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Theater Review: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet

Arts & Entertainment

By Sam Conrad

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare is one of the most venerated plays in history. To literary scholars, it’s unparalleled. When a new production of Hamlet is announced, hundreds of lovers of the theater become blithesome over the news. And in late 2014, when Lyndsey Turner announced she had cast Benedict Cumberbatch (Academy Award nominee and star of the hit BBC series Sherlock) as Hamlet in her production, it was not hundreds who were vivacious by the announcement, but rather hundreds of thousands of Cumberbatch votaries became rhapsodic. With Cumberbatch’s fame, the production became the fastest selling play in London history. Now thousands of millennials would be introduced to Shakespeare’s greatest play, Hamlet.

After seeing the play, however, my overall feeling about the production is of slight disappointment. It could’ve been great, but for reasons to be explained, it ignited and then misfired all within the first act.

My first critique is with the set design; I felt it was excessive. I didn’t feel as if I were watching a play, but rather a big budget Hollywood drama. In numerous parts of the play, the entire cast slowed down their movement, pretending as if they were in slow-motion. The first time I saw this, I was awestruck; however, after the third and then the fourth time, it became redundant.

There were also monumental changes in the play. Scenes were rearranged, omitted, and lines of dialogue were deleted and moved around. The play opens not with the spirit of King Hamlet taunting Horatio, Bernardo, and Francisco, but rather with one of Hamlet’s soliloquies. This was the first of many brazen attempts by the director to add her personal interpretations to a play which has been in an almost constant state of production over the last four hundred and fourteen years.

There were also problems with the casting. The role of the Ghost of King Hamlet and the Gravedigger were double cast; they were played by Karl Johnson. I thought Johnson did a fine job as the Gravedigger, but his portrayal of the Ghost of King Hamlet seemed flat. There was also a problem with Horatio, played by Leo Bill; as one English professor said to me, “He seemed neurotic!” Horatio should be played as a scholarly stoic, not as a nervous wreck.

The part of the production that ignited my blood to a boil was the lack of character development in Turner’s production. Polonius, who has a manipulative personality, is seen, because of the removal of scenes, which were crucial to his character development, as a harmless old man and not the flagitious character he is. Also, poor Gertrude, she was never able to obtain her redemption, for the line which she informs Hamlet that the wine is poisoned is stolen from her by Horatio.

The shining light in this flawed production is Benedict Cumberbatch, for he exemplified Hamlet in every imaginable way: from his costume, to the tone of his voice, to his mannerisms. I was not disappointed by him at all. In fact, I would be surprised if he didn’t win the Lawrence Oliver Award for Best Actor. Seeing his performance made the price of admission, and the experience, worthwhile.

Header image from Kate Maltby.

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