It happened in Denmark…

Benedict Cumberbatch, Hamlet, photo Johan Persson

Let’s get some things out of the way first. I am not sure the Barbican has handled this whole customer relationships thing well. In fact, as far as i am concerned they couldn’t have alienated and annoyed me more. And i’ve been visiting it for a good few years. But they have never before treated me like a 3 year old! Ever since i purchased Hamlet tickets they have been bombarding me with emails about how to behave, what to do and not to do, what would happen and what wouldn’t. And as the day came it only got worse. In total i got 5! warnings yesterday about turning all my equipment off: one via email, three via building communications and 1 from an usher face to face. (I never think such insistent warnings are of any use, a reminder before the start is good and people who pay attention will then turn phones off and that is that. The ones who don’t care or set out to capture images/sounds will not be deterred, no matter how many warnings are issued. My point was only proven by what my friend told me she observed, ie someone recording one of the soliloquies on her mobile phone with the closest usher not noticing/not doing anything about it). The another usher  sat less than 2 meters away, facing me and the people around me and stared at us during the entire show. That is when she didn’t go in and out(several times) or maneuvered her water bottle, in fact disturbing much more than anyone of the audience. Announcements were repeated, several times after the interval. And to top it all off this morning i got another email, this time to shift product on me, with the promise they could send it anywhere in the world. This in addition to the program i bought by mistake last night, thinking it was the usual £4, when in fact it turned out it was £8.50! By the time they told me i had already handed my card over and didn’t have the chutzpah to demand it back.

So i saw the play and managed to enjoy the evening in spite of all this harassment and the general circus going on around it. It is a real pity both venue and press are creating such an unpleasant atmosphere around the play. It’s contrary to a relaxed, warm, welcoming and excited atmosphere which would ‘prime’ the audience to be receptive to the play. You have to work away the annoyance and force yourself to relax and be positive. Thankfully for once i arrived with plenty of time to spare and had managed to bag a cheap but decent seat on a side of the upper circle and was hovering above the audience with almost only the stage in front of me. Just the way i like it 🙂

And enjoy it i did. It was a bit similar to watching a decent movie at the cinema, a good couple of hours capturing your full attention and telling you an interesting story. After all this is one of the best story tellers in history 😉 I can’t imagine a scenario where Hamlet could ever be really boring. And this was also pleasant to look at.

The staging seems to have been the subject of much debate and some controversy. I can’t quite follow why. Nothing i saw was in any way controversial, totally out of place or offensive to the eye. Es Devlin is known for the big sets and this was a very realistic interpretation of a stately mansion or palace. It was pretty lavish, with walls in tones of blue/green, decorated with armoury and big chandeliers and the dark wood stage boards worked well with it. It had big doors through which chairs or tables, pianos could be moved changing the scenes seamlessly and without need for pause. In the second part rubble invaded the place  in an effective and clear symbol for the crumbling rein in Denmark. It is a world headed to its demise.

Nothing unique, nothing particularly original, but functional. Time and place where somewhat indeterminate, which again wasn’t something that deterred for me from the story.

If this had been an opera production (and there certainly is an opera of Hamlet ;-)) i’d say this was pretty traditional, standard fare, made in good state and with pleasing and elegant aesthetics. It was very straight forward, totally uncontroversial for me. In fact this is probably of all Es Devlin’s sets i’ve seen the least complex, least imaginative. I’ve come to like her usual puzzle-piece, layered work and frankly i was surprised how simple this was. I guess the money went more towards fittings and decoration than structure. Personally, i would have preferred her to go for one of the peel-back ideas where the world literally falls apart in front of our eyes rather than just the mounds of rubble and debris.

I just missed some of her amazing ingenuity here.But what was on stage did its job and didn’t get in the way of the action. Nothing much wrong with that at the end of the day. Also, it was a good set acoustically. Again, if this had been an opera i would have applauded the build, with big strong walls creating hard resonance surfaces. As you can see below it effectively creates a corner and a box which is great for resonance and projection.

But, it turns out the voices were all amplified. I’m not a fan at all of amplification in theatre, but there are some mitigating factors here: the theatre is covered in velvet material, the floors too and it makes it absorb sound very badly, so in spite of the good set it may have created some problems with acoustics. But.. i have seen theatre in this place before, including Shakespeare and it was unamplified and there was no problem hearing the actors. The amplification was done very well i have to say, there was no disturbance to the sound at all and volume of individual actors remained consistent throughout which means they have a very good sound engineer. Well done. It is still not my preferred way of hearing theatre because it almost inevitably creates some unnatural effects: like people being equally as loud when their backs are turned, like loosing some of the impact of sound when people move through the set, again because the quality of sound remains consistent. Consistence is a positive but to me the voice moves within the space adds to the acting and the feel of things. I am not generalising and i do recognise i am talking from the pov of someone very sensitive to sound and very fond of all its details. Also, amplification invariably impacts volume, essentially you almost always loose the ability for those barely heard whispers. The ones where you have to literally strain to hear, the ones which draw you in, which make you mentally almost crawl on stage. Asides of characters also become more complicated when you hear everyone almost equally loud.  Also some characters will be more amplified than others and this is audible to me. I thought BC was done extremely well, i’m tempted to say there was probably very little of it, as there was no reverb to his voice at all and it didn’t loose its natural tone, he was never too loud which made it feel very natural. However others were clearly too loud for nature, like Ophelia, whose probably naturally soft voice was amplified beyond my liking. I thought it would have actually suited the character to be less loud than anyone else. Laertes who sounded like he naturally had quite a bit of projection sounded way too loud also.

