A set reminiscent of the dilapidated stately home that Alex Eales designed for Katie Mitchell’s Alles Weitere Kennen Sie aus den Kino in Hamburg, except more vast: its wide stretch fills the massive proscenium of the Barbican and recedes far into the depths of the stage, revealing further hallways as more of the impossibly tall doors are thrown open. And in the second half, it becomes a magnificent ruin, filled with rubble, the beautiful furniture smashed and ripped, characters entering down slopes of dirt poured in through those enormous doors. In some ways, Es Devlin’s design is the star of this show: deceptively naturalistic, it breaks the expanse of this far-too-wide stage up into discrete spaces on multiple levels; and in the second half, it occasionally manages to break free of the literalism that otherwise holds sway in Lyndsey Turner’s production.

Much has been made of how scandalously this Hamlet supposedly mistreats the text. I’m with Tom Cornford on this one: the alleged “textual fiddling” is mild and largely unobtrusive. Admittedly, I’m a terrible Shakespearean: I rarely know things by heart, I rarely notice minor textual changes, and when I do, I very rarely am disturbed by them. “To be or not to be” could, as far as I’m concerned, be cut from Hamlet without doing much damage to the play, and I certainly don’t care where in a show it appears. One of the things I liked about Thomas Ostermeier’s version was that the speech kept cropping up, as the most obviously citational moment in the play, the bit that everyone knows, the chunk of text no actor can pronounce without signalling that this isn’t real — no matter how hard he may try. Getting it out of the way as quickly as possible seemed like a good idea; moving it back into the middle of the action but in an unexpected place is kind of the opposite move: it’s suddenly there, surprisingly. Not that the surprise lasts long enough for the speech to become anything other than yet another performance of the same old speech — but at least there is the brief flicker of the unfamiliar. (Unless I’m totally off, though, Turner did not in fact put the speech where it is in the first quarto either: there, as in the other two versions of the text, it leads up to the confrontation with Ophelia. Not so in the Barbican version.) The notion of performing Hamlet uncut (whatever that may mean) strikes me as nightmarish: who’d want to sit through that? And changing words doesn’t really bother me. It’s not like actors haven’t been doing that since the plays were first performed. Some cuts may affect me if and when I notice them but almost never for more than a thought or two. All of this, for instance, is gone:

Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across,
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? Gives me the lie i’ the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?

And of course I noticed that. And yes, it would have been good to keep those lines, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. But did I mourn their loss? Not really.

One rather interesting textual trick, employed throughout: characters snapping out of soliloquy back into dialogue, and then back into the closing lines of their soliloquy. More often than not, that “worked” dramaturgically — as did the trick of having Hamlet snap out of soliloquies right back into group scenes. Take the “rogue and peasant slave” speech: Cumberbatch delivers it with the players and everyone else on stage, then moves right into the “can you play The Murder of Gonzago</>” bit, then, for the end of the scene, goes back to “the play’s the thing” and so on. The lines have been pretty thoroughly reshuffled. Who cares. It works. As a piece of stagecraft, it’s quite neat.

What isn’t so neat: that every bloody soliloquy apparently requires a lighting change, a sound cue, and a weird black-and-white projection. Why? Just to make sure everyone knows that we’re now inside Hamlet’s mind?

The elegant and the podunk, the imaginative and the pedestrian, sit side by side in this production. My first reaction, last night, was to declare the entire thing a snore. I’ve mellowed a bit overnight: Turner does some interesting things with the play. But there is still a pretty large gaping hole at the show’s centre. And that’s the acting.

People seem to think of Benedict Cumberbatch as a cerebral actor. It must be because of the way he looks and how he sounds. But I don’t think they’re right. In fact, I think he’s an intensely physical performer. The only thing that redeemed the otherwise total train wreck that was Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the NT for me was the entirely silent opening “birth” sequence Cumberbatch performed as the creature: I’ve never seen him rival the specificity and precision of that. The problem with this Hamlet is that it almost takes Cumberbatch’s body away from him. More often than not, he is made to stand and deliver: and although he speaks the lines just fine, he doesn’t get to do anything with them. One exception: “remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” That line becomes a kind of contorted dance of disgust and anger — a real moment, a brief respite from the verse speaking, a transposition of text into body. I wish there’d been much more of that. And that’s why I wish those lines about being called a coward hadn’t been cut: because they’re lines that call for physical action. It’s lines like those Cumberbatch needed, and didn’t have enough of.

If Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is all too often curiously disembodied, he also lacks spontaneity: it’s a long run, and perhaps things were different earlier on; but I rarely got any sense that he — or anyone else, for that matter — was really finding any kind of fresh connection with the text, especially in Hamlet’s wittier moments. And the production is so overdetermined, works with so many layers of design, that there is no connection between actor and audience either. It’s no coincidence that by far the most powerful moment of the night came after the curtain call, when Cumberbatch, in full light, stepped to the edge of the stage to deliver a heartfelt plea for donations for Syrian refugees. It’s not that his text was clearer or better; it wasn’t that the topic was so much more current. It was that I could see him, and he spoke to all of us directly. A connection was being made. For most of the evening, much of this show makes it impossible for this kind of connection to happen.

More on spontaneity: there were precious few moments when two actors actually seemed to react to each other in anything like an unrehearsed fashion. Hamlet and Rosencrantz have a few such moments; the instructions to the player, acted as an actual instructional scene, with the player getting things wrong and Hamlet correcting him, connected; when a servant runs up the stairs to get to Polonius’ corpse, Hamlet’s “A will stay till you come” is lovely — it’s like he actually notices the absurdity of the situation and spontaneously comments on it, almost to himself. It’s kind of effortless, and very funny as a consequence.

But those moments are few and far between. Overall, stasis reigns. Everything feels very, very predetermined — not on a universal scale, but on a production schedule.

Whenever Turner allows things to happen, though, the show becomes massively more interesting. When all the courtiers start looking for Hamlet and for Polonius’ corpse, for instance, the vast set suddenly swarming with bodies, some of the humans quickly transforming into dogs: that’s genuinely menacing. And when that swarm then starts encroaching on Hamlet to find out what he has done with the corpse, that, too, creates a striking image that captures something about this court, this surveillance state, that the text barely touches on. In a completely different mode, but no less menacing: when Claudius appears at the top of the stairs right after the closet scene, without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (as he does in the text), slowly creeps down the steps, and purrs his “What, Gertrude? How does Hamlet?” It’s Ciarán Hinds strongest bit in the entire show, an endlessly suggestive moment: has Claudius been listening all along from up there? How much has he heard? Does he know that Gertrude has agreed to avoid his bed? Does he know Hamlet isn’t really mad? Is Gertrude now in danger from him too? Nothing is spelled out, much of what is unsettling about the scene merely hinted at through Hinds’ movement down the stairs, his languid nonchalance in the delivery of the seemingly innocuous line. If only there were more moments like this!

Hinds is, I should say, one of the productions biggest problems: alternately sleepwalking and scene-chewing, he doesn’t give any of the characters around him much to play off or with. The end of part one was symptomatic in this regard: Hinds standing alone centre stage, in a tight spot, delivering a hugely melodramatic version of Claudius’ appeal to England to kill Hamlet. No menace there, just theatrical posturing. And then dust and rubble comes blowing in from all sides as the safety curtain closes — an image that’s probably still too illustrative, too on the nose (Claudius is literally wrecking Denmark!), but an image that at least conveys something, unlike Claudius’ lines.

