Review: Hamlet, Barbican

“The play’s the thing”

See, after all the kerfuffle and an insane (and irresponsible) amount of press scrutiny during its three week preview period (I hope all the hit chasing was worth it for everyone concerned), there’s still a regular piece of theatre at the heart of it. A company of cast and creatives trying to make art under the most trying of circumstances, a simple truth but one that seemed to have been largely forgotten in the rush to tap into the self-perpetuating frenzy around this production of Hamlet directed by Lyndsey Turner.

Visually it is undoubtedly stunning, you can see where at least some of the inflated ticket price has gone (and whilst I’m on, £65 for stalls seats with a restricted view about which there was no warning, shame on you Barbican and Sonia Friedman Productions). Es Devlin’s opulent set has an enormous palatial grandeur about it which is latterly, spectacularly, crumbled in ruin, Jane Cox’s lighting carves out performance space beautifully from the stage, and Luke Hall’s video work is impressive too. But the play’s the thing remember, not just the production.

Too little of the acting registers with real impact on this vast stage – Anastasia Hille and Ciarán Hinds are a classy Gertrude and Claudius on paper but lack chemistry with each other, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead on arrival and the play within the play falls flat. Most criminally, Benedict Cumberbatch’s prince – as beautifully spoken as he is – lacks a definitive driving motivation aside from painfully quirky randomness, he’s too often blandly forgettable which makes it hard to really engage with his fate whereas this character ought to be jumping off the stage (not just onto the tables).

I’m still in two minds about the slo-mo effects behind the soliloquys – presented as flights of fancy in Hamlet’s mind, it’s a clever way of showing the world is still going on without him but it’s also a distraction. There are bright lights though – Leo Bill’s vibrant reading of Horatio is always a pleasure to hear as is Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes (I wouldn’t mind seeing both of their Hamlets actually). And the too-rarely-seen Siân Brooke is a plangent, artistically tortured Ophelia – her final departure as an anguished Gertrude looks on is the show’s most powerful moment.

But it is these visual things that linger most in the mind whether good – the opening dinner scene with the all-white party marred by Hamlet dressed in black, and neatly inverted in the final scene – or bad – the inexplicable jerky dancing during Laertes’ death, rather than the grandeur of Shakespeare’s writing. And for all the textual jiggery pokery, it is the overall storytelling that suffers most as clarity is sacrificed for spectacle, its lack of real heart leaving me, sadly, really rather bored.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Booking until 31st October

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