Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Out & About: Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre, London (2015)

© Johan Persson / Barbican | Source: Filmkompass
“The rest is silence.” – Hamlet (V, 2)

Silence – certainly the last word I would use to describe the newest high-profile production of Hamlet over at the Barbican Theatre in London. When in 2014 it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch would take on the title role of the Danish prince, the world was abuzz with excitement. A buzz that would, almost one year later, last through ticket sales, previews, opening night, and will probably keep on humming until the final show this Saturday.

Thanks to the British actor, this Hamlet has become the “most in-demand theatre show of all time”. Tickets were sold out within minutes. With over one thousand people in the Barbican online queue before me, I myself was about to give up all hope of ever making it to the front before all the tickets were gone. My gratitude goes out to the Ambassador Theatre Group, which offered tickets on their own website where, surprisingly, waiting time didn’t even add up to one minute.

So, yes, I had my tickets and, in September, made my way to London to witness The Cumberbatch do some Shakespeare. Mind you, there was a span of over one year between buying the tickets and finally taking my seat in the Barbican stalls. In this time, the hype and frenzy around the production more than once had me shaking my head in disbelief. Reviews published before opening night, people who thought they were going to a rock concert instead of a theatre show and, hence, took their mobile phones to do some recording, Cumberbatch stepping out of the stage door to address those people and ask them to please leave their phones in their bags and enjoy the show instead – seriously, WTF?

© WENN | Source: Irish Mirror
Fandom can be a crazy place to get stuck in. Of course, I won’t deny it, I admire Cumberbatch’s work, I love Shakespeare and I’m always happy to see a good play. So, when these three factors came together, I wanted to be part of the experience. However, I like to keep in mind that no matter how famous a person might be, there’s still a human being behind the image trying to do his or her job. I also think that the extensive coverage of Cumberbatch’s involvement with the play is utterly ridiculous. We’re talking Hamlet here. And while the leading part has always received a fair amount of attention, the play still is an ensemble piece and deserves to be recognised as such.

But enough with the grumbling already. The audience I was in was totally inconspicuous. No phones, no teddy bears flying onto the stage, no fainting and stuff. Funnily enough, one of the employees at the Barbican Centre told me the next day that he can claim the Hamlet audience to be the most well-behaved audience they’ve ever had – after all the steps taken by the theatre and staff to re-establish order. So, indeed, well-behaved the audience was, and after a delicious three-course pre-theatre menu at the Barbican’s own Gin Joint, I was perfectly ready to soak in the play.

To be honest, Hamlet isn’t my favourite Shakespeare piece. I can hear most of you scream ‘Blasphemy!’ at me, but, alas, it’s just the way it is. There’s something about whiny Danish princes that just doesn’t appeal to me that much. And if there’s one thing Hamlet does throughout the entirety of the play, it’s whine: about the state his family is in, about the state he’s in, about the state the state is in – you get the picture. Additionally, the play touches on so many different themes and topics which do not manage to come together as a whole, in my opinion. There’s talk of revenge, impuissance, guilt, theatre, the afterlife and the supernatural. There’s a lame political sub-plot and a jammed-in romance just for the sake of having some amorous drama in there. Some may call it complexity; I call it an aimless hotchpotch of actually intriguing ideas. 

© Johan Persson / Barbican | Source: Evening Standard
But then there’s also my conviction that Shakespeare is incapable of failing his readers and theatre audiences completely. After all, there’s the language. This beautifully crafted, melodious language. Metaphorical, allegorical, witty, plain, crude – all at the same time. There are some of the most precious monologues/soliloquies in theatre history to be found within Hamlet and, hundreds of years later, “To be or not to be” and “What a piece of work is a man” still resonate and capture universal questions about the purpose of mankind. Then it’s also impressive to see how human psychology is unfolded. For a play originating from the very beginning of the 17th century, the emphasis on individual thoughts and emotions is astounding and exiting to read.

Having said all this, I’m rather disappointed in Lyndsey Turner’s directorial effort. Considering that there are so many different approaches one can follow with this play, it seems as if she shies away from really taking a stand and endowing her Hamlet with a special focus. The only striking interpretive quality comes from the outstanding set design as well as the costume and props department. There is this certain air of nostalgia, of how living in the good ol’ days, when daddy Hamlet was still very much alive and king, was much better than living in the now. Hamlet listens to old records; Ophelia, played in an annoyingly fragile and weepy manner by Siân Brooke, has a passion for analog photography; the great, royal hall furnished with old portraits and antiquities falls to dust after the interval. The costume design takes its influence from many different epochs, hinting at the timeless quality of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. 

© Johan Persson / Barbican | Source: Vickster51Corner
But instead of further following this train of thought, Turner takes the hotchpotch and pours it onto the carefully constructed stage. Unfortunately, trusting that the plot will carry itself and the actors and actresses will do a good job is not enough to bring out the best in Hamlet. I’m of the persuasion that it needs a firm hand and clear direction to gain a resonating effect as a whole.

Luckily, Turner knows how to create powerful images, mildly compensating for the lack of depth. Her staging of the ghost scenes, in particular, harbour the nature of a classic horror story, with voices echoing through the halls and objects moving unexpectedly. It’s creepy fun, as if you’re sitting through a polished episode of Tales From the Crypt.

Another reason why this Hamlet manages to entertain despite its deficiencies is Turner’s willingness to embrace the humorous quality of the source text. This especially allows actor Jim Norton to shine in the part of Polonius. His dialogues with Hamlet are sure to evoke laughter and brighten the otherwise darker aspects of the play without bringing too much silliness into the game. On the other hand, Hamlet’s fits of craziness, which manifest themselves in some odd-nonsensical moments, might serve quick comic relief but do nothing for the play, really. When he dresses up as a toy soldier and patrols around in a mini-castle rolled onto stage, I admittedly cracked a smile, but was put off by the general absurdity of it all. Same goes for the slow-motion techniques and weird dance-like choreographies that are thrown in occasionally.

It is Shakespeare’s writing and the ensemble that hold this rather unspectacular production together. My personal highlights include Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother Gertrude, played with ardour by Anastasia Hille, and Claudius’ (Ciarán Hinds) confession to the murder of his brother. Hinds conveys feelings of guilt and self-righteousness very quietly and yet desperately. His calm, vicious performance unsettled me and somehow stayed with me long after the play had ended.

© Johan Persson / Barbican | Source: Filmkompass
Cumberbatch is convincing in the title role. He whines and suffers and whines and embraces all the silliness and whines again. It is obvious that he is in it most passionately and succeeds in rendering Hamlet’s inner struggles and moral dilemmas visible. In the end, it is not his fault that the different tones of oddball comedy and honest depression and heartbreak don’t come together.

After all the hype and hysteria around this production of Hamlet, the actual experience felt like a letdown to me. Granted that I’m not the biggest fan of the play in general, I still hoped that a focused staging would help to turn the whole thing into a rounder tale. Turner, however, pretty much left the potential untouched, adding some hit-and-miss comedy and some fun spookiness into the mix. Thanks to an expressive stage design, a dedicated cast and brilliant Shakespearean language the Barbican was able to offer an entertaining evening. Entertaining yet, on the long run, forgettable. At least the fans behaved.

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