Shakespeare has been a valuable part of my life since my secondary school days; I was always fascinated by the language and the depth of the characters and found myself the odd one out in the vast majority of my classmates at the time who weren’t as taken with it as I was. Though I do enjoy the comedies, I’ve always found myself more passionate and drawn into the tragedies; my favourites being Coriolanus and Hamlet. 2013 saw me take a trip to the Donmar Warehouse to see Josie Rourke’s magnificent production of Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston, Hadley Fraser and Mark Gatiss. If you had told me then that in the summer of the following year, I’d be incredibly lucky and get tickets to see one of my other all-time favourite actors lead my other favourite Shakespeare play, quite frankly, I would have laughed in your face. Yet that’s exactly what happened, and so I’d like to begin by saying a huge thankyou to the lady on the other end of the phone at the Barbican who, after possibly my most stressful experience trying to buy tickets (my phone cut out mid giving my payment details after being on hold for an hour and a half), called me back straight away and at 11:21 on August 11th 2014, made my dream a reality. I had to wait until this summer to find myself sitting in the Barbican’s auditorium, but what unfolded was a completely riveting and utterly phenomenal experience.
Lyndsey Turner is at the directing helm of this new production, in my first (and what I sincerely hope won’t be last) experience of her work. Her direction fizzes with energy and pace, and I loved the way she has been able to add a slightly modern feel to proceedings, whilst still keeping the essence of power and beauty that I find so transfixing about Shakespeare’s works. It’s incredibly playful as a whole (admittedly there were more laughs than I thought necessary at times, but that’s just my personal taste, there were plenty of moments of humour that I loved) but the overwhelming driving force that struck me throughout was a tremendous respect for and understanding of the play, even if they play around with it. She is joined by Katrina Lindsay (Costumes) who managed to create a truly sumptuous atmosphere with her creations; I loved how the colour palette was quite muted and earthy generally, but every now and again there are vivid bursts of colour that draw the eye. Pair Katrina up with Es Devlin (Sets) and the overall feel was truly magical; after the opening scene which just features a gramophone, a few boxes and a door in the wall, it opens out to reveal a magnificent dining hall for the wedding feast complete with chandelier and gorgeous decorations hanging from the ceiling . I marvelled at how much space she had to work with and fill, and yet somehow it felt tremendously intimate; other sets I loved were the staging for the company of Players when Hamlet was trying to catch out his uncle, and Hamlet’s ‘fort’. The very first thing we hear in the play is a haunting version of Nature Boy, which I think was a stroke of genius, and the melody is used again later when Hamlet and Laertes are fencing, and Ophelia sings in Act 2, credit to Jon Hopkins for such clever and inventive use of music, these two scenes were among those that have stayed with me most prominently after the show ended. This production has also featured some of the most inventive use of lighting (Jane Cox) and movement (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) that I have had the privilege of seeing; many of Hamlet’s soliloquies were accompanied by a drop in the lighting to only focus on him, and everything else around him would freeze, or move in slow motion. The slow motion element was also used during the pivotal climax to the fencing match!
The wonderful people over at Sonia Friedman productions have not only done a magnificent job at assembling the creative team, but what does a stellar creative team need in order to help bring their vision to life? An equally stellar cast, of course! I wrote this in the wake of seeing the 3rd preview and thus would like to give a special mention to two particular gentlemen. Jim Norton, playing Polonius was unfortunately taken ill mid scene during the first act, and I’d like to wish him well for his future performances and hope he’s feeling better! We were all so relieved to hear he was in safe hands and doing well when the performance ended. After a very tense twenty or so minutes wait after the show stopped, who should step out onstage but Lyndsey Turner herself: she thanked us for our patience and explained they still were keen to share the performance with us, and it would be a shame for us, and them, to miss out. She then explained that as the production was still in previews, the alternate would take his place, and have his script with him. She then gave us a very funny ‘Previously in Hamlet’ introduction before the show recommenced! Nigel Carrington, usually Cornelius, stepped in and was, for want of a better expression, a complete and utter hero. The inevitable (and impressively few and far between) script glances and turning of pages were soon forgotten about and he gave what I thought was a wonderfully animated and wholeheartedly committed performance, and it was a delight to hear and be a part of an applause for an actor as intense and appreciative as it was for Benedict. We even got to sing Happy Birthday to him which was really special.
Ophelia is one of my favourite characters in all of Shakespeare’s work, because the ideas she symbolises are so at odds with everything else going on; innocence versus corruption, truth versus deceit, loyalty versus treachery. Sian Brooke mesmerised me in the role, every time she entered my attention was drawn to her, her final scene in particular was beautifully haunting and I hope I’m able to see more of her in future.
Kobna Holdbrook – Smith surprised me as Laertes, in the fact that he took a character I am generally rather indifferent to and made me want to invest in him; Laertes goes through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the play, there’s moments of real warmth, incredible sadness and rage, and Kobna was able to bring each of these out with ease and total conviction, I believed everything he said.
Anastasia Hille plays Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. In all honesty, it took me a long while to take an interest, but I think that’s due to the character rather than Anastasia’s performance; Gertrude doesn’t have much to do in the grand scheme of things. There is however a scene where I changed my opinion completely, between her and Hamlet in her bedchamber where I felt she came into her own and allowed that passion and intensity that I think is always bubbling beneath the surface of the character to overflow. She and Benedict played off each other extremely well and their exchange remains one of my favourites of the entire piece.
