Archive | August, 2015

Hamlet first night first review: how great is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dane?

25 Aug
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

I predicted in my previous blog that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet would be more of an action man than a thinker, and, having now seen the much talked-about Barbican production, so it proves – to a fault. Even when soliloquising about suicide (“Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew”) he leaps nimbly up on to a table – the first of two such leaps. I haven’t seen such an Action Hamlet since Mel Gibson in the Zeffirelli film.

Wait, I tell a lie, I have. It was the wonderful bit in The Last Action Hero where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Hamlet (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – and Hamlet is taking out the trash!”). “To be or not to be”, says Big Arnie, lighting a huge cigar. “Not to be,” he decides, and the whole castle explodes in flames.

But I digress.

Benedict Cumberbatch is hugely entertaining to watch throughout, and never more so than when he elects to “put an antic disposition on”: he reveals such a wonderful gift for physical comedy when pretending to be a toy soldier while acting mad, you’d love someone to sign him up for an out-and-out screwball comedy. But aye, there’s the rub. In the hoary old question of how much Hamlet is really mad, and how much he is just pretending, this production plumps so squarely for the latter that it makes a nonsense of the play.

Most damagingly, this interpretation turns Hamlet into such an irredeemable shit that you lose all sympathy with him. In the original play, one of the most troubling scenes is “Get thee to a nunnery”, where Hamlet is unremittingly horrible to the poor innocent girl to whom he once so movingly professed, “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt thou that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt that I love.”

In the context of a man who is haunted by the ghost of his father, who is utterly turned off sex by the thought of his mother lying with his uncle in “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, honeying and making love over the nasty sty”, who has had his love letters rejected, and who has just been thinking about suicide before they meet, the scene can make sense.

In the Barbican production, however, they cut the scene where Ophelia talks about how Hamlet recently came to her and “raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being”; AND they moved the “To be or not to be” speech to the beginning of the play (apparently this has been rethought during previews, and that soliloquy, at least, has been returned to its usual place). The result is that Hamlet goes straight from telling Horatio that he’s going to pretend to be mad, to the Nunnery scene where he is horrible to Ophelia – from which we can only conclude that she is deliberate collateral damage.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,There are many other ways in which a Hamlet in full possession of his senses becomes odious: the killing of that “rash intruding fool” Polonius; the summary execution of his old friends Rosencrantz and Gildenstern; Hamlet’s startlingly casual (in this production) semi-apology to Polonius’s son, in which he defends himself by copping an insanity plea – a plea we know to be a lie. It also makes it even more peculiar that this Action Hamlet fails to take action in avenging his father’s death.

I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets. I started with Jonathan Pryce’s, in 1980, when studying the play for A-level. That plumped for a mostly mad Hamlet – the voice of the ghost came from deep within Hamlet himself. I next saw Steven Berkoff’s at the Edinburgh Fringe – transfixing, stylised, with elements of mime, performed in a simple circle with no props to give the audience’s imagination wing. I’ve seen Ralph Fiennes’s Oedipal Hamlet in 1995, where the “nasty sty” scene with his mother was so overpoweringly sexual that it was little surprise to discover that he and Francesca Annis became lovers. Michael Sheen’s was the maddest, set in an actual lunatic asylum; Nick Hytner’s production at the National was the most well thought through and all-round brilliantly acted and staged production of the dozen I have seen.

What does Benedict Cumberbatch’s add?

Certainly, like David Tennant’s, it has reached out to a new audience. The set is so wonderful it is bound to win awards. Many of the cuts are good, and keep the production rollicking along at a fair pace. Some of the more confusing words have rightly been changed: “Pat” has been axed (in the original text Hamlet says, contemplating killing his uncle, “Now might I do it pat”, which led generations of sniggering schoolchildren to wonder who Pat was); “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me” has been changed to “him that stops me”, since most people don’t realise the original meant the opposite of what is now understood; the “union” thrown into the poisoned drink is now called a “jewel”.

But – and as Sir Mixalot would say, it’s a big but and I cannot lie – it didn’t fire the imagination of the Hamlet neophyte that I took along, my son Sam; whereas I’m quite sure Nick Hytner’s more cerebral version would have.

Benedict’s is a very good Dane, then – but it could so easily have been a great one.

NB: Having bought my tickets a year ago and seen the play last week, in order to satisfy critical convention I have held off reviewing it until First Night — which is tonight. 

