Free Book of Cartoons when you subscribe

Subscribe

Hamlet

Arts | By Paul Bailey | October 2015

Only a passably good Hamlet: Benedict Cumberbatch in the Barbican production

Hamlet has long been in need of a director of Simon Godwin’s calibre and an actor as sharply intelligent as Charles Edwards.

My press ticket for Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre had an unusual message in the bottom right-hand corner: VIP – No ID Required. A young man at the entrance to the stalls deciphered it for me. It seems there’s an abundance of fake tickets for this much-publicised production on sale, some of them passing hands for as much as £1,500, and the theatre staff have to make sure that the gullible people who have bought them aren’t admitted to the auditorium. Those poor souls who are turned away every night have reason to be grateful, despite the hole in their pockets, because the show they are missing – and it is a show, of an especially inane kind – is not worth more than a few coins of any discerning person’s money.

The set that Lyndsey Turner and her designer Es Devlin have dreamed up for this extravaganza is a Middle-European hunting lodge, decked out with family portraits and stags’ heads, with a staircase leading up to a balcony. There is an enormous chandelier. A grand piano is positioned in front of what could be a ballroom. Who, you wonder, will play it? Why, it’s none other than that accomplished pianist Ophelia, who tickles the ivories all too briefly, it saddens me to report. Shakespeare’s tragedy takes place in Denmark, but the inventive Ms Turner has relocated it to Ruritania, home of a hundred or more operettas, where anything ridiculous can happen, as it does here, time and wearying time again.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I have yet to mention the leading actor, Benedict Cumberbatch. The truth is that he’s a passably good Hamlet, given that he presents the gloomy Dane as a spoilt brat, imprisoned in a perpetual childhood. He has his own toy fortress, guarded by life-sized toy soldiers. The tone this unhappy prince adopts could best be described as petulant. He often resembles a foot-stamping schoolboy who isn’t getting his own way. Cumberbatch speaks the verse well enough, but he is a curiously uncharismatic presence. There is no harshness in him, no edge. Hamlet is an acerbic wit by nature, whose acerbity should be fuelled by grief and irretrievable loss. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is a youth who dresses up as a bandmaster, twirling his baton as he enters to a blast of military music. He pretends to hang himself when he says ‘Except my life, except my life, except my life’, as if to remind the audience what those mordantly funny words actually mean.

For Lyndsey Turner, decoration, not ripeness, is all. She entombs her actors for the sake of scenic effects. How else can one account for the fact that two fine talents, Ciarán Hinds and Anastasia Hille, as Claudius and Gertrude, seem to be wandering about in the shadows? She gives Cumberbatch the space and lighting a star deserves but she isn’t so generously disposed towards the rest of the cast. Jim Norton is a very good Polonius and would have been even better if so many of his lines hadn’t been eliminated. Most directors cut the dull stuff. It is Turner’s unique distinction to either re-write or hack to bits speeches that are as familiar to some of us as breathing. She has a conception, and Shakespeare doesn’t quite fit into it.

Manners at this Ruritanian court are extremely lax. That geeky backpacker Horatio is never asked to remove his rucksack by the courtiers, so busy are they helping the characters get rid of the fortress, the dining table and a theatre for the players. The play-within-a-play is performed here to no telling purpose, with Hamlet assuming the role of Lucianus. He has the word KING emblazoned on the back of his cloak, just to alert those benighted creatures beyond the footlights that a little regicide is on the cards.

Over at Shakespeare’s Globe, something much more unusual is happening. Simon Godwin has decided to let Richard II speak for itself. He opens the proceedings with the adolescent Richard’s coronation, which is a sensible addition to the text. After that, the most lyrical of Shakespeare’s history plays is acted for all its considerable worth by a well-chosen company. Charles Edwards – who has established a reputation as a brilliant comic actor in O’Neill’s Strange Interlude and Coward’s Blithe Spirit – offers a Richard who is much less camp than custom dictates. This king is a martinet, a superior being who has a divine right to the throne and will brook no disobedience. His fall, when it inevitably comes, is horrifyingly real. Edwards captures to perfection the feline savagery of Richard’s self-pitying nature. His is the best assumption of the part since the unforgettable Richard Pasco’s in the 1970s. David Sturzaker is a powerful Bolingbroke and John of Gaunt could have no finer impersonator than his namesake William.

