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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