Heightened anticipation often leads to disappointment. After purchasing tickets one full year in advance and traveling to London to see the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet, I was thoroughly prepared for the production or the actor not to live up to my expectations. I’ve seen the play performed many times, at varying levels of competence and inspiration. I’ve studied it, read it, and like most people seem to know an awful lot of the lines. It is familiar.
Given that conversance, a measure of the quality of any Shakespeare performance is hearing it anew, discovering something that had gone unnoticed. By those criteria Cumberbatch’s interpretation did succeed, and certainly I could listen forever to Shakespeare’s language in that velvety, compelling voice. Everything he said was crystal clear: we knew who he was, what he thought, what he wanted, and we cared about him. His interactions with the Player King were funny, and his “rogue and peasant slave” monologue sadder and more moving that I remembered. His seeming immature and boyish – even childish – interpretation was at times infuriating (one could quite understand Claudius wanting to kill him) but ultimately so vulnerable as to engage my compassion.
But the rest of the production! The Ophelia, tepid, wan, uninteresting, slouching around the stage like a teenager who lost her cell phone, was no match for this Hamlet. I felt nothing for her when she went mad, and Hamlet’s grief at her grave was self-generated….how could we believe he loved her when there was no chemistry or even any interest between them? Poor Jim Norton, an excellent actor who has moved me so much in the past, was playing a Polonius whose part was cut to shreds….he had almost nothing to do. Ciarán Hinds, usually so powerful and intense, was somewhat lost in the great barn that is the Barbican, as was the fragile, whispery Gertrude, played by Anastasia Hille.
Most at fault was the director Lyndsey Turner, who chose to break the play at Act III, Scene vii, when Hamlet is sent to England, by a coup de théâtre: tons of dirt, ash, stones and dust were blown onto the stage in huge piles. It was a large, very obvious statement, and thereafter the rest of the play took place in debris, as if bombs had fallen. And guess what…everyone was allowed to wear shoes except Ophelia and Gertrude. For the remainder of the play we were distracted by our concern for the actresses, as they walked gingerly across cinders and rocks in their bare feet, while the men stomped around in shoes and boots. Turner is a director who understands women’s issues – witness her excellent production of Machinal in New York last season – but this was one of many seemingly random choices that did not serve the production.
Is there ever a perfect Hamlet? Probably not, even when Richard Burbage performed it. I am gratified that Cumberbatch continues to expand his repertoire and stretch his acting muscles – we are the better for it. I look forward to his Benedict, his Iago, his Richard….and I hope next time he has better conditions in which to work.