Hamlet at the Barbican

Megan Morgan wasn't impressed

I think it would be fair to say that the knowledge that all of the VII English were going to be seeing Hamlet at the Barbican, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, caused some excitement among us. Some of this was justified, some of it… not so much. While there were some highlights to this production, directed by Lyndsey Turner, I have to admit that I came away a little underwhelmed, even by the great Cumberbatch himself.

Largely, I think this was the fault of the direction because it was clear Cumberbatch could act, whatever I felt about some parts of his performance (which could easily have been instructed). There were times during the play that I laughed out loud (just ask the girl who was sat next to me) and not at humorous moments. For example, at one stage, guards were sent in pursuit of Hamlet. To demonstrate this, Turner had a number of actors running across stage on all fours; I couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be monkeys or metaphorical demonic forces (my friend later enlightened me that perhaps they were guard dogs, which wasn’t clear). Another comic moment, that should on no account have been comic, was Ophelia’s death. Following the interval, a whole load of dirt had been sprayed onto the stage (for no apparent dramatic reason; it certainly prompted no feeling in me other than ‘why!?’). Having dragged a trunk onto stage, Siân Brooke, playing Ophelia, walked up the mound of dirt, literally towards the light. Literally towards the light. It felt like a bad joke, was completely clichéd and added absolutely nothing to the production.

The other main problem I had with this production was, as I have touched upon, Hamlet himself. I am a big fan of the play, having done an abridged version for a practice drama assessment in which I played the eponymous prince, and personally find it a very moving play. This production, however, generally failed to move me. Hamlet lost my empathy, I didn’t really care about why or how Ophelia and Hamlet had ever got together or if they had ever really been in love (nor were any of these things implied with any certainty), I didn’t see a clear relationship between Hamlet and his mother… I could go on. The key to any tragedy is, in my eyes, that you take the hero’s side so that even as they make mistakes, you understand them and ultimately do take their side. Here, whether intentional or not, I don’t care; Hamlet seemed more annoying and psychotic than grieving and sympathetic. Hamlet didn’t seem at all to care about the effect he was having but only about his revenge. This is a legitimate directorial objective to aim for but I think shooting for it undermines the power of the tragedy. Further, and most aggravating to me, in the already stupid-looking slow motion, weirdly-lit duel between Hamlet and Laertes, Hamlet eventually stabbed a helpless Laertes as he was lying on the floor. In my head, Hamlet would never have done this but would have wanted to win fair and square, with both of them armed and on their feet.

In short, the production was fine, good even, but was nothing particularly special. The direction, lighting and background music all took away from the story and the acting so that even the best of actors, of whom many would say Cumberbatch is one, didn’t really make me feel much at all. And that is not what I go to the theatre for.

Megan Morgan VII