Hamlet has long been in need of a director of Simon Godwin’s calibre and an actor as sharply intelligent as Charles Edwards. ticket for Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre had an unusual message in the bottom right-hand corner: VIP – No ID Required. A young man at the entrance to the stalls deciphered it for me. It seems there’s an abundance of fake tickets for this much-publicised production on sale, some of them passing hands for as much as £1,500, and the theatre staff have to make sure that the gullible people who have bought them aren’t admitted to the auditorium. Those poor souls who are turned away every night have reason to be grateful, despite the hole in their pockets, because the show they are missing – and it is a show, of an especially inane kind – is not worth more than a few coins of any discerning person’s money.

The set that Lyndsey Turner and her designer Es Devlin have dreamed up for this extravaganza is a Middle-European hunting lodge, decked out with family portraits and stags’ heads, with a staircase leading up to a balcony. There is an enormous chandelier. A grand piano is positioned in front of what could be a ballroom. Who, you wonder, will play it? Why, it’s none other than that accomplished pianist Ophelia, who tickles the ivories all too briefly, it saddens me to report. Shakespeare’s tragedy takes place in Denmark, but the inventive Ms Turner has relocated it to Ruritania, home of a hundred or more operettas, where anything ridiculous can happen, as it does here, time and wearying time again.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I have yet to mention the leading actor, Benedict Cumberbatch. The truth is that he’s a passably good Hamlet, given that he presents the gloomy Dane as a spoilt brat, imprisoned in a perpetual childhood. He has his own toy fortress, guarded by life-sized toy soldiers. The tone this unhappy prince adopts could best be described as petulant. He often resembles a foot-stamping schoolboy who isn’t getting his own way. Cumberbatch speaks the verse well enough, but he is a curiously uncharismatic presence. There is no harshness in him, no edge. Hamlet is an acerbic wit by nature, whose acerbity should be fuelled by grief and irretrievable loss. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is a youth who dresses up as a bandmaster, twirling his baton as he enters to a blast of military music. He pretends to hang himself when he says ‘Except my life, except my life, except my life’, as if to remind the audience what those mordantly funny words actually mean.

For Lyndsey Turner, decoration, not ripeness, is all. She entombs her actors for the sake of scenic effects. How else can one account for the fact that two fine talents, Ciarán Hinds and Anastasia Hille, as Claudius and Gertrude, seem to be wandering about in the shadows? She gives Cumberbatch the space and lighting a star deserves but she isn’t so generously disposed towards the rest of the cast. Jim Norton is a very good Polonius and would have been even better if so many of his lines hadn’t been eliminated. Most directors cut the dull stuff. It is Turner’s unique distinction to either re-write or hack to bits speeches that are as familiar to some of us as breathing. She has a conception, and Shakespeare doesn’t quite fit into it.

Manners at this Ruritanian court are extremely lax. That geeky backpacker Horatio is never asked to remove his rucksack by the courtiers, so busy are they helping the characters get rid of the fortress, the dining table and a theatre for the players. The play-within-a-play is performed here to no telling purpose, with Hamlet assuming the role of Lucianus. He has the word KING emblazoned on the back of his cloak, just to alert those benighted creatures beyond the footlights that a little regicide is on the cards.

Over at Shakespeare’s Globe, something much more unusual is happening. Simon Godwin has decided to let Richard II speak for itself. He opens the proceedings with the adolescent Richard’s coronation, which is a sensible addition to the text. After that, the most lyrical of Shakespeare’s history plays is acted for all its considerable worth by a well-chosen company. Charles Edwards – who has established a reputation as a brilliant comic actor in O’Neill’s Strange Interlude and Coward’s Blithe Spirit – offers a Richard who is much less camp than custom dictates. This king is a martinet, a superior being who has a divine right to the throne and will brook no disobedience. His fall, when it inevitably comes, is horrifyingly real. Edwards captures to perfection the feline savagery of Richard’s self-pitying nature. His is the best assumption of the part since the unforgettable Richard Pasco’s in the 1970s. David Sturzaker is a powerful Bolingbroke and John of Gaunt could have no finer impersonator than his namesake William.


This story was from October 2015 issue. Subscribe Now