At this juncture there is little point pretending that Benedict Cumberbatch is not one of the hottest properties on the planet, and that the Hamlet in which he stars is not one of the most eagerly-awaited theatrical events in living memory. We all know both to be true. Websites crashed, fans wept, and the theatre even had to record a special message from Cumberbatch himself imploring his legions of devotees not to film him mid-soliloquy (it doesn't help much with the concentration, dontchaknow). Huge queues even formed outside cinemas across the world, as windswept would-be-theatre-goers far removed from London Town lined up to see the National Theatre Live broadcast of his performance up on a big screen. All productions of Hamlet are star vehicles to some extent, exercises in showcasing the virtuosity of one particular actor, but the best ones are able to disguise this fact with sleight-of-hand, or display it against an equally impressive canvas of other performances; Lynsey Turner’s Barbican production is, regrettably, far too aware of it. It is not that there has not been a media buzz about other Hamlets. The well-regarded 2008-9 RSC version starring David Tennant, for instance, saw a similar obsessive mania and rapid ticket sales, but this seemed to have minimal impact on the quality of the production itself - on the contrary, Tennant's was one of the best Hamlets I'd seen for some time (and that list includes Jude Law, John Simm, Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Lawrence Olivier). And yet Turner's production ultimately disappears in its very extravagance and hype. It is as though the most excited and energetic everybody felt about the entire enterprise was the day they managed to hire Cumberbatch to play the lead, as opposed to any particularly compelling rehearsal.
Perhaps it is a cynical way of looking at things, but the extent to which Turner gives us a Hamletcentric Hamlet feels regrettably showbiz. The surreal decision to place "To be or not to be" - the character's most famous soliloquy - at the play's opening, sacrificing internal plot mechanics and emotional arcs for the sake of the imagery of a rock star coming on to the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury with his signature riff, had fortunately been overturned by the time the play hit cinemas. And yet much of that same flashy focus on this (admittedly) talented actor, O he of the mighty cheekbones, suffuses this production with a rather shallow quality. "Hamlet lives or dies on its Hamlet", it feels as though the director is arguing. To an extent this is true - he's the wordiest of Shakespeare's many characters and does dominate his play's run-time in a way that has no equivalence in Macbeth or Othello - and yet it simply will not do to lay all your emphasis on your big-name star at the expense of powerful scenes elsewhere. The other characters in Hamlet are complex, sympathetic, horrifying people with whom we must sympathise, at whom we must laugh, and by whom we must feel repulsed. They can't just be loquacious and vaguely sentient-ish bits of window dressing. One does not simply take an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch's calibre and surround him with incompetents who struggle to match him and even suck dynamism and energy out of many key scenes.
But let us talk first about the positives. I have mentioned that this is a Hamletcentric Hamlet. It is thus unsurprising that his principal characterisation in this case is as an isolated individual, and in many instances this works well. Three of his major soliloquies, for example, function nicely as reflections of his interiority and loneliness in a vast, cavernous, oppressive space, as though his thoughts are buzzing away in his head, unspoken, while he is constantly surrounded by others. It is this aspect which feels it is the boldest and most imaginative on display, and I applaud Lynsey Turner et al. for it. It is both aesthetically dynamic - Cumberbatch leaps to attention and plunges in to his inner monologues while the other cast members around him freeze, suddenly plunged into darkness, or move with heightened slowness - and thematically appropriate. On this latter count, the seeds of his eventual inaction perhaps occur to him at precisely the moment when the First Player recites "So as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood/and, like a neutral to his will and matter/Did nothing." This then bursts forth in his most determined and active speech, "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I", as though he has been jolted out of his own fear of doing nothing. Better yet, Cumberbatch really sells the extent to which the power of the Hecuba/Priam speech, as spoken by the First Player, inspires him to entrap Claudius with a theatrical production. Between them, Turner and Cumberbatch make these famous soliloquies feel like the real and fast-moving thoughts of a real man, and given that they are familiar phrases that have been echoed for 416 years, that is always worthy of praise.
Benedict Cumberbatch does not, I think, have quite the greatest range of any actor I have ever seen - he invariably inhabits a kind of demented yet aristocratic brilliance in every role he plays; he would never be cast as a settled, working-class man living in a town with a strong sense of community, for instance - but he certainly has the gift of being able to speak verse beautifully. He is technically very precise, eloquent, with perfect yet not over-perfect diction and enunciation. He sells his lines convincingly, almost without fail, such that one is rarely left at a loss with regard to their meaning. Nicely aided by the presence of a noose around his neck, "To Be or Not to Be" is performed well - and quietly, my preferred interpretation - even if I never quite bought his take on the all-important transition point of "aye, there's the rub". Similarly, Cumberbatch slightly fluffs "were it not that I have...bad dreams", rushing on to the next line a little too quickly, but he more than makes up for that with a stunning and moving rendition of "I have, of late, though wherefore I know not..." If there is a false note in his performance, it is the worryingly tired-feeling "wacky" scenes (I have never thought of him as an actor to whom wackiness comes particularly naturally; even his Sherlock, while an outcast, is no jester in the way David Tennant's Doctor naturally complemented his own manic take on the Prince) - as Cumberbatch parades up and down with a silly toy fort dressed as a toy soldier, it all feels horribly forced rather than funny. In the actor's defence, this may, of course, be the point: is Hamlet's antic disposition actually rather pathetic as opposed to light relief? Also impressive was his ability to capture the Prince's sorrow in those early scenes. Some productions rather gloss over Hamlet's love for his father in their haste to get all existential on us but Cumberbatch quietly ensures we are left in no doubt as to his filial feelings. The play opens with him alone, clutching the scattered ephemera of his dead father, listening to snatches of old tunes, mourning. Thus it is he rather than Bernardo and Marcellus who gets the first word - just as later it is he who enacts the play in front of Claudius, not the Player King. As I said: a Hamlet dominated by its Hamlet.
Aside from the focus on Cumberbatch's Hamlet, it seems like the other key player in Turner's production is the outstanding set: a beautiful, opulent, Downton Abbey-style creation that really makes "to the manor born" work well as a literal phrase. The first moment the curtain rises on the grand canvas that is Elsinore is one that drew audible gasps from the audience. On a purely technical level, it might be the single most impressive set I've ever seen, even if flooding such grandeur with rotten wood, leaves and bark for the second act might be taking "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" a touch too far. My issue is - like so much with this production - that the sheer razzamatazz of the set dwarfs the actors. They become distant, unrelatable figures in a huge palace. There is none of the claustrophobia that we imagine when we think of Elsinore as a prison. But perhaps that is the point. This is a Hamlet that somehow loses its grip on the little moments in favour of huge sweeps and vistas, impressive effects sequences, flickering lighting and electronic synths and wails. It is unlikely that Lynsey Turner's avowed intent was to mirror the play's themes by trapping a brilliant central performance in a theatrical creation simply unfit for his superb, passionate sensitivity, but, in giving us the marvel that is Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet within the prison of this oddly dissatisfying production, she has done exactly that.