London Theater Review: Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Hamlet’

Hamlet review Benedict Cumberbatch
Johan Persson

Thought you knew “Hamlet”? Think again. Benedict Cumberbatch’s prince might have triggered a media frenzy, but make no mistake, this is director Lyndsey Turner’s production — and it’s a radical reinvention with real political intent, even if it’s too complex to fully cohere. Its star defers to his director’s vision, probably to his own personal detriment: his Hamlet is many things at once, more a collection of characteristics than a credible character, but he finds his purpose as he goes on — as does the production. This is a Hamlet for a world on the edge: a warning from history, and a plea for new ideas from a new generation.

Cumberbatch begins as the Hamlet we know and expect: Hamlet the icon, hidden away in his room, dressed in black and brooding over his father’s death. (In early previews, he opened with “To be or not to be…”) He sits on the floor, staring into the distance, as Nat King Cole croons “Nature Boy” on vinyl, almost daring us to impose its pat moral — just to love yadda yadda — onto Shakespeare’s play.

Don’t succumb to that, whatever you do. Turner pushes against any such simplicity with a stark, self-aware edit of the play — Hamlet starts with “Who’s there” only for Leo Bill’s Horatio to enter — that restores the Norwegian subplot more or less in full, while Cumberbatch himself gradually casts off the shell of Hamlet as depressed, vengeful stepson for something much more significant and politically potent.

His Hamlet stands in for a generation, one that’s stuck in adolescence and shirking all responsibility. He spends the first half fragmenting and, by the interval, he’s dressed in several costumes at once: a student’s trainers, a soldier’s trousers, a David Bowie T-shirt and a tailcoat daubed with the word “KING.” He’s a living, breathing identity crisis, scholarly one moment, silly the next and always, always self-absorbed. It’s often said that no one actor can hit all of Hamlet’s contradictions. For Cumberbatch it’s a juggling act, one trait at a time, not Hamlet as a whole. Cumberbatch is composite.

His Elsinore, meanwhile, is a fairytale kingdom. Es Devlin’s grand, widescreen design, lit like sumptuous cinematography by Jane Cox, is a palatial stately home with military portraits and antique arms on the walls. Children’s toys and leather books gather dust under the stairs. Silver branches and mounted stags adorn a vast wedding banquet. Hamlet sticks out, black blazer against white ceremonials, a student in a military state. Forbidden from returning to university, he sinks into a soliloquy and then throws a strop. His “madness” is actually mockery: marching on in a Napoleonic-era British Army uniform with a scornful salute to Ciarán Hinds’ upright Claudius.

It’s an infantile rebellion. Denmark’s at war, and its kids are pathetically self-obsessed. Siân Brooke’s Ophelia runs into a WWII-style bunker to pester Jim Norton’s Polonius for romantic advice. Hamlet plays silly buggers in a giant children’s castle, then lugs on a model theater for a quaint, toothless “Mousetrap” with a cast of players like hippies and squatters. It’s as if Hamlet’s repeating the revolutions of the past — a futile, adolescent gesture that gets precisely nowhere.

The world, meanwhile, teeters on the brink. With Fortinbras re-arming, war is imminent and Devlin brings it crashing into Elsinore. A bomb blast rips the place apart. Huge mud banks burst through the doors. Suddenly, a prettified, dispassionate production gets a genuine kick — arguably too little, too late. The symbols of the first half turn into visceral actions. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes runs in screaming hoarsely, gun-drawn. Brooke’s Ophelia sings with spine-tingling frailty. Anastia Hille’s Gertrude runs this way and that.

Cumberbatch’s pivotal epiphany comes on the battlefield, surrounded by Fortinbras’ soldiers in their grey greatcoats: “I see the imminent deaths of 20,000 men,” mourns Hamlet. Instantly, this petulant prince grows up and gets serious. This is a production with a firm grasp of mortality, and Karl Johnson’s deadpan Gravedigger (doubled with Daddy Hamlet) is the best in donkeys’ years: dark, droll and Beckettian. He croons into a femur and lobs skulls like bowling balls. It’s the first time this theatergoer has felt Hamlet find a fellow traveler in the mud, not just a fool in a hole.

All this changes Hamlet’s return to Elsinore entirely: Such is the threat of Fortinbras’s forces that the play’s politics dwarf any domestic drama. Hamlet arrives with fresh purpose, with bigger fish to fry than Claudius, only to be cut down too early. Cumberbatch manages to make Hamlet messianic, a savior for a lost generation, before Laertes does him in, almost unexpectedly. It’s the most beautifully anticlimactic duel, a moment of mayhem that ends with four bodies strewn about the floor. It leaves a vacuum for Fortinbras and the rest is most definitely not silence. “Bid the soldiers shoot.”

