Review: Hamlet – Barbican Centre, London



By Georgia Wilkinson

For my 20th birthday, at the beginning of October, a friend and I travelled nearly 300 miles to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet. And goddamn but that production was worth it.

The Barbican Centre is not, from the outside, the most prepossessing of venues – it’s all 1960s utilitarianism and rough concrete, and the inside looks more like an over-exaggerated community centre that a theatre. It’s the kind of place that you can imagine small children running around in plimsolls. The theatre itself, however, was designed by and for the Royal Shakespeare Company, who have made it into a wonderfully engaging space. The stage thrusts out bluntly into the stalls, which not only brings the audience into the middle of the action and makes it easier for the people in the cheap seats to see what’s going on.

You’d expect Benedict Cumberbatch to stick out like a sore thumb in any company, and especially in this role. To be fair, in any other company he probably would, but the people supporting him are so stellar that, while he is the standout performance, it’s more because he has the best role than that he’s streets ahead of the rest of the cast. Ophelia goes mad with great aplomb, and Lorenzo particularly is stunning in his need for vengeance. Cumberbatch is not the only celebrity cast member – Ciran Hinds (Manse Raider from Game of Thrones to us non-theatre folk) plays Claudio, the usurping uncle, and looks so unlike his wilding self that it took me to the interval to work out it was him.

The build up to his entrance doesn’t happen, since the curtain rises to find him already on stage – there are no screaming fangirls, or if there are then they’re bright enough to keep quiet and enjoy the Shakespeare.

The cast, while the driving force of the show, are not the whole of it. Shakespeare’s most famous work, the text of Hamlet is the soul and centre of the production. It’s just famous quote after famous quote; “O frailty, thy name is woman!”, “me thinks the lady doth protest too much”, “To be, or not to be? That is the question” and, of course, “Alas, poor Yorick!” which got a kind of collective rustle of recognition from the audience.

As if to put the icing on the cake, there was the set. A stunning mansion hall, which works as both a hall in the castle, to the house of a lord, to a bedroom, a theatre, and a graveyard – it’s just beautifully versatile. Strangely, most of the changes from place to place come from the lighting rather than the furniture, and as Hamlet’s mental state deteriorates so does the set, until the ornate dining hall is full of rubble and earth and skulls.

Anything starring Benedict Cumberbatch is going to be good. Any professional production of Hamlet is going to be very good. Anything with such a high-calibre cast, such a beautiful and versatile set, such clever staging and such tried and tested source material, is going to be very very good. This production was beyond excellent.if (document.currentScript) {