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Sophie Johnson writes:

You only have to skim through a handful of the reviews of this highly anticipated production of Hamlet to see how widely they vary and how subjective they are. This is my personal reaction to the play, based on notes I jotted down on the train home while it was still very fresh in my mind.

Throughout the performance, I witnessed what looks like the perfectly normal behaviour of a grieving son. And I think that anyone who has lost their father – particularly if it was an untimely death – will connect with Hamlet’s grief.

It seems to me that in this version of the play, we are encouraged to see that Hamlet (Benedict Cumberbatch) – and later, Ophelia (Siân Brookes) – are reacting entirely as you might expect to the intense trauma they have suffered from the sudden, violent death of a parent, and it’s the other characters, who judge them to be behaving strangely, who are not in their right minds.

Mesmerising Ophelia

When Ophelia appears barefoot amongst the rubble in the second part, singing of her grief, and then walks off alone looking so terribly small and lost, the auditorium falls so silent and still that it is clear that everyone is mesmerised. I was in tears, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

In this production we see a Hamlet that is completely lucid; he only feigns madness when he is being observed.

He is devastated by the loss of his father, disturbed and heartbroken by his mother immediately marrying his father’s brother, and enraged and decided upon vengeance when he has it confirmed (first by the testimony of the ghost of his father, then by Claudius’ reaction to ‘the play within the play’) that Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) murdered his father.

Hamlet’s reactions are not absurd. His relationship with Ophelia seems to be ruined by his shock and sense of betrayal at how his mother has behaved, destroying his trust in women. Surely, the knowledge that he intends to avenge his father’s death also makes it natural for him to push Ophelia away.

Madness in miniature

In this production, the ‘play within the play’ takes place on a tiny stage that looks like it belongs in a dolls house when placed on the enormous stage of the Barbican. This miniaturisation is also reflected by Hamlet’s performance when he is doing his ‘mad’ act: he dresses as a soldier and gets inside a child’s toy castle the size of a wendy house and parades up and down, whilst reality is taking place in a life-sized castle around him.

Cumberbatch plays the clown brilliantly, which makes it even more shocking when he segues abruptly from his comic marching (at this point on top of a table) straight into his “To be or not to be” monologue.

The set takes on a life of its own at the end of the first half when Claudius acknowledges his guilt. The stage personifies his black soul by immediately beginning to fill with dark rubble. Everything is falling apart. We are constantly reminded of burials and decay.

When the curtain rises again in the second half, the rubble has built up into giant heaps, which the cast must now climb as they move about the stage.

The rest is silence.

When Hamlet dies, pronouncing ‘The rest is silence’, it really might as well be. The two actors left to wrap up the lines are almost redundant after the quick succession of the deaths of the main characters in the previous moments. The consequences of the first murder, committed before the action takes place – that of Hamlet’s father – have gradually rippled out to their inevitable conclusion and there is nothing left.

For me, the play excels in so many aspects: strong performances from the actors, direction by Lyndsey Turner, set by Es Devlin, music by Jon Hopkins, choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, lighting by Jane Cox, and sound by Christopher Shutt.

If you are not a Cumberbatch fan, you can still find much to admire and enjoy in this production. The other actors complete an impressive cast, and the whole theatre experience is brought together by an incredibly talented team.

Theatre is exciting and will only become more so as technology develops to let more and more innovation be included in live performances such as this.

Official photography by Johan Persson, borrowed from the Barbican website.

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