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A CurtainUp London Review
I was there to see a film star playing the part of the troubled prince at the Old Vic. The actor was Peter O'Toole and I had only seen him in the film Lawrence of Arabia. I saw that production of Hamlet three times, once on a seat bought by my father and twice on a day "seat", standing leaning against a pillar for four and a quarter hours. I waited afterwards once for his autograph.
In fact this was an important production in the history of the theatre. It was the first production of the newly formed National Theatre, directed by Sir Lawrence Olivier. Claudius was played by Michael Redgrave, Gertrude by Diana Wynyard, Ophelia by Jennifer Ehle's mother Rosemary Harris, Polonius by Max Adrian, Derek Jacobi was Laertes and among the attendant lords was the then unknown, RADA graduate Mick Gambon.
So well done Benedict Cumberbatch for bringing this year's generation of young women to the theatre. I have been reviewing Benedict since his days at the Almeida, the Open Air in Regent's Park through productions at the Royal Court and the National Theatre and seen him grow into the brilliantly written Sherlock part on television.
His Hamlet is assured and intelligent. Set I think in the 1960s the modern dress play opens in an attic room where the prince, alone, surrounded by tea crates, is playing Bobby Darin's evocative "Nature Boy" on a record player. The first arrival is of his friend Horatio (Leo Bill) and the student friends discuss Hamlet's mother's wedding following so fast on his father's funeral.
The switch to the state dining room is the highlight of the play with Es Devlin's truly beautiful set. I wanted to applaud it. A long dining table has Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) at one end in a feathered tiara headdress alongside her new husband Claudius (Ciaran Hinds) in white military dress uniform. All the court diners are in white, except for one, centre table in black casual clothes, the brooding and miserable looking Hamlet. Candles light the table, silvered branches laden with fruit and leaves decorate the staircase and hang from the ceiling alongside the magnificent crystal chandelier. The walls are teal blue and gilden framed royal portraits in uniform hang in splendour.
All eyes are on Gertrude as Claudius praises her, but Hamlet, stony faced, looks straight ahead. This speech indicates that Gertrude is key to the succession, because normally a king would be succeeded by his eldest son. When called upon to speak, Hamlet spits out, "A little more than kin and less than kind," when Claudius calls him, his son. So to Hamlet's first soliloquy, "Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt." The lights go down and Hamlet is lit by a single spot. He climbs over the banqueting table and the cast move in slow motion away from the hall, in one of several cinematic moments in this production.
So to the reports of the strange goings on, on the battlements, from two nervous looking soldiers Barnardo (Dan Parr) and Marcellus (Dwane Walcott who is also understudying Hamlet). We witness a train of soldiers marching across with mention of the Norwegian, young Fortinbras (Sergo Vares) before in darkness, seeing the ghost of Hamlet's father, a less than ethereal and not really terrifying Karl Johnson. As Hamlet bids them to swear not to reveal these events, the "Swear!" from the ghost is unusually immediate.
Hamlet decides to pretend to be mad and Ophelia (Sian Brookes) in pajamas and dressing gown helps him into a toy soldier outfit complete with drum. Hamlet barricades himself in a toy castle surrounded by wooden soldiers dressed as he is and playacts much to the amusement of his audience.
While Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's Laertes is strong, Jim Norton's Polonius is tedious, as maybe Polonius should be. Ophelia entertains herself with a camera but is out of her depth and I have the impression that some of the scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia may have been cut.
In the play, the company arrive and brass instruments are laid down with blossoming branches sprouting from them. I am not sure why. The play seems to pass quickly, and unusually with the royal cast having their backs to us, while Hamlet himself plays the murderer Lucianus, nephew to the king. Claudius' reaction is low impact, maybe because I was now concentrating on the cast change to "The Mousetrap".
In a theatrical coup, after the bedroom scene where Polonius is murdered behind the same curtains used to stage the play within a play, video imagery sees the walls of Elsinore start to crack and crumble with white veins spreading across the walls. A hurricane blows up and a dust storm enters from every doorway as Denmark crumbles into a slag heap. Dark, sinister music plays as Claudius sends Hamlet to England to his death.
There is a distancing in this production which is not down to the cast or the director or the designer but the vastness of the Barbican space. When Adrian Noble announced that they would be redesigning the main theatre in Stratford and withdrew the Royal Shakespeare Company from the Barbican Theatre, which had been designed to the same specification as that at Stratford, I was sad. I was sad to see the RSC lose its main London base but I now see why that decision was right. The Barbican is too large. The cast are too far away. The engagement with the play is lost in that space.
The result is that I cannot care about Cumberbatch's Hamlet or believe what is happening to him. The performances from the actors playing Gertrude and Claudius seemed so mild and ineffectual as not to be really relevant. Claudius is a lily livered mild villain and Gertrude lets the events wash over her.
In the second 50 minute act the heap of rubble dominates the stage and Laertes is present as Ophelia presents her herbs and flowers, an unusual choice as she then drowns while Laertes is in Elsinore. There are other textual choices some of which I picked up on, no discussions on "beautified" or "mobled". The "To be or not to be" soliloquy has been moved back to Act Three from the first preview's opening speech.
This production is brilliant for those who want to see Benedict Cumberbatch on stage and who bought tickets a year ago, but too many of the supporting performances are lost in the Barbican's large stage. Oh and how did the audience behave? They were perfect, no cameras, no screaming, no silly giggles! .
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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