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What a piece of work is (this) man: Benedict Cumberbatch opens in Hamlet

5 Aug
Benedict_Cumberbatch_2011_(jpg)

Benedict Cumberbatch, who opens in Hamlet tonight. Pic from Wikimedia Commons, Sam Hughes from UK derivative work: RanZag.

So phenomenal is the appeal of Benedict Cumberbatch that he caused a 400-year-old play performed thousands of times to become the most in-demand show in West End history: on the day tickets were released, 35,000 callers were waiting in the phone queue. Hamlet finally gets its opening night at the Barbican tonight, but Benedict has been planning it for years. Asked at a Q&A in 2012 which play he would choose if he were only able to do one more, he said, in his typically British self-deprecating manner, ‘I think it would have to be Hamlet. I mean it’s a very vain project in a way, isn’t it, Hamlet, because every actor wants to have their go at it, but, um, I do want to have my go at it.’

From Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes to Jude Law and Michael Sheen, Hamlet is a rite of passage for every new generation’s brightest actors. But rather than being weighed down by the history, Benedict and director Lyndsey Turner have spent the last year stripping the play down and reassembling it. In the same way as he reinvented Sherlock Holmes, Benedict says he wants Hamlet to feel ‘like a new play that just landed as a pdf in someone’s computer inbox at the Royal Court. We want to escape the idea that it has been done before, and we’re looking at the whole play – not just the eponymous hero.’

Benedict promises to be extraordinary in the role. He’s no stranger to Shakespeare, having performed in several of his plays at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre way back at the turn of the millennium, and he specialises in oddballs and loners with a planet-sized brain, even playing Stephen Hawking a decade before his friend Eddie Redmayne did: ideal for the conflicted prince whose ‘native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’.

Yet you should also expect his to be a vigorous, physical, passionate interpretation. When an interviewer for Elle suggested to him that Hamlet is as sexless as Sherlock, Benedict became quite indignant: ‘My God,’ he exclaimed. ‘He’s got a depth of soul that, if he turned it on you, you’d be the happiest woman in the world!’

Overnight success

When people talk about ‘overnight success’, it’s usually a metaphor for a rapid rise to fame. In Benedict Cumberbatch’s case, it is literally true. I interviewed the actor a week before the very first Sherlock was broadcast. He seemed pleased enough with the way they had updated Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective series to the modern world; but he also talked entertainingly about his time spent with Tibetan monks, and how being car-jacked and nearly killed in South Africa had made him want to live life to the full.

There was no sense of what was about to hit. ‘It did feel like an overnight change,’ he reflected in Empire magazine four years later. ‘I’d never been that tuned into the internet, in the sense of TV shows and their fandom. I didn’t know there could be an immediate live response to television programmes. The immediate response on Twitter… this thing of my name trending worldwide… it was amazing. The noise coming off the country was deafening and I just thought, “F***. That’s changed. That’s crazy.”’

And there is no sign of Cumberfever dying down. Last year he photobombed U2 at the Oscars where he was presenting an award, appeared on Sesame Street, and had his likeness immortalised in wax by Madame Tussauds; this year he was an Academy Award nominee himself, appeared on the coveted cover of Vanity Fair’s 21st annual Hollywood Issue, and had a life-sized statue of him made out of chocolate. (Passers-by, apparently, couldn’t resist a nibble.)

How did a faintly odd-looking theatre and TV actor, well known for his resemblance to an otter, become one of the screen’s biggest stars and sex symbols, with roles in blockbusters such as Star Trek, The Hobbit and upcoming Marvel movie Doctor Strange to add to prestige parts such as Julian Assange, Alan Turing and his conflicted slave owner in the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave? The Curious Case of Benedict Cumberbatch may sound like a tale worthy of Conan Doyle, but it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to solve it.

The son of actor parents, he was gifted even as a child. His drama teacher at Harrow, where he made his stage debut aged 12 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called him the best schoolboy actor he had ever worked with. His voice is a remarkably versatile instrument: just watch the extraordinary YouTube clips of him performing the dragon Smaug, without all the computer enhancements, or the MTV interview in which he is asked to imitate as many celebrities as he can in a minute – switching with amazing speed from Jack Nicholson to Christopher Walken to Matthew McConaughey, he nails 11.

So, to quote Fortinbras at Hamlet‘s close: ‘Bear Hamlet/Benedict like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royally.’

Hamlet runs until 31 Oct at the Barbican CentreThirty tickets will be available to queue for each day, and Hamlet will be broadcast on 15 Oct in 550 cinemas worldwide. This blog is an amended version of my feature published in Where London magazine. I have tickets, bought a year ago, for later in the run. I’ll review it in London Hollywood then.