Review: Hamlet at the NT

Question: What happens when you combine the English most famous poet and playwright with the most acclaimed and popular contemporary actor in the production of one of the world’s most famous plays?

Answer: Well, depends…

One has to appreciate the difficulties of bringing Hamlet to the stage as each new production has to make its mark in a world that has seen too many good renditions and has been blessed with great past performances on stage and screen by Lawrence Olivier, Richard Burton, Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes, Ian Charleson, Ben Whishaw, David Tenant and Judy Law, to mention but a few. Cumberbatch is up to the task and delivers a striking performance in the title role; he is not only convincing but disturbing and unsettling as Hamlet must be. His control of the deliver and the emotional tone are just perfect when you consider the situations in which the director and producer created for the contextualization of the play.

Some of the choices Lyndsey Turner, the director, has made were quite unfortunate indeed. The play-within-the play is inept and misconceived and the setting in the second half, when the palace is filled with rubbish and debris, is crude and misconceived to say the least. Michael Billington in his review for The Guardian complained about the Native American headdress and the 19th century lead-toy soldier outfit Cumberbatch is made to wear but I suppose the idea was to explore how a traumatic childhood may have been behind some of Hamlet’s psychological issues. Although the props could easily make Hamlet look silly, Cumberbatch’s take on it saves the day and gives the scenes an unnerving and thought-provoking twist.

Anastasia Hille is a convincing Gertude and the scene where she breaks the news of Ophelia’s death to Laertes is really remarkable. However, there is no chemistry between her and Ciaran Hinds, as Claudius, and I found it hard to believe that they would have ever consummated their marriage at all. There were also really poor performances by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, as Laertes, and Leo Bill, as Horatio, who, by the way, seemed undecided between being a student activist from the 1980s and a 2010s’ hipster. I am still wondering what that backpack was all about… Sian Brooke is an impressive Ophelia and her last scene in the play is so intense and disconcerting that after that everything falls flat, including the last scene that feels more like an anti-climax, in spite of Cumberbatch’s efforts, charisma and talent.

All in all, it is a real pity that neither the director nor most of the cast were at Cumberbatch’s level and I just hope in the future we will still be able to see him again as Hamlet in a more coherent and inspiring production.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the National Theatre