The Gods of Violence

William Shakespeare: Hamlet, The Barbican, London (Director: Lyndsey Turner)

By Sascha Krieger

Hamlet, obviously. There is an unwritten rule in English-language theatre that an actor – in order to be considered great – needs to play the Danish prince at least once, a rule that no longer exclusively applies to male actors, by the way. Benedict Cumberbatch who has recently made the journey from support to TV star to the Hollywood A list is no exception. What has been exceptional are the marketing effort mounted by the Barbican and the near-hysterical hype around the production culminating in a veritable break with tradition when two London newspapers, among them „The Times“, reviewed the previews, a hitherto unimaginable scandal. So two questions arise: how can Lyndsey Turner’s production withstand the buzz and is Cumberbatch a good Hamlet? The latter question is easier to answer: he is. The actor who tends to play reclusive characters is a surprisingly extrovert Hamlet. Not that much of a brooder, his Prince of Denmark wrestles with peace and violence in what is the central struggle of this production.

Throughout militaristic imagery intervenes, soldiers appear in full combat gear (Hamlet, for example is escorted to the ship carrying to England as a prisoner, held at gunpoint), violence destroys the opulence of the Danish court. At the end of the first part, a storm blows in dirt which covers Es Devlin’s elaborate set of a palace interior, painted in blue and complete with swords and pictures on the wall, for the last two acts, causing an interesting contrast between the ruins of war and the characters‘ pretenses that all is well. Violence creeps in and it penetrates everything. So this Hamlet is less about action and passiveness, or any personal struggle to exact revenge or refrain from doing so: it is about violence begetting violence. The zombie-like ghost of Hamlet’s father (Karl Johnson) and the matter-of-factly ruthlessness of Ciarán Hinds‘ Claudius – located somewhere between corporate executive and mafia boss – are two sides of the same coin, both being agents of violence.

Cumberbatch navigates his Hamlet around these sides which aren’t polar opposites but it is part of his tragedy that he cannot see this. His character’s journey is a series of attempts at a strategy that works: he tries casual detachedness, obnoxious infantile rebellion, biting sarcasm but none of these get him anywhere. In this interpretation, the soliloquies acquire a very specific purpose: they are less statements of his mind than exhibit processes of making sense of things and trying to find out what to do. In them Cumberbatch goes on a journey, asks questions, wonders where he should turn, making his mind up and choosing his next step in the process. They are visually set apart from the action around him: a spotlight highlights Hamlet while those around him go into slow motion in the shadows. It is here that the real story takes place, the struggle to find a position that might enable him to break the circle of violence. As it happens he can’t. The ending is rushed, the multiple deaths almost ridiculous, carnage that only feeds the war god and has no meaning. There will be no learning from this. Fortinbras, clad in army gear, will not choose another path. Violence has won and will always win.

So far so good. The problem is that the production rarely connects with the audience. This is due partly to the sole focus on Hamlet and the neglect of pretty much all other characters. Secondly, the production basks too much in superficial effects such as the overly opulent set, the exquisite lighting, elaborate choreographies, the simplistic black and white tableaux (in the beginning all are dressed in white and Hamlet in black while at the end it’s vice versa) and a constant tone of: look, isn’t this amazing? For too much of the evening the production points at itself with little character focus, except from Cumberbatch and Hinds. Siân Brooke’s Ophelia is all pseudo-crazy surface, Anastasia Hille’s Gertrud remains mostly pale – there is no chemistry between her and Hinds whatsoever – even Jim Norton’s Polonius is rather uninteresting, a dreary school teacher who hardly ever exploits the comical side of the play. The attention to detail that informs the set is absent in the costume design: while the court has a Victorian splendor, the soldiers are decidedly contemporary with Hamlet being undecided. And why is Horatio a flannel-shirted backpacker? Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is the production’s highlight in his convincing portrayal of a man who at the same time tries to live his life in a mote pragmatic than idealistic way and is looking for a fitting role which he is denied in a world that forces him to take sides even though what appear to be polar opposites turn out to be the same thing. Otherwise the evening is too undecided, basks too much in its own splendor and finds little that is interesting outside its main character. As convincing as the interpretation of the play as a history of violence is as sloppily is it executed. A good Hamlet, a flawed production, but no reason to get too excited.

 

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