As Shakespeare probably wouldn’t have put it, there’s been a right load of old bollocks written about Lyndsey Turner’s production of ‘Hamlet’, which has caused normally sober news outlets to fight like jackals to find the most intrusive and/or patronising angle possible on star Benedict Cumberbatch – a respected stage actor now in the unfortunate position of being the most famous thesp on the planet.
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Having boringly adhered to all press embargoes, I feel later to the party than Fortinbras wading in with my opinion now – and after so much condescending nonsense spouted about Cumberbatch and his fans, it doesn’t give me any great pleasure to say that in my blah blah professional opinion this isn’t one for the ages. But there you go.
Turner’s ‘Hamlet’ is one of the most visually and atmospherically stunning productions I’ve ever seen, of anything, ever. Styled like a cross between a really good Louis Vuitton ad and a really good Punchdrunk show, her Elsinore is a decadent fantasia of stuffed animal heads, dead flowers and dark revels. Jane Cox’s lighting, Es Devlin’s sets and Luke Halls’s videos are utterly ravishing. Some of the tableaux will stay with me for years: Cumberbatch’s scruffy prince sat at a lavish banquet table, staring darkly into space, picked out by lights as his fellow diners look the other way; Ciarán Hinds’s coarse villain Claudius striding into Elsinore as confetti cannon erupt around him; Sian Brooke’s deranged Ophelia shuffling away through a now ruined castle into an inky black portal as Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude looks on in helpless horror. And the original score from Jon Hopkins is beautiful: a deep, dark ambience occasionally rising to a dance pulse, mingling beautifully with the decaying lustre of the Danish court.
Yeah, yeah, but what about the 'Batch? I hear you tut. Well here’s the thing: he’s pretty good as the vengeful prince. Not brilliant. But very decent. He speaks the verse wonderfully and is a lithe, charismatic presence on stage. But he doesn’t seem to have come up with much of a reading of the doomed Dane. Or if he has, it's drowned out by Turner's enormous production. His Hamlet is a somewhat reclusive, sensitive figure, given to blazing flights of fancy (his soliloquies are presented as extravagant rushes of imagination). But beyond that, I dunno. He’s all right, I suppose. Seems like a nice bloke. Probably not mad. A similar malaise afflicts the rest of the cast – everyone is fair but nobody dazzles.
Maybe it’s unreasonable to always expect some bold new interpretation of ‘Hamlet’, but the greatness of the play lies in its ambiguities – if you don’t try to reconcile them it feels a bit flat. I loved London’s last two major Hamlets: Michael Sheen’s paranoid schizophrenic, hopelessly lost in his own failing mind and Rory Kinnear’s sensitive student, cracking up in a surveillance-state Elsinore. To me, Cumberbatch just seems to be a fairly regular guy, bumbling his way towards avenging his father’s death at the hands of Claudius in an eccentric but not unreasonable way. Fair enough, but not particularly moving.
Does that make this the ‘Shakespeare for the kids’ as the right-wing press has tried to paint it? I wouldn’t say so: a lack of a clear slant doesn’t actually make it any easier to follow. It just strikes me that Turner and team spent so much energy thinking about the extraordinary look and feel of this production that they got sidetracked from the business of textual interrogation.
Whatever. It’s a solid production and it’ll look great in cinemas when it screens on October 15. Regular punters will probably like it more than Shakespeare geeks will, and the media circus almost certainly isn’t over, but let’s try and be civil, eh? To thine own self be true, and all that.