Review: Hamlet at the Barbican


Cumberbatch is ready and raring to go as young Prince Hamlet, but does his slick performance make up for the rest of Turner's safe decisions?

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After a healthy two and a half glasses of rosé and having just forked out eight pounds on a programme, we settle in the auditorium. The atmosphere is tense. The majority of the theatregoers, myself included, will have purchased their tickets for the Barbican’s sell-out show over a year ago.

We all know how lucky we are to be sat here on this late summer evening. There are hundreds of hopeful fans queuing in the chilly London street outside for a handful of special ‘Ten Pound Seats’ and my friends and I have been swapping tickets like they’re Pokémon cards. Seated far back enough to take in the impressive stage, while still temptingly close to the man himself, we all wait with baited breath as the curtain rises and the lights soften.

Opening the play is the man of the hour, young Hamlet. He’s perched on the stage in corduroy trousers, wistfully flicking through his record collection. ‘But wait!’ you cry, ‘Hamlet opening the play!?’ I know. I was as taken aback as you are. It was tough, but I managed to restrain my judgement, if not only for the fact that female directors are still rather few and far between in London town. Deciding to just role with the rest of what Lyndsey Turner had to offer, I sat back and let Cumberbatch do the talking.

It’s no secret that the man can act, and it seems he also has a rather precise talent when it comes Shakespeare’s text. The lines belong between his lips; he spouts them with ease and at an impressive speed, and it’s interesting to hear where he places his intonation as he speaks the famous soliloquy. Cumberbatch is Hamlet in fast forward. However, while his performance is tight and regimented, is this really what the role of the prince calls for? For many, the intricacies of the play lie in Hamlet’s teetering position on the edge of sanity, and to date it has been the more fragile portrayals that have won the audience over.

It would be a crime to neglect to mention the stage design for such a stunning show, and what a masterpiece is was. In the shape of a grand banqueting hall, the set looms over the actors, the life-sized room isolating those within its electric blue walls. Intricate wreaths of shining flowers hang from the ceiling, twisting around an enormous chandelier, and some clever lighting transformed the set from nighttime ghost-haunt, to daytime country house.

Though there wasn’t anything particularly rotten in the state of Denmark, a couple of ideas were probably past their best-before-dates. A rather overgenerous handful of extras occasionally steered the focus from the main players, and though the ‘play within a play’ scene was visually interesting, silks and satin curtains in abundance, Claudius’ reaction to the performance was difficult to gage, as he sat with his back to the audience.

Ophelia was a prettily crafted character, managing a brief tender moment at the piano with her brother and a powerful exit as she hobbles to her demise over the crumbling remains of the castle. Contrastingly, Gertrude and Claudius did not seem all that interested in each other, and Laertes’ figure fell rather disappointingly flat also.

Turner’s Hamlet was full of peaks and troughs. On the one hand, an original set design with some smart slo-mo moments and an explosive finish to the first half. On the other, a Hamlet who does’t have a single screw lose and some mediocre character development for the rest of the cast.

Though definitely worth the watch, Turner’s production just wasn’t the life-changing rendition of the world-famous play that it could have been, with that sort of budget and that sort of leading man.

Hamlet is showing at the Barbican until October 31st.


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Third year English Student, enjoys writing and tidying and sunflowers and gentle words of encouragement.

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