Ciaran Hinds, Claudius – Photo Johan Persson

I remain unconvinced there was a good reason for the amplification other than it allowed the production to put through a lot of sounds of wind, rumbles, gusts and general noise. I also wasn’t convinced this extended soundtrack was necessary or added much. I thought Ophelia’s piano playing was a lovely addition and a beautiful way to point to her sensible soul, in addition to her photographic hobby. Here’s one character i never thought good Will has done justice to in the play. She doesn’t get many words so a lot has to be implied. I liked the fact that they showed us she has a gentle, introspective, somewhat observing soul. Not a go-getter 🙂 And therefore a match for Hamlet in life. So we got to see a bit more than the few words allowed her to tell us. Which was good, as i didn’t get much sense of Ophelia herself before her end in the 2nd part…

Sian Brooke, Ophelia, photos Johan Persson

Speaking of the 2 parts of the show, i thought it become a much more interesting play in the 2nd half. The first felt to me incredibly fast-paced, almost rushed. It’s a platitude, but silences are just as important as words in a play and this has many words. And they came as an unbroken, constant flow. All were very clear, well articulated, by everyone. There was no instance of garbled lines, no word which lost its meaning in the process. But gosh, we only ever got time to ingest, not digest. The set meant scene changes were seamless and the action just moved on but this left us with no breathing space at all, since even when there were props being moved about there was either some sound or music or the words continued. Hamlet is in many ways a thriller, but even suspense needs time to build! And stuff happened so fast no emotion really got a chance to develop, you didn’t have time as an audience to be shocked, to feel fear, to feel sad or appalled. You just watched the action.

And there was a lot of laughing and giggling. The text is often ironic and Hamlet’s double meaning words often trigger giggles as it is a spontaneous reaction that happens immediately, no need to think about it. But we, or at least i, never got to wonder or fear what would happen next as before i got a chance to consider it had already happened.

Thankfully things slowed down a bit in the second part, particularly in the graveyard scene, and an atmosphere finally built and we got a bit more feeling with a bit less action. But it was really too late to develop any rapport with some of the characters who we lost before we even really got to know them properly.

The whole thing felt very often like watching history unfold, fall towards a devastating end. Hamlet can certainly be seen that way, history happening and one bad decision bringing on another and another until the whole construction crumbles and nothing is left. History is full of the rapid demises of families and whole lines being wiped out in one go. Fortinbras and his ascent in his own house and country is a brief but stark contrast to what is happening in Denmark.

This is the story that i felt was effectively, speedily and clearly told. Nobody left the theatre not knowing what happened in Denmark. But the question for me is: did history just happen to people in Shakespeare’s Hamlet? They seem to be unable to stop it and it drags them to the grave and renders them all… just skulls. You could say this happens no matter who the people are, what they feel, what moves them and none of that matters once they are all dust.

Anastasia Hille, Gertrude,photo Johan Persson

Except, aren’t we there to get to know the people it happens to? What is the point of making these people speak to us and each other? We could read what happened to them in a history book (well, some of it ;-)), but i never felt with Shakespeare that things just happen. It is always people who make them happen, their flaws, their virtues, their emotions. There is always feeling behind the words or driving the words, it is not just action.

But i felt most of the time all i heard and saw was what was happening not what was being felt. There were a few moments of emotion, like Hamlet hesitating to stab Claudius while he is praying, there is a real moment of torment and doubt there and there is some emotion in his confrontation with his mother, where he breaks down for an instant and you think the shell finally cracked. But none of it really gets a chance to gain momentum.

Neither gestures nor words explain what connects Claudius to Gertrude. They feel more like a couple who has been together for years and years, there is a feeling of familiarity about them but no passion or connection other than the functionality of the royal house. It comes almost as a surprise when Claudius in a longer speech reveals the sun goes up and sets for him with Gertrude. And even then you wonder if it is just some sort of politics he is playing trying to be even more convincing.

You don’t get a sense if Ophelia was ever touched by Hamlet’s letters and if she feels any regret in returning them or if Hamlet has any hesitation in seeing them again before pushing her away. Hamlet seems driven by action in an almost relentless way, as if almost to stop himself from thinking. The madness is more rational irrationality but never infused with uncontrollable emotion. But it makes sense for him to not know what to do but try and do something so actions may seem erratic. But his mother does not seem overly distressed by either his actions or his demeanour, neither was i, to be honest.

