Question: Who’s there?
Answer: Benedict Cumberbatch. Everywhere.
Yes, last night was the live screening of the Benedict CumberHamlet, a show which has been sold out for what seems like several summers. The production opened to a flurry of controversy (or did it? It was reviewed in preview after all). The early decision to open the play with the cast performing ‘to be or not to be’ was criticised at the time and while I don’t object to experimentation, it sounds like it was unlikely to work (even if it was fun when, in the specially prepared live screening preview, Cumberbatch visited a school in which the children performed those famous words in a similar fashion).
Even still, the production made several changes to the opening scenes and I found myself somewhat disappointed by them. Cumberbatch/Hamlet spoke the opening lines: the focus was on him from the outset when the conventional staging keeps him offstage for some time. On balance, I think I prefer the conventional approach – the play is Hamlety enough as it is without the instant dose of Hamlet. I tend to think, if you’re going to make considerable cuts to the opening why not follow that through and cut the whole play more extensively? I’m happy to see shorter Hamlets but this was a fairly long production that cut some of the best bits. I found myself groaning through the opening and this wasn’t helped by what seemed to me the disappointing decision to stage all of the soliloquies (including ‘To be or not to be’) as if they were a retreat into interiority. For each soliloquy, the cast remained on stage but faded into the background and moved in super slow motion. Hamlet was free to deliver his lines apparently safe from the threat of eavesdroppers. ‘To be or not to be’ was staged in such a way as to completely remove the possibility of his speech being overheard. I accept that, in speaking to us, the sanctity of this interiority was called into question, but I felt as if the play’s insistent questioning of these ostensibly ‘private’ speeches is a good deal more complicated than the production was prepared to acknowledge. I sometimes enjoyed the beauty of the staging and the freeze frames were often evocative, but overall, I was bit underwhelmed.
That said, it did perk up a bit, rather suddenly. After what seemed to me a fairly dreary opening, Cumberbatch sprang into life. I noticed something similar with the last English language Hamlet I saw, although Cumberbatch was better. Based on the reviews I was half expecting the whole thing to be pretty terrible but, you know what, despite the hype, I thought it was pretty good.