Photo by Johan Persson

Photo by Johan Persson

Throughout the evening, I felt that this was a production that wanted to do something interesting, but couldn’t figure out how to do it with any consistency. Take the set: yes, when the curtain opens after the interval, the ruin is impressive. But at first, it’s totally literal: we’re in the countryside outside the castle, with Fortinbras’ tents pitched around (actual) fires. A little later, the rubble becomes the graveyard. But when the action shifts back into Elsinore, we’re suddenly in the realm of metaphor. As metaphors go, “ruin” is, as I said, a little on the nose. But simply in theatrical terms, it’s kind of lovely to see Claudius, in his nice suit and polished shoes, clambering down a mound of dirt to get into his throne room. Similarly, when Ophelia returns after Laertes’ entrance, we hear her long before we see her — or rather, we hear the huge trunk she’s dragging behind her, and down the stairs. That sound, that slow, noisy descent: that’s a powerful theatrical gesture. But Sian Brooke’s performance, before and after that? I’m afraid it’s pretty harmless. And so it kept going. As I said, the instructions to the players — lovely. The actual performance of The Mousetrap? Leaden beyond belief, dull, and in its staging, bizarre (cramming two actors into an outsized marionette theatre; placing the onstage audience in a nearly impenetrable gloom and having them face away from us, so that they’re pretty much impossible to see or read). On the other hand, having Hamlet play the murderous Lucianus is clever — it gets at the messiness of Hamlet’s dramaturgy in The mousetrap; it momentarily turns Gonzago into Claudius, and the point of the performance into a threat rather than an effort to trick Claudius into revealing his guilt; and it plays with the Oedipal motif, allowing Hamlet to try out the actions of his father’s killer. But that latter idea dissipates almost immediately, along with all that complexity, as soon as we get to the closet scene, which is a one-note rant, dismayingly uncomplicated. (I understand that UK performers have en masse run screaming from the Freudian reading of that scene, but if the consequence of that rejection is that you can’t do anything with Hamlet’s weird obsession with his mother’s sex life… well, that doesn’t leave this scene with much of a point.) And then there’s old Hamlet: old Hamlet is really</> old. No offence, but Karl Johnson does not cut an especially imposing figure. When the ghost appears in the closet scene, the contrast between the aged, hunched figure standing on the stage of the marionette theatre (because that’s where he appears, in the same spot where Hamlet knifed Polonius) and the stately, imposing portrait of his younger self to which Hamlet had been gesturing moments before is remarkable. But is it intended? Are we supposed to look at the ghost and feel sympathy for Gertrude? Are we supposed to conclude that Hamlet’s adulation of his father is disconnected from the reality of what his father had become? That the Hyperion he raves about had ceased to exist long before old Hamlet was murdered? If so, Turner does little to nudge us in that direction.

Some other efforts: there’s obviously a theme of Hamlet-as-eternal-child that runs through the entire production. the poster, which has the entire cast represented by children, announces as much. Toys — a rocking horse, a doll’s house, etc. — are tucked away in corners of the set everywhere. Hamlet drags on an enormous toy castle and life-sized toy soldiers in his madness, and turns into one of those soldiers shortly thereafter. “Nature Boy” is a song that echoes through the show. But if the suggestion is that Hamlet hasn’t grown up, or hasn’t been allowed to grow up (unlike Laertes and Horatio, who aren’t stuck in Elsinore), the production doesn’t really do anything further with that theme. Turner puts it there, in isolated images and moments, but doesn’t develop it into an actual interpretation.

Photo by Johan Persson

Photo by Johan Persson

On the other hand, Hamlet’s toy soldiers reappear in the second half in the guise of Fortinbras’ army; and the liveried servants of Claudius’ court also look rather like they might have walked out of a children’s book. Is it not just Hamlet but the entire world of the play — or perhaps the worlds of courtly intrigue and pointless warfare — that are childish? I don’t know. There are suggestions, but no strong positions in this production.

Another one: time. Horatio seems completely out of place and time in Elsinore. Hamlet, somewhat less so. Ophelia, very much so. Laertes, just barely. The look and feel of the show veers wildly from a stylized nineteenth-century to the present day, with Leo Bill wandering around in this world looking and sounding like a Shoreditch hipster that just stumbled out of a time machine. His final confrontation with Fortinbras is utterly bizarre: they cannot possibly exist in the same world, unless they’re at a fancy dress party. There is something potentially compelling there, something intriguing, certainly something pleasantly non-literal: but any sense of what that might be remains inchoate, unfinished, not quite thought through.

Perhaps Tom Cornford is right: this is a commercial production, after all. Perhaps one shouldn’t expect too much. But I’d turn that around. This was a show that was always going to sell out. And it’s obviously a show with ambitions beyond the commercial: Turner evidently wanted to do something with the play. Given the inherent mass appeal of her star, she could have done pretty much anything with this production. Instead, my sense is that she tried to do everything — tried on and out a whole bunch of angles on the play without actually settling for any one in particular, and falling back, when all else failed, on standard modes of getting the lines out. The problem with this production is not that it has too little respect for Shakespeare, not that it doesn’t take the text seriously enough, not that it is too invasive: it’s ultimately too respectful, doesn’t go far enough, and doesn’t take itself seriously enough.

2 Responses to Hamlet (Shakespeare; dir. Lyndsey Turner), Barbican, London, October 2015

  1. […] as to the specific effects of the live screening context, see those by Peter Kirwan, Tom Cornford, Holger Schott Syme, and Eoin […]

  2. Ronda Arab says:

    Thanks for this incisive review. It makes me want to see the production, despite your issues with it!

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