Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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Old Hamlet, King of Denmark, is dead and has been succeeded by his brother. The new king has also married Gertrude, the widowed queen. Hamlet, Gertrude's son, is already distressed by his father's death and the hasty remarriage; when his father's ghost appears to tell him that he was murdered by his own brother, Hamlet vows revenge. To cover his intentions, he feigns madness. Polonius, councillor to the court, whose daughter Ophelia is all but betrothed to Hamlet, believes that his madness is caused by love. Spied on by Polonius and the king, Hamlet encounters Ophelia and violently rejects her. A company of actors arrives and Hamlet asks them to perform a play, hoping that its similarity to the murder of his own father will force the king to reveal his guilt. Hamlet's suspicions are confirmed. He visits his mother, reviling her for her hasty marriage, and accidentally kills Polonius, who is hiding in the chamber. The king sends Hamlet to England, planning to have him murdered. Laertes, Polonius' son, demands revenge for his father's death. His sister, Ophelia, maddened by grief, has drowned. Hamlet returns and confronts Laertes at her funeral. The king, meanwhile, has plotted with Laertes to kill Hamlet in a fencing match in which Laertes will have a poisoned sword. The plot miscarries and Laertes dies. Gertrude drinks from a poisoned cup intended for Hamlet, and also dies. Hamlet, wounded by the poisoned sword, kills the king before he, too, dies. Young Fortinbras of Norway arrives and lays claim to the throne of Denmark.

Michael Billington, The Guardian, 25 August 2015

My initial impression is that Benedict Cumberbatch is a good, personable Hamlet with a strong line in self-deflating irony, but that he is trapped inside an intellectual ragbag of a production by Lyndsey Turner that is full of half-baked ideas. Denmark, Hamlet tells us, is a prison. So too is this production. What makes the evening so frustrating is that Cumberbatch has many of the qualities one looks for in a Hamlet. He has a lean, pensive countenance, a resonant voice, a gift for introspection. He is especially good in the soliloquies... It is a performance full of good touches and quietly affecting in Hamlet's final, stoical acceptance of death. The problem is that Cumberbatch... is given a lot of silly things to do.

Paul Taylor, The Independent, 25 August 2015

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... 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... 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... Cumberbatch's Prince is pointedly subversive if insufficiently spontaneous.

Michael Coveney, What's On Stage, 25 August 2015

Hamlet is the most fluid, alterable and oft-adapted play in the canon, always has been. Therein lies its refracted brilliance, and its mystery. And here's the rub: Benedict Cumberbatch delivers the great soliloquies superbly, urgently, intelligently and full of concentration, right to the top of the Barbican. He's not a "young" Hamlet, but he's a compelling and charismatic one... This may sound as though Lyndsey Turner's production is a riot of radical irreverence, but it's nothing of the sort, alas. Great swathes of the play are collapsed... and where alternative readings between the quartos are taken, they are made to work... You never once think [Cumberbatch is] vacillating, or cracking under the strain: he's learning about himself and the human condition, acquiring a spiritual grace and intellectual isolation that is more usually given in the character's sulky opening words in the second scene ("A little more than kin, and less than kind") and then justified; Cumberbatch rings the changes, and the confusion, through a dynamic propulsion.

Joe Utichi, Deadline, 25 August 2015

It's a grand production on a scale that would have been impossible absent a big star in the lead. Cumberbatch is exceptionally good, merging character and actor without the latter dominating. This production knows Cumberbatch's star is going to draw people unfamiliar with Shakespeare, so the staging is broad and unsubtle; it doesn't bring anything drastically new or profound to the material. So what?... The production is resolutely modern... It's stylised through a jazzy, punky lens... There will undoubtedly be much debate among academics and purists about changes made to the text...More important, Cumberbatch doesn't unbalance the play. Ciarán Hinds and Jim Norton are standouts as Claudius and Polonius. Sian Brooke's Ophelia is excellent too, her scenes with Cumberbatch suitably charged. Cumberbatch is never bigger than the company. He telegraphs Hamlet's inner turmoil compellingly and lets his natural intelligence battle the character's emotional distress. Hamlet's madness is handled such that you're never quite sure if it's for real or if he's putting it on to serve his own purposes. That's exactly as it should be.

Stephen Collins, BritishTheatre.com, 25 August 2015

This is not Hamlet as it is generally known. It is something else, based upon Hamlet, something that Turner has fashioned. A sow's ear from a silk purse. A thing of shreds and patches. A cut and paste version of the play which is obstinately confusing rather than gloriously illuminating... Knowing the play well made scant difference -- directorial decisions here were unfeasibly stupid and artistically without merit... It's not a particularly heroic or anguished or fiercely intelligent or robustly virile turn although there are aspects of all of those possibilities in what Cumberbatch delivers. But, on the whole, it is difficult to get a hold on the type of Hamlet he is trying to be... Cumberbatch is not well served by this production. He does not get a chance to shine as he might. Occasionally, in odd moments, there are flashes of greatness in his approach, mostly when he is being introspective, but the emotional highs of the scenes following "Alas, Poor Yorick" are beyond him here, and come across awkwardly and clumsily and, most regrettably, unconvincingly.