Ciaran Hinds did a wonderful job as Claudius, as a fan of his other work I was incredibly honoured to see him live, he has fantastic presence and charisma. I’ve always been a sucker for a villain, I just find them to have a lot more depth than their heroic counterparts and they generally just interest me more, and Ciaran brings this ‘love to hate’ him quality out in spades as he constantly plays around with the emotional dynamics. My standout example was during Act three, where Claudius attempts to pray for forgiveness for his actions, and later in a soliloquy plans to have Hamlet killed while he is abroad, the switch from vulnerability to ferocity was so seamless it made my flesh crawl.
Special mentions also to Karl Johnson as the Ghost and a wonderfully amusing Gravedigger, and to Leo Bill for a beautifully understated and endearing Horatio.
The media like to call us fans of Benedict ‘Cumberbitches’. I’ve always hated the term because it seems an easy way to paint us all as these rabidly obsessed, crazy fangirls who will ruin the theatregoing experience for everyone else, especially with all the attention this production has been and will continue to get. This attitude makes my blood boil for two major reasons: first off, there’s all this talk about how the arts are dying because the majority don’t like going to the theatre. If it takes a big name to encourage more people to branch out into seeing new things, perhaps Shakespeare for the first time, then surely we should be celebrating that? Second of all, if being a ‘Cumberbitch’ means I still to this day am discovering and enjoying Benedict’s work (I’m probably more familiar with it than some of these journalists care to believe) and means I have immense respect for an incredibly talented, charming, humble, witty human being, then yes, that’s me. I am however, sick to death of all the negativity that we get saddled with, and feel sorry for those that can’t seem to appreciate us for what the majority of us are: warm, genuine, passionate, creative people. Thus, If you take my definition of what being a ‘Cumberbitch’ means to me, then it’s obviously a forgone conclusion that I loved every second of Benedict’s performance. This production was probably my only opportunity I’ll have to see him live, and I am incredibly honoured and grateful to have had the chance. I can’t eloquently explain how I felt the first time he appeared onstage, but I knew I was going to see something special, and I was utterly captivated by him from start to finish, words and emotion poured out of him effortlessly.
As I saw one of the first previews, the infamous To Be, Or Not To Be speech opens the play (it has since been reinstated to its original place.) I was torn by the decision in that it was quite bold to put it there (let’s be honest it’s probably the one speech everyone recognises and wants to hear) but was wondering where Benedict would be left go in context of the character’s emotional journey. Therein, though was why I was so riveted: Benedict takes his Hamlet to all corners and facets of the character and can switch from one to the other with such speed and gripping intensity that it blew my mind.
One of many favourite moments was his soliloquy at the wedding feast, where he reminisces about how much his mother loved his father, but within a month of her husband’s death has married Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. He’s rightly appalled by this, and sees life as being dull and meaningless, ranting about his mother’s actions. Benedict starts off on this wonderfully frustrated at times sarcastic tirade, climbing over the table to stand away from it and strut around the stage, but by the end of the speech has stripped all that emotion back and delivers the final line: but break my heart, for I must hold my tongue’ with such heartbreaking resignation and sincerity that it gave me goosebumps. His ‘Oh What a Rouge and Peasant slave am I?’ soliloquy was another favourite example of how much emotional range and depth you could wring out of one speech.
Already proven to me in the flesh how emotionally charged and invested Benedict can make me in the moments of drama I was struck by how gifted he is at playing sarcasm and humour, something I think is hard to appreciate fully when seeing him onscreen. ‘I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow student.I think it was to see my mother’s wedding’, ‘Lady, shall I lie in your lap?’ and ‘Now, mother, what’s the matter?’ being particular favourites. There were times where I think the humour was a little over the top (‘Alas, poor Yorick!’ got a much bigger laugh than I was expecting) but that’s just my taste, there was a particular moment of humour that I adored. Feigning madness in order to better enact his plan for revenge, Hamlet dresses like a toy soldier and appears before Polonius, who believes that Hamlet is driven mad because Ophelia has rejected him. During one point in the speech, he says: ‘ hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.’ After he says this, he literally did walk backwards and repeat all his little nuances that he did on the way to meet Polonius, slowed down. He is also seen playing around in the little soldier’s fort I mentioned earlier, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, pretending to march downstairs and such. Sure, it’s a bit wacky and out there in terms of context, but I salute the team for putting it in there and having fun with the idea; Hamlet’s supposed to convincing everyone he’s mad, after all, it’s supposed to be a bit of a bizzare moment. Benedict lit up during those moments, even from my seat at the back (which thanks to the rake of the auditorium is actually an amazing view in my experience with my wheelchair), I could catch the cheeky glint in his eyes and was charmed by it.
You’ll notice that I write this three weeks after the event, it took me a very long time to get my thoughts in order and into something I felt was doing the experience justice. I hope I’ve done that, but if I haven’t, let me steal Hamlet’s own words….
I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted, or if it was, not above once; for the play, I remember, pleas’d not the million, ’twas caviare to the general. But it was, as I receiv’d it and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine—an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning’ 😉