Hamlet at The Barbican: ‘A slaughterhouse – eight corpses all told’

Hamlet at the wedding feastIt’s a wet and dreary August bank holiday, and if this weren’t depressing enough, I’m having a fit of the miseries because I’ve been to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet. I bought tickets about a whole entire year ago and now it’s all over and I have nothing to do but sit here limply on the sofa and think about maybe going out to buy some crisps. There’s a big Hamlet-sized hole in my life and I’m not sure even salt and vinegar Hula Hoops can help me out with this one.

In fact, I’m not sure I have enough money left for Hula Hoops in any case, because when all’s told, this was an extremely expensive evening: Barbican Red Membership plus the cost of the tickets, train and taxi fares, food, interval wine, theatre programme…once all that’s totted up, there wasn’t much change out of three hundred and fifty quid. But I’d do it all again, because mixed reviews and mild rumpus over unauthorised filming notwithstanding, this was an absolutely cracking evening.

BC as Hamlet 2

Alright, so lots of critics don’t like it. The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote a very snippy review (although I have to agree with his comments about the clumsily-handled play scene); Wendy Bradley sounds off against The Barbican for its handling of ticket sales (she has a point here) and the schoolmarmish treatment of theatre-goers wielding mobile phones and cameras. Okay, so perhaps the proliferation of signs and warnings was a little over-enthusiastic, but all this policing of electronic gadgetry is being carried out in response to some truly oafish and ill-mannered behaviour from those who thought it was perfectly acceptable to distract both the actors and fellow audience-members so they could film the performance instead of actually just sitting there and enjoying it. The lovely Mr Cumberbatch himself made a plea for this to stop. So I didn’t really mind all the fuss about phones. (I was, however, peeved about how much they charged me for the programme, but never mind. I didn’t have to buy one, after all.)

Ophelia

Churlish whinging aside, I’m going to write about what I did like. I’ve included some photos, all of which have been pilfered from The Guardian’s website: follow this link to view the entire gallery. There are pics of the characters here, but you can only glean a rough idea of the fantastic set. The sumptuous palace of the first half is covered in black rubble for the second – a visual metaphor for the disorder that has fallen on Denmark which Billington thought heavy-handed, but it’s undeniably effective because not only does the rubble bring about a dramatic colour change, but the actors have to fight against it. Gertrude enters bare-footed, and I think Ophelia does too, so both women are scrabbling against a thorny surface. The rubble has to be negotiated: it has to be swept aside or clambered over, and this all makes for a telling reminder that the characters have lost control over their environment. The natural order of things has been disrupted and the characters have to struggle to stay upright. Poor mad Ophelia’s exit over this mess was, for me, the most moving part of the performance:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 21.37.55

I enjoyed Siân Brooke as Ophelia, and Anastasia Hille’s sympathetic Gertrude, and I thought Ciarán Hinds exuded a wonderful air of menace as Claudius: he really did seem like a very dangerous man indeed. (I couldn’t always catch what Hinds was saying, however: my hearing is poor and I have to wear hearing aids, which may account for the difficulty, but I didn’t have the same problem with anyone else.)

Ciaran Hinds as Claudius

I liked very much Jim Norton’s Polonius, who made us laugh many times. This, I felt, was a shrewd move on the part of the director, because Polonius’ death when it came was felt as the truly sad turn of events that it is, and the chaos which ensues was all the more understandable. Rosencrantz (Matthew Steer) and Guildenstern (Rudi Dharmalingam) were nicely under-played – another shrewd directorial move, because ever since the appearance of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this pair can easily upstage everyone else. As my companion pointed out, for an actor to land either one of these roles now must be a woo-hoo! moment, because even though these are only bit-parts, everyone is looking out for you – it’s like instant fame but without the hassle of having to memorise over 4000 lines. Under Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Voltemand (Morag Siller) was (or felt like) the larger role – in fact, I don’t think the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were even reported at the end, but I may be wrong there. I was facing a pile of corpses by that stage and felt heartily wrung out.

Hamlet and Gertrude

And what can we say about Benedict Cumberbatch? Well, look, I’m obviously not going to be able to give an impartial account here, but let me just say that he is mesmerising. As my companion said, when the soliloquies don’t feel like soliloquies, you know you’re in good hands. Astonishing stuff. I would go on, but then everyone might think that I massively fancy him or something.

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