Hamlet first look: “Not what we were expecting from Benedict Cumberbatch – but only he could pull it off”

"His real strength is finding laughs in unexpected places." Jonathan Holmes was at the first preview of the Barbican's much anticipated production...

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Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet is so obvious, it feels like it happened already. One of the most talented and popular actors of this generation doing THE role in theatre. Every painter paints himself and eventually every actor plays Hamlet, so the thinking goes.

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But more than that, the character seems like such a natural fit: the intellectual Dane played by the actor who has made a career out of geniuses. Hamlet has always been a geek posterboy – awkward but passionate, intelligent but crippled by self-doubt – and Cumberbatch is the go-to example of the power of modern fandoms. In the media, the online hordes of Cumberfans have become lazy shorthand for nerds and obsessives, so much so that some predicted the opening night would be disrupted by shrieking.

(Of course this was utter nonsense – the audience were receptive and respectful, exactly as we predicted.)

Nevertheless, it is tempting to view Cumberbatch’s Hamlet as representing the triumph of nerd culture. We now live in the age of Comic-Con, when 10 year olds and 30 year olds play with the same action figures. Adults no longer have to put away their childish things. Thus Cumberbatch’s version of the prince isn’t an adolescent struggling to become a man to avenge his father. Instead, he moves in the opposite direction, reverting to childhood – playing toy soldiers and digging through the dressing up box to feign madness. His ‘antic disposition’ is a form of arrested development. For this version of Hamlet, the play is not the thing, but playtime.

The entire production is staged in a palatial drawing room – watching the actor clamber on the furniture (those spindly legs are an engineering marvel) recalls the infantilised Edwardians, who ran around their stately homes playing Sardines before getting cut down in the war. Cumber-let is not the student prince or arch intellectual or even Sherlock’s motormouth – instead he has the precocious intelligence of a child.

The result is that this is the funniest version of the tragedy you will ever see. You might expect the cheek-boned wonder to bring the pathos, but his real strength is finding laughs in unexpected places, gambolling about the stage with a comic energy. This was only the opening night, and much will change and develop throughout the play’s long run. Nevertheless, the one outbreak of spontaneous applause was for Hamlet’s first surreal appearance as a madman – which is often irritating in other productions – rather than more quoted sections like ‘To be or not to be’.

On that note, actors sometimes claim to hate the big lines – they are so well known the entire scene revolves around them. The audience holds its breath like the actor is approaching a high jump. One solution is to underplay them, but director Lindsey Turner takes a different tack, rearranging the text so the soliloquys strike you from unexpected directions.

(We all giggled when some fans issued ‘spoiler warnings’ about the 400-year-old play, but they actually are quite appropriate.) 

Initially this decision looks like a disaster. To be or not to be is deployed immediately after the curtain rises, from a standing start. Cumberbatch has to do the acting equivalent of a drag race, accelerating to a level of desolation that feels completely unearned.

It rings hollow and gets the play off on a worrying note. But then you realise that is the point. Cumberbatch is known for playing hyper-intelligent characters, but the real genius of this performance is how he lets the audience see the limits of Hamlet’s personality. His suicidal monologue comes across as childish histrionics, a huff. Cumberbatch is threading a difficult line here. Children – like the travelling players that so impress Hamlet with their fake crying – feel things strongly but not deeply.

Later when Hamlet has truly suffered, Cumberbatch shows the true extent of his depression, and you remember his skill. It’s a brave actor who knows when to act badly. It’s one of a number of subtle points the play makes about our nostalgic urge for childhood, and the essential selfishness at the heart of it.

When David Tennant – another geek icon – played the role back in 2008, it was as a handsome gap year layabout. Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother had an erotic charge, taking place in the bed she shared with Hamlet’s father and uncle, reeking of “the sweaty stench of your dirty sheets.” For all of his good looks, Cumberbatch’s version couldn’t be less sexy, taking place in something that looks like a Punch and Judy show.

Instinctively this makes more sense. Most children grow out of their Oedipal issues by puberty – we can believe Cumberbatch’s overgrown child ranting about his mother’s new boyfriend more than we can believe Tennant’s stubbled backpacker putting the moves on his mum.

But also, without the hint that Hamlet’s sexual attraction is reciprocated, the full extent of his misogyny is revealed. This is an arrogant, immature, sexually naïve, emotionally stunted egotist who believes he has the right to tell a woman how to act and who she can sleep with, even resorting to physical coercion to get his way. His relationship with Ophelia is chilling – by turns calling her a slut and frigid until she is driven to her death, all in the name of his own selfish, juvenile desires.

With an army of arrogant, immature, sexually naïve, emotionally stunted egotists currently waging a war against women on social media, this is an important point to make to this Internet literate audience. 

It just one of a number of subtle complications in this surprisingly challenging production. By all accounts Hamlet at the Barbican is a blockbuster, its star is hashtag famous and at one point a confetti cannon detonates, but it is not mere fodder for the crowds. It’s weird and deliberately off-putting in places, and if Cumberbatch never fully disappears into the role, it’s to use his fame to wrong-foot the audience. It makes one of the most familiar stories in history surprising and unpredictable, and even if it’s not always successful, it is anything but obvious. At the centre of it all, barely pausing for breath, is a man used to making us empathise with otherwise unlikeable people.

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This is not the Hamlet we were expecting from Benedict Cumberbatch, but only Cumberbatch could pull it off.