It’s a fierce interpretation that doesn’t do itself or its audience any favors. An overload of symbolism stifles the actors, Cumberbatch included, and until the final act, you simply don’t care about anyone on the stage. However, there’s genuine integrity here and Turner practices her preaching. A production that asks us not to repeat history asks us to watch as if for the first time. Turner’s cast play the text slowly and deliberately, letting every line land like “To be or not to be.” Here’s a chance to find new meanings and, just maybe, new answers.


London Theater Review: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'Hamlet'

Barbican Centre, London; 1156 seats; £85 ($132) top. Opened, Aug 25, 2015 reviewed Aug 25, 2015. Running time: 3 HOURS.


A Sonia Friedman production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.


Directed by Lyndsey Turner. Set, Es Devlin; Costume, Katrina Lindsay; Video, Luke Halls; lighting, Jane Cox; music, Jon Hopkins; sound, Christopher Shutt; movement, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Fights, Bret Yount.


Barry Aird, Eddie Arnold, Leo Bill, Siân Brooke, Nigel Carrington, Ruairi Conaghan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rudi Dharmalingam, Colin Haigh, Paul Ham, Diveen Henry, Anastasia Hille, Ciarán Hinds, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Karl Johnson, Jim Norton, Amaka Okafor, Dan Parr, Jan Shepherd, Morag Siller, Matthew Steer, Sergo Vares, Dwane Walcott.

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  1. maddymappo says:

    I I agree with ” It’s a fierce interpretation that doesn’t do itself or its audience any favors. An overload of symbolism stifles the actors, Cumberbatch included, and until the final act, you simply don’t care about anyone on the stage.” Except I would replace the word “fierce” with PRETENTIOUS. One impulse “creative” concept after the other. The play was NOT the thing!

    • John Blernt says:

      I think a large part of that relates to your outright stupidity, and imbecilic perspective on anything artistic. But, hey, everyone has a right to their own opinion, so more power to you. You may now go back to eating your own shit.

      • Yuri Paskalovich says:

        Mr. Blernt (I almost typed Blunt) need not be so burnt. Shakespeare would have laughed at the “spectacle” and the gimmicks. What was up with Laertes’s backpack and Ophelia’s camera? And then that pile of rubble at the end? Ah, but all that must be artistry, right?

  2. Laurentia says:

    Jude Law did a MUCH better Hamlet on the London stage, but he’s not “flavor of the month” like the teenybopper magnet Cumberbatch, alas.

  3. june thorn says:

    Went to Hamlet loved it with a few personal reservations i thought due to the directing.My main concern was restricted view stage R not mentioned when buying the tickets a present from my daughter for me and expensive.We were in circle at the door end and everthing going on up the stairs could not be seen at all we saw were shadows and heard voices.Also Hamlet and Horatio sat on the floor stage R .invisable.All down to the director.Still would not have missed it.Great evening.

  4. GB says:

    Cumberbatch delivered a sublime, moving and intelligent performance which should assuredly win him his second Olivier award. The rest of the production however falters below Cumberbatch’s authenticity and certainty. It feels half way between taking more risks to better cement Cumberbatch’s astonishing performance in a more avante garde production – it is noticeable that he doesn’t succumb to needing to be likable when the staging demands we sneer at his self obsession and childishness. – and half way between a more traditional and undemanding ‘Shakespeare for tourists’ production which the RSC might trot out. If only the director had the courage of her convictions to really take the more dangerous path, this might have been the Hamlet for the ages which Cumberbatch’s performance deserved. The Michael Sheen production had more guts to do this and defied the audience to take the journey into madness and although Sheen’s performance was not in the same league as Cumberbatch’s, the production was undoubtedly a better Hamlet than this. Kudos though for reminding us why Cumberbatch is one of the finest stage actors of his generation, but next time it behoves the production to match his talent and clarity of purpose. 5 stars for Cumberbatch and 3 for the production – 4 stars overall.

  5. Shauna says:

    There is no *definitive* text for most of Shakespeare’s plays and directors and actors have always adapted them. This production appears no different. This is an insightful and excellent analysis of the director’s intent which seems to accord with the promotional material for the play which shows chidren play acting as adults and a petulant Hamlet at the front distancing himself. It’s great to see a fresh interpretation which draws on present concerns – ever thus including in Shakespeare’s own time. I look forward to seeing the cinema broadcast of a play I have always loved (favourite Hamlet? Probably Ben Whishaw or Rory Kinnear). Clearly Benedict Cumberbatch has made for a terrific Hamlet within the context of the director’s vision and not succumbed to a ‘look at me, I’m a star’ turn which undermined otherwise fine productions such as David Tennant’s turn with the RSC and Jude Law’s Donmar. In both of those, the direction bent to the whims of the star turn and neither actor allowed their own eagerness to preen in the spotlight as The Great Dane to be turned down so that they became part of the wider production.

    This fine and measured review along with the one in the New Statesman and The Stage have focused on the play and intent, not the hype and are much better for ot.

    • Movie buff says:

      That’s absurd, about David Tennant. He was trained in the theater and that was his third season with the RSC (he played Berowne that same season). He was steeped in Shakespeare. Greg Doran had worked with David Tennant before and that is why he cast him. One of the things always said about Tennant by directors and castmates alike is that he is humble and never steals the limelight, as he has a total lack of ego.

      I have tix to see the live Broadcast of this Hamlet and am hoping by then the cast manages to gel as some critics have said that the supporting cast and the direction completely fail Cumberbatch and harm his performance, making the entire production very disappointing.

      • Movie Buff says:

        I am not sure what you mean by magnitude. He’d done dozens of plays and won numerous awards. He’d already played Romeo and Touchstone for the RSC, among other parts. He’d played an award-winning Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, which is a tremendously difficult role. He’d already been nominated for an Olivier award for Lobby Hero. Greg Doran has said he had seen Tennant before and thinks he has a special kind of genius. He cast him as Berowne at the same time and again as Richard II. I don’t think he had any qualms about him at all.

      • Michelle Groves says:

        I’m not a fan of Tennant’s portrayal of Hamlet in the RSC production – much too shouty and angsty and he played it almost *exactly* like he was still in Doctor Who. He really didn’t bring anything new or interesting to it – but I thought the production overall was excellent. If anything, the production spent a lot of time focusing on the rest of the cast, particularly Patrick Stewart’s brilliant Claudius and Oliver Ford Davies’ wonderful Polonius and less on Tennant’s Hamlet and I certainly don’t think he was grandstanding. I do wonder if there might have been some tiny concern from the RSC about whether Tennant could do full justice to the part (yes, I do know he has been on stage before but certainly not in role of such magnitude) and the fortunate outcome was to have an incredibly strong support cast from top to bottom – Penny Downie was also terrific as Gertrude as was Edward Bennett as Laertes (Bennett stepped in to play Hamlet to great acclaim for most of the London run when Tennant pulled out which also shows how solid the RSC casting was across the board).

        Really looking forward to seeing what Cumberbatch will bring to the role – sounds as though it’s a determinedly different take on the play, which is always welcome and maybe there’s a reverse issue to the RSC production in that while there is complete confidence in the lead, there was some hesitation in filling all of the other parts, although I am sure Ciaran Hinds is a brilliant and subtle Claudius.

        Mark Rylance is my own personal favourite as Hamlet.

  6. LOL says:

    Cumberbatch is an arrogant aristocrat. Britain loves toffs.

  7. Shut up says:

    The brouhaha over Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in London highlights one of my pet Shakespearean peeves. Director Lyndsey Turner decided, as other directors have (e.g., in the Mel Gibson Hamlet), that the text needed to be rearranged, and she did it in a way that was perhaps the most radical ever done, namely by shifting the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from its central position at the beginning of Act III to the beginning of the play (as a kind of prologue). The reaction was so negative at the previews that she restored the soliloquy to its proper position.

    The performances of Shakespeare’s plays that we see are frequently more or less abridged versions of his complete texts. The ability of the Elizabethan audience to gobble up bushels of dialogue with a rapidity that contemporary audiences would find mind-boggling allowed most of his plays to be performed (uncut) in about two and a half hours. The word was everything, and there was no need to entice the audience with effects and byplay, both of which the Elizabethan audience supplied from its rich imagination.

    It is bad enough that we rarely see a complete Shakespearean play. It adds insult to injury when the director maims the play by reordering its parts.

    Imagine what it would be like if a new print of Hitchcock’s Psycho were to be created in which we were shown at the very beginning of the film Norman Bates channeling his dead mother. The resulting Psycho would be a shabbier piece of work.

    Another Shakespearean equivalent of this is the tendency of directors to telegraph, at the beginning of the Tempest, that Prospero is orchestrating the tempest at sea. Shakespeare wanted us to experience the initial tempest as a genuine storm before we find out that a human is behind it. To alter that is to violate the play.

    Shakespeare gave his audience the dramatic information that it needed to know in the order in which he wanted it to know it. To alter that order is to rob the play of its intended impact.

    [Note: To perform the full text of Hamlet, as it would have been performed in Shakespeare’s day, would take about five hours (probably performed in two parts, over two afternoons). That should give one some notion of how much of the play is lost in even an ordinary more respectful performance.]

  8. Bill B. says:

    I’d love to see him on a stage. I don’t care what the play is.

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