Lewis

There is no play called Hamlet – or at least no real, definitive Hamlet. Most productions offer a mash-up of the Second Quarto and First Folio versions, largely ignoring the First Quarto. (It’s called the “bad” one for a reason; it renders Hamlet’s best-known ­soliloquy as: “To be or not to be, I there’s the point.”) Cuts are always necessary because the full text runs to more than four hours and the title role – at around 1,500 lines – is already demanding enough.

But there’s tinkering and there’s tinkering. Thanks to the Times’s decision to review the play before press night, we know that the Barbican’s Hamlet originally put “To be or not to be” right at the start of the play. In a scalding write-up, Kate Maltby described this as “indefensible”, adding: “Imagine a production of Turandot that moved the climactic ‘Nessun Dorma’ to the opening number, just because, post-Pavarotti, football fans can sing along.” Even its star, Benedict Cumberbatch, confessed that it was “not the easiest place to begin a play”.

That problem has now been solved. By the time I saw it, the soliloquy had been moved to Act II and the play began with Horatio arriving from Wittenberg to greet Hamlet, who is obsessing over his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage to his uncle. That’s still not the canonical opening – most productions kick off with the ghost of Old Hamlet stalking the battlements – but it makes a lot more sense than stripping out the emotional nadir of a character’s arc and setting it to the accompaniment of a trite song from Moulin Rouge! as the curtain rises.

Let’s be honest: it’s probably better not to start with the Ghost. Elizabethan audiences were easier to please in the special effects department. Today, a backlit bloke in white face paint is a touch underwhelming – more Scooby-Doo villain than terrifying spectral shade. Instead, the Barbican’s production begins with Cumberbatch being cranked into view on a raised platform. It’s a bit West End musical. But then, this production is the opposite of minimalist: in the next scene, the wall behind Cumberbatch lifts and a vast ballroom, complete with staircase and chandelier, is revealed. My notes, scribbled in the dark, record my initial impression thus: “BLOODY BIG SET”. The design throughout, particularly the lighting, is beautiful. There is a jaw-dropping moment just before the interval when Claudius stands alone on stage to give away his plan to kill the exiled Hamlet and all the windows and doors of the palace ballroom explode in a glittering shower of dust. It’s pure Tarantino. When we return for the last acts, the whole palace is filled with mountains of grit, like the aftermath of a slagheap collapse. It might be an obvious visual metaphor for the descent of Denmark but that doesn’t make it any less dazzling.

Elsewhere, the desire for spectacle is less effective. Hamlet does not deliver all of his soliloquies alone on stage but, sometimes, pops out of the action while everyone else continues in slow motion. The effect is bathetic, like that scene in James Cameron’s Titanic in which the frozen Jack drifts into the depths, having been shoved off the floating door by Rose. There’s old Benny C, emoting away, while some luckless guard does the “running man” behind him.

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For all the early harrumphs, there is now little in this production to upset the purists. The final duel between Hamlet and Laertes is even fought with swords, despite the First World War air of the military uniforms elsewhere. The other textual changes are forgivable, if sometimes unfathomable. (I’m sure we never find out what happened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; sorry, Tom Stoppard.) And it’s useless to complain about Hamlet being a star vehicle, as it always was one: Shakespeare wrote it for Richard Burbage, who had already played Richard III and Brutus. The only trouble is that most star actors who get the part are in their mid-to-late thirties (David Tennant was 37; Kenneth Branagh made his film version at 35; Cumberbatch is 39) and so they have to dial up the youthful energy to stop the audience thinking: mate, never mind being upset that your mum has sex – why are you still living at home?

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Here, Cumberbatch’s take on Hamlet is surprising. It’s a low-key, deliberately un-starry performance, captivating your attention without screaming, “Look at me, I’m giving you my Hamlet!” Then again, this is the Cumberbatch proposition: he is the leading man who notoriously looks more like a happy otter than a matinee idol; the sex symbol who has specialised in playing sexless men. He commands the verse fluently and succeeds in making phrases that have passed into cliché seem newly minted.

There isn’t a dud in the supporting cast, either. Siân Brooke even brings pathos to Ophelia, one of the most woefully underwritten parts in the whole of Shakespeare. Would it ruin the play if you cut all Ophelia’s lines? Now there’s a thought.

“Hamlet” runs until 31 October at the Barbican.

This article appears in the 26 Aug 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism