Last Friday I went to see the Barbican’s production of Hamlet, directed by Lyndsey Turner, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Anastasia Hille, and Siân Brooke. Tickets sold out very quickly, but occasionally returns become available and a bit of persistence paid off. There are some available on the day, and I saw quite a few people pick up returns. It’s also being broadcast live-to-cinema on 15 October.
When I’ve talked about Hamlet for the Shakespeare project, I’ve said that one of the reasons I like the Kenneth Branagh film is its ability to give a sense of the much broader scale of the story, outside the claustrophobic court of Elsinore. This is so often sacrificed in stage productions, because of the difficulty in portraying some of those concerns. I said a bit more about that in a brief review of the Classic Stage Company version starring Peter Sarsgaard I saw in New York earlier this year.
As many reviews have noted, Cumberbatch himself was excellent, and I’m very pleased I saw it. The production of Hamlet though has had some criticisms. I didn’t find these a major distraction, and was intrigued by the staging. The Barbican doesn’t have a curtain, but a shutter. The scene opens on a single small room for the opening scene of Hamlet and Horatio (the appearance of the ghost just implied by a ‘who’s there?’), but then the back wall lifted up to open onto a huge set of a palace interior, but with a balcony and stairs down; and doorways to larger spaces beyond. I’ve seen productions at the Barbican before, but never felt the size of the stage in this way. After the interval, the shutter opened but to the same scene covered in rubble, dust and ashes. For the initial scene of the second half – Fortinbras’s camp and Hamlet’s encounter with the soldier as he is led away to England – this worked well. Without mass of numbers, it did give the sense of an army on the move. It was convincing, and must be quite a job to unload all this and then clean it up again during and after performances. The only downside was that there was clearly foam or something similar underneath the bigger piles, and so the cast moved a bit up-and-down on the spongy bits.
For the rest of the play though, the devastated landscape remained, and of course, much of the action is back in the castle or palace. It worked well for the burial scene, but less well for other parts, and they had to clear a path for the fencing bout. Fortinbras’s return right at the end worked nicely though, as the devastated court now matched the war outside as he clambered down the rubble to take the crown. The back-story of the King Hamlet-King Fortinbras duel, on the day of Hamlet’s birth, was quite substantially cut in this version, but enough was provided to make sense of the wider framing of the events. (That’s my focus in the reading I’m developing, so of course I’m especially interested in that aspect.)
Overall I thought it was very good, and I’d be going to see the live-to-cinema version too, if it didn’t clash with a Franco Moretti lecture at Queen Mary, but perhaps there will be encore screenings. The clash is ironic, in that Moretti’s analysis of Hamlet was one of the first things of his read.
Earlier last week I’d seen Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great at the small Tristan Bates theatre, and there they had managed to portray the vast geopolitical scale of the events with lighting, choreography and music. Heavily cut – the two plays in just over two hours – but well done. Tickets for that are still available, and much cheaper, though it’s only on for another few days.