It was as if Hamlet himself never got to take a breath and ponder what he was really feeling as he had to constantly deal with something, talk to somebody, do something, respond to something. So we don’t see or know: is he afraid, is he grieving, is he tormented? The words sometimes indicated it but neither we nor he gets a chance to explore and show any of it much. He certainly looks lonely, almost isolated, apart from it all and yet hooked by the throat and dragged along, like in an avalanche. Horatio running around, constantly wearing a backpack, doesn’t seem to be able to try and stop him or slow down the slide. He seems pretty frantic himself, rather than attempting to be a grounding influence on Hamlet.

Claudius is best described as regal, he certainly is in charge of it all, to the point where he never really seems to loose control. The big speech reveals his actions but we also feel he has accepted the consequences and is prepared to carry on to the end. There is no doubt or remorse or fear that i got at any point, the public face of the king had very much become also his private one. Matters were not helped by the theatre scene being played with the court audience  kept almost in the dark on the stage. We never got to see the character’s most hidden thoughts and feelings, we never saw them faltering, hesitating. He also recovers very quickly in the face of Laertes’ anger and public support and the political solution comes easy and convincing.You never feel that he would have really been in danger there. Laertes is never more than an impulsive, anger and grief filled youth, the only one who seems truly driven by uncontrollable emotions in the play.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Laertes) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) in Hamlet, photo Johan Persson

Then there was Karl Johnson playing both the ghost and the gravedigger. Strange as it may be, the most ‘normal’ character in the whole play 🙂 Shakespeare is great at giving us some moments of relief from the tension and the amazing thing was that, as both characters, in few words he managed to give us a sense of exactly who he is and what kind of person we are listening to. It also helped that his delivery was unrushed, natural but filled with emotion, even if just dark irony about human fate and death.

Karl Johnson, king’s ghost/gravedigger, photo Johan Persson

Some humanity came across also with Polonius. Here he never gets to be more than a fussy, almost pompous character and we only get a chance to understand his true connection to his children through their grief about his death, which is palpable. If you think about it though – there is no time to do so during the play – you realise what a contrast this is between the impersonal relationship Hamlet has with his family. Polonius fusses over and constantly throws advice at his two children. While Gertrude and Claudius get other people to ‘deal’ with Hamlet. This should be both irritating (which you get slight sense of) but also saddening, and it never quite reaches us all the way.

I am sure a lot of thought was given to the relationships and meanings and feelings. As was to the production. I think in their determination to not overcomplicate, over-emphasise the story they strove for clarity, in text delivery, in visuals, in all messages on stage. They tried to lift the dust and some weight of Shakespeare making it feel very natural and straight-forward, which i think they achieved. But i think in the process they forgot that some of the weight is emotional and we shouldn’t just get to know a story but be filled with sorrow for what happens to these people. It is the only way we will remember it, the only way it will be a truly meaningful experience. I think they told the story of Hamlet but never gave the audience a chance to feel for Hamlet, to be filled with his anger, to feel his doubt, to be touched by his loneliness and ultimately to cry for his untimely death and short, unfulfilled life.

I don’t fully understand why they made the choices they made, but i’m saddened by the emotional restraint they chose to impose on the actors and none more than Hamlet himself. In his many roles, both on stage and on screen he’s never failed to touch me and i was looking forward to tapping into that wealth of emotions he carries. And to the end it felt out of reach, Hamlet remained sadly guarded and introverted when all we want as an audience is to share in his loneliness, to be his sole confessor if you will.

I’ll return on the last day and who knows, maybe in the meantime something will unlock, the run is still in its early stage. One can but hope, because the potential i know is there and frankly i expect much more of an evening with Shakespeare than just action.


Soldier:Barry Aird
Danish Captain / Servant:Eddie Arnold
Horatio:Leo Bill
Ophelia:Sian Brooke
Servant / Cornelius:Nigel Carrington
Player King:Ruairi Conaghan
Hamlet:Benedict Cumberbatch
Guildenstern:Rudi Dharmalingam
Priest / Messenger:Colin Haigh
Official:Paul Ham
Player Queen / Messenger:Diveen Henry
Gertrude:Anastasia Hille
Claudius:Ciarán Hinds
Laertes:Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Ghost of Hamlet’s Father:Karl Johnson
Polonius:Jim Norton
Official:Amaka Okafor
Barnardo:Dan Parr
Courtier:Jan Sheperd
Voltemand:Morag Siller
Rosencrantz:Matthew Steer
Fortinbras:Sergo Vares
Marcellus:Dwane Walcott


DirectorLyndsey Turner
Set DesignEs Devlin
Costume DesignKatrina Lindsay
Video DesignLuke Halls
Lighting DesignJane Cox
MusicJon Hopkins
Sound DesignChristopher Shutt
MovementSidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Bendict Cumberbatch, Hamlet, photo Johan Persson

PS One of the things we talked about with my friend was what a pity it is Benedict has gotten so big he probably can’t do things at the Globe just because of the sheer amount of people who want to see it, as he would probably be great at it and it can be a very rewarding experience to be able to see and feel the audience’s immediate reactions.

Speaking of the Globe and productions in London, there is actually 2! Oresteia going on, one in Trafalgar Studios, which transferred from the Almeida and the other at the Globe. And in case you thought London is the place for mostly traditional productions…