Stuart Black, Londonist, 25 August 2015

The concept is a strange and fascinating one -- and both designer Es Devlin and director Lyndsey Turner should be applauded for their verve... The first [half] takes place in a very handsome turquoise palace... The second half of the play is then performed in a clammy cesspit, the filth seemingly conjured up by Hamlet's own psyche... Transforming Elsinore into this messy, crumbling mind palace is eerily effective and manages to keep an audience with unfeasibly high expectations more or less rapt to the play's bitter end. It also creates a perfect conceptual structure for Benedict Cumberbatch's performance... And, let it be said, his performance is excellent -- with flawless enunciation and a sweaty, desperate energy that together manage to propel this circumlocutory tragedy forwards. Looking a bit like an athletic Adrian Mole, the man of the moment is angry, playful, smug and unpleasant -- all the things Hamlet should be. Celebrity fans and theatre lovers should both be suitably satisfied by the effort and the effect.

Anne Margaret Daniel, The Huffington Post, 25 August 2015

People are coming to see Cumberbatch. If people know anything about Hamlet, they know the first line of the most famous soliloquy in the play. Director Lindsey Turner served up first what's most wanted. It is not a decision I liked, though it has power... Hamlet is a notoriously corrupt text -- or texts. It's a stack of foul papers, and there is no definitive version of the play. Yet to take some sort of imagined advantage of this by hacking out many of the play's best lines, and chopping and changing words, phrases and entire scenes to stick them in unfamiliar mouths and places, was for me the worst thing about this production... The point seemed simply to simplify. Do that to Hamlet, and in the end you'll find you have eliminated its passion, joy and emotion. Cumberbatch valiantly works to keep all those things present in this play, but he needs Shakespeare's language to fly with him. This said, Cumberbatch is radiant on stage.

Michael Roddy, Reuters, 25 August 2015

Benedict Cumberbatch delivered a Hamlet for our time in London in a production that played to his strengths, dresses up Shakespeare for a younger crowd and had the British actor's fans roaring in approval at the end... The three-hour-long production directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Barbican Theatre is set for the first half in a palace that looks more like Downton Abbey than Elsinore, while in the second half the same set has been ravaged by war... Displaying the quick wit and mental acuity of his television detective Sherlock, Hamlet figures out that his uncle Claudius, portrayed by a wonderfully two-faced Ciarán Hinds of Game of Thrones fame, killed his father, usurped the crown and married his mother (Anastasia Hille)... The production tinkers with the text, but "To Be or Not to Be," which in early previews opened the play, sensibly has been restored to its normal spot. Other revisions are more subtle, including having Ophelia use some of the dialogue from earlier in the play for the wistful songs she sings just before she drowns herself.

Ben Brantley, The New York Times, 25 August 2015

Mr. Cumberbatch is no stranger to heavy lifting onstage... He is in fighting trim here, and brings energy and precision to every word and movement, including the climactic fencing match. Yet this Hamlet seldom seems to relate to anyone else onstage. In the big dialogue scenes, you're conscious of Mr. Cumberbatch riding Shakespeare's rushing words like a surfboard, as if saving his interior energy for the monologues. In those, he is superb, meticulously tracing lines of thought into revelations that stun, elate, exasperate and sadden him. There's not a single soliloquy that doesn't shed fresh insight into how Hamlet thinks. And Ms. Turner stages them beautifully, presenting many in the middle of the action, with Mr. Cumberbatch stepping away as the rest of the cast freezes in tableaus. The effect is of a man separated from reality by his own self-fascinated mind. Hamlet has never seemed so alone, which gives him an added poignancy. This production would benefit greatly, though, if it allowed him to play well with others, too.

Leslie Felperin, The Hollywood Reporter, 25 August 2015

As the dust blasted from the wings at the end of the first half starts to settle, it's finally time to examine the production directed by Lyndsey Turner and its star performance, and deem them both... quite good. Neither is epoch-defining, but this modern-dress, light-on-gimmicks interpretation packs a strong supporting ensemble, while Cumberbatch's graceful, witty but somewhat self-effacing turn is certainly no disgrace. In the end, the show will achieve what it clearly aims to do: add extra gilding to the reputations of all involved, attract new audiences to Shakespeare who might not otherwise have sampled his work onstage, and make the producers a fortune... Cumberbatch's iteration is full of his trademark genial tweedy Englishness. It's easy to triangulate it with his aloof Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and his ludic Sherlock Holmes, especially the latter as the drama goes on and he plays up Hamlet's feigned madness by dressing up as a soldier, leaping onto tables, and accenting the sarcasm in the verbal snipes. Ever the professional, throughout he pronounces each syllable with immaculate precision and displays a balletic skill in movement.

Directed by Lyndsey Turner
Costume design by Katrina Lindsay
Set design by Es Devlin
Sound design by Chris Shutt
Lighting by Jane Cox
Video by Luke Halls
Music by Jon Hopkins

CHARACTER ACTOR CHARACTER ACTOR
Claudius Ciarán Hinds Hamlet Benedict Cumberbatch
Gertrude Anastasia Hille Ophelia Sian Brooke
Laertes Kobna Holdbrook-Smith Polonius Jim Norton
Horatio Leo Bill    

Character: Claudius
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Company/theatre: Barbican Theatre
Run: 2015-08-05 to 2015-10-31


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