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August 31, 2015
Barbican. Hamlet. 10th August 2015
Hamlet is a play about disturbances in the natural order of things, in which a bad case of over-reaching leads inexorably to a chain-reaction of death and destruction. Although this play would not, at first sight, necessarily be identified by modern audiences or production teams as a piece of eco-theatre, the self-reinforcing downward spiral in this play reminds of runaway natural systems. It thus easily reaches across to modern-day concepts such as the ecosystem. In spite of the heavy weight of materials embedded in the over-lavish overlay of set and props, this production did that, too.
But, let me start by answering the questions everyone wants to know the answer to. First, I don’t understand why there was so much fuss about a speech in the “wrong” place. For me, this set piece, used in this way, was an effective way of framing things. Secondly, Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet is really very good. He has the virtuosity needed to deliver across the wide range of emotional registers in the role. He often made the audience around me laugh, and the humour was also heart-rending because the anguish beneath was clear to see in every scene, from the light hearted exchanges when we first encounter Horatio right through to the bitter end. He was supported by good performances elsewhere, too. Ophelia’s reaction, first to Hamlet’s nastily delivered sexual bullying (‘country matters’), then to his dragging her brutally about the stage by the wrist as he dismissed her to the nunnery, were right on cue as a trigger for mental breakdown.
There has been much furore in the press about this Hamlet and early reactions: I confess I only saw a fairly early Preview performance on August 10th (Press Night was August 25th). Things may have changed, so, with caution (and ecological spectacles on), some things felt like distractions. Did Hamlet need life-size toy soldiers, a toy soldier uniform and a pretend castle to feign madness? (But, as a performance, emotionally speaking, individual actor-to-audience, it worked.) Did the strolling players need a sumptuously hung mini stage on wheels? (Not inappropriately, Polonius met his maker tangled in stage curtains in microcosm.) Most of all, how on earth would the copious piles of rubble, or was it mud, or volcanic lava (that had somehow spewed in through the doors after some unnamed profoundly unnatural catastrophe during the interval) be cleaned up for the next performance, what material was it made of (it bounced slightly as barefoot Ophelia walked on it), and what did it mean? Well, obviously (ignoring practicalities and answering the real question), this is a play (and a production) about profound natural disorder brought about by unconstrained human behaviour.