source: hamlet-barbican.com

“Hamlet” starring Benedict Cumberbatch — Review

Set around the beginning of the 17th Century, Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, remains a classic and popular piece within the audiences, capturing every new generation with a little revival, aside the challenge of keeping up with the Elizabethan language. The newest production comes with more than just a “little”- it brings out a lucid and radical Hamlet, in the midst of a real political intent. This is the true revival actually: Lindsey Turner’s production is a skillful deconstruction of the human character, who becomes an outsider of the world he is living in and thus struggles to regain certainty in his beliefs and along with it, truth.

That’s right, this Hamlet does not seek for ultimate revenge with the purpose of shedding blood, but with the one of validating hypotheses and collecting facts, rather than assumptions.

The play opens up with the central character, wearing present-day clothes and listening to Nat King Cole’s “Nature boy”. The director, however, quickly shifts to another scene, introducing the war between Denmark and Norway as a subplot. Just like the political tension is progressing, so is the one in the royal family: after the sudden death of Hamlet’s father, Cornelius his uncle marries Gertrude(queen of Denmark) and further becomes king. The character is absorbed by the loss of his father and when he discovers the truth, he retreats in his childhood games. Wearing a soldier’s uniform, he begins to juggle with a series of contradictory reactions to the outside world. No one seems to understand him, and even Ophelia, the one he loves, is very easily persuaded to question his feelings. Once confronted, Hamlet easily acts upon her naive traits and discards her. Benedict Cumberbatch goes on with deconstructing the character, and manages to pull out the best of him during the monologue where he plans to catch his uncle guilty: by organizing a play. He becomes ecstatic, almost infantile with the thought of uncovering the truth. Yet this is the moment when the prince fully uncovers all his traits and somehow, rejoices what will happen. The king’s confession becomes for him, the most important matter. The long awaited “to be or not to be” monologue comes naturally, without any dramatic introduction, and easily carries the audience in the virtue of acting upon one’s desire, while holding a heavy predicament.

Claudius is the main villain in the play, although Ciaran Hinds could have supported this character with more than just a baritone voice. His Claudius is indeed cunning, but he does not hold rage in the most tense moments, and his self-absorption is rather implicit. Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, queen of Denmark, is elegant yet reserved in showing too many emotions of the character. Her paramount moment is the confession she makes to Laertes, that his sister Ophelia has drowned himself. Her interior desolation in the reconstitution of the tragedy reveals a raw and ashamed queen who cannot be masked anymore. Sian Brooke captures rather a naive and insecure Ophelia. She is fragile and demure, and is easily vanquished by the characters around her(mostly Polonius, her father, and Claudius). Her most soundly moment is probably her last monologue, where she reveals a convincing feeling of hopelessness. A more profound performance is marveled by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, as Laertes — brother of Ophelia and son of Polonius. As an antithesis of Hamlet, Polonius seeks revenge as a prospect for recovering his honor. The character is masterfully portrayed, and the actor proves great expressivity in handling the scene where Polonius is paralyzed with the choice of handling an unfair duel with Hamlet or forgiving his friend.

The great hall in which the action takes place is the quintessence of the play, carrying a design full of substance (with dark, cold wallpaper colors, military portraits and antique arms on the wall) that can be transformed either in a dining room or a battle scene. Silver branches and chandeliers accompany the wedding banquet between Claudius and Gertrude in the first act, while a sinking muddy floor in the second act symbolizes the turning point for all characters involved. Small light effects are added in the key moments of the play, and actors use slow motion movement or stage combat tricks to magnify the impact. Lyndsey Turner takes advantage of basically every inch of the stage, and exploits it to its best.

Many people question this staging as putting Benedict Cumberbatch as the front runner and leaving every other elements (including the actors) behind. Even if it is so, the play has always been centered around the main character, and the latest interpretation has become to me, a mockery of the present day — a world that repeats mistakes with great infantility, and is in need of a substantial amount of revival.