Last Saturday we went to see Sonia Friedman’s production of Hamlet at the Barbican. The one with Benedict Cumberbatch that’s been the ‘play to see’ this summer in London. I’ve been patiently waiting since getting the tickets months ago!
The performance was utterly incredible. Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play and this was the most memorable production I’ve seen of it. For a play where the language is archaic, I think it’s really important to have other aspects telling the story too. I don’t find it easy to follow Shakespearean English, yet the plot was easy to understand, and there wasn’t one moment where I thought ‘is it over yet?’ It was a visual and emotional feast.
I thought that Hamlet used everything at its disposal; lighting; sound; acting; set; costume and props brilliantly to tell the story. The set’s designed as a large room in the castle in Elsinore with a lavish wooden balcony and flight of stairs that stayed static. Props were brought in to transform the room into a banquet hall, office, graveyard, woodland or living space for Hamlet and his family. The colours of costumes and furnishings were beautiful; deep blues, moody turquoises and dark purples to suggest a sombre atmosphere after the king’s death, Hamlet’s state of mind and foreshadowing the death and despair ahead. The costumes and a large Persian rug in the centre of the stage retained a lavish richness, appropriate for a royal family.
Actors wore dark modern clothes, without too much adornment. This only served to highlight Hamlet’s ‘madness’, whether real or imagined, when he swapped his dark casual blazer jacket (worn even when other characters dressed in white for Gertrude and Claudius’ wedding) for a bright red and gold soldier costume and played in an adult sized fort as if he was a child. In the second half, the dissolution of each character slowly unravelled before us, and to reflect this visually, the set was transformed with huge piles of grit and dirt blocking entrances and exits and scattered across the stage, as if the very castle was crumbling to the ground. Ophelia’s last moments on stage were painfully tragic – it was hard to mistake her emotions in the final scene as she, sobbing, exited barefoot across a rubble strewn stage.
Our seats were up at the very top of the gallery, but the view was barely restricted. The stage seemed to stretch back about the same depth as the stalls, so we easily looked down at every detail of the set. Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet) and Ciarán Hinds (Claudius) were particularly good at acting to everyone rather than out to the stalls so we didn’t feel forgotten.
We saw Hamlet quite far into its run at the Barbican. It was criticised when it began because Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy had been moved to the very beginning of the play. I was relieved that it had been moved back by the time we saw the production. I think the soliloquy is an important crescendo in Hamlet’s emotional state and to have had it at the beginning would have felt like we were joining the play half way through. Mind you, I don’t doubt now that Benedict would have done an amazing job if it had stayed at the beginning. I was incredibly impressed by his performance. He balanced deliberate, paced delivery with raw, emotional acting, inserting comic asides to guide the audience to some lighter moments of comedy.
I’ve always found the tragic ending of Hamlet difficult to connect to emotionally. The final scene where every character except Horatio dies feels a little melodramatic to me, no matter how it is staged. I sometimes think that if Shakespeare had written another short act, exploring Horatio’s emotions in the aftermath, my own would catch up with the storyline. However, it was hard not to connect emotionally to the finale of this production of Hamlet.
After the applause, Benedict Cumberbatch stepped forward and addressed the audience. He did this several days before we saw the play and I wasn’t expecting it to be repeated. Again, he quoted refugee Warsan Shire’s poem Home: ‘you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land’. Lumps stuck in throats as he vividly described Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland – mothers, children, families. He compelled us to act, while condemning our government’s ‘slow response’ to the crisis. We were given the opportunity to respond immediately; staff held Save The Children buckets to collect donations as we left the theatre.
I was incredibly impressed by this humble act – to share the stage figuratively with thousands of men, women and children he has never met but chooses to represent at the end of each performance to voice their plight to a captive audience. I have a feeling that Benedict’s zeal and strength of character will stay with me far longer than his fictional performances of any character he’s represented. Hamlet, however brilliant, included.
A few final things:
1) There are a 30 £10 tickets available on the day to see Hamlet at the Barbican. Go if you can! The production runs until 31st October.
2) You don’t have to see Hamlet to help refugees. There are plenty of ways you can help. One way is donating to Save The Children who help provide aid to refugee children across the world.
3) If you are going to see Hamlet and have forgotten the finer points of the storyline (like I had) then I recommend watching John Green’s 3 part recap and analysis over at the Youtube channel Crash Course. Much easier than rereading school essays.