Hamlet asks “To be or not to be” but for me the question going to see “Hamlet” performed by Benedict Cumberbatch was whether someone as well-loved as the ‘Batch could compellingly play such an ill-tempered character as the Danish Prince. And my beloved Benedict played it surprisingly well, in a more modern take and in an over-archingly more thoughtful manner than expected. Cumberbatch, in my favorite outfit, a David Bowie t-shirt and a black waist coat with “King” hand-painted on its back, spoke the famed “2B” lines. The same lines that have made acting this supremely arduous role an enthralling theatrical experience for over 4oo years and not only for the self-proclaimed Cumberbitches who made up a screaming portion of the audience at the Barbican Centre in London as well as at National Theatre Live broadcast in Chicago with me.
Hamlet is to most the most compelling character ever, period. But, let me pause here. Before I continue, it is imperative that you know the basic plot line. Basically, a young man named Hamlet goes mad. The best Hamlet would convince an entire audience that he has actually gone insane onstage. A good Hamlet is customarily played in either of two ways. The first, as Hamlet, the son of a recently deceased king, who, consequently goes mad at his father’s death, or the second, as a Hamlet feigning madness to uncover the truth about his (he suspects) murdered dad. The Cumberbatch Hamlet was a halfway between both of these usual interpretations. Perhaps Cumberbatch’s performance, indistinguishable as either, made his rendition the most resonant of Shakespeare’s intentions: inconclusive to theater goers, directors, and actors, in interpreting the most sought after and contested character. Cumberbatch further took to this character in both spectrums that he is known for most famously as Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock” in breathing some comedy into the otherwise serious lines and adding an intense intelligence to the more emotional moments. I liked Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Whenever you leave the theater and are still thinking about the show the next day, it’s a proven success.
However, there are some choices in both casting and in costume that I am unsure about, that distracted me from Cumberbatch’s performance. I did not like the actor who played Horatio, a friend of Hamlet’s who is the last character alive at the close of the play to tell Hamlet’s story. Yes, this was a modern take of a 16th century made play intended to interest a younger crowd, but making Horatio, supposed to be a sane and stable presence throughout the story line, dressed in typical hipster clothes of skinny jeans, plaid button up shirts, satchel bag, and framed glasses, all with the added timid and apprehensive diction and presence on stage, made this character as acted or costumed unquestionably unfit for the role. Also, his tats were all ugly! The part of Horatio should be used to contrast Hamlet’s waining sanity and provide a backbone for the, at-times, confusing plot — Shakespeare seems to always like writing complicated and confusing story-lines! Although Horatio’s character was lacking, it was compensated for by Sian Brooke’s playing of Ophelia. Ophelia seemed in her dress and gestures like a perfect part of the exquisitely decadent stage-set of Elsinore Castle, home of the incestuous and increasingly insane royal Danish court. Ophelia seemed to unravel as Hamlet did. She was initially dressed in tones of white and yellow, but in her final scene in an almost Comme des Garçons, gothic inspired, black lace, ankle length gown. She really did seem insane. In this, Brooke was even more convincing then Cumberbatch. In her last scene there were spots in her hair that were missing, pulling back her scalp to bald spots, all the while performed with a desperate nature that made her uneasy walk and shoeless feet on a stage of rocks painful for us audience members to sit by and watch (even in our plush seats and fancy shoes).
This play got a lot of mixed reviews, and fairly so. Benedict Cumberbatch played Hamlet in an effectively inconclusive way, with an unconventionally modern setting and costuming, to a reoccurring soundtrack of Jon Hopkins’ ‘Open Eyes’ single, in a theater framed by Brutalist architecture. The very nature of the performance was mad, and that was precisely why I liked it.