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The Toys of Elsinore

A friend had bought two tickets months ago. Her PC had been 8 hours in the queue. Then she broke up with her partner, and asked me to come along instead, keeping the name of the production a surprise. I have almost wanted to cry off after the news about Dad, but to do so would leave her either alone at the theatre, or with very little time to shift the ticket. So I went.

It was Benedict Cumberpatch's Hamlet at the Barbican.

At first she was mortified, it being about a dead father and all, but when she saw that I was genuinely enjoying it, she got past wincing, and we had a great time.

Benedict is slighter and lighter than he seems on screen. I have never considered him handsome - the lower part of his face and the upper part always strike me as belonging to two different people - and if he wasn't very telegenic and a fine actor, you probably wouldn't notice him. But he is a fine actor. His is not the most dynamic of Hamlets (none of David Tennant's frenzied bouncing around) but he tries to be like a clear glass to the prose, and the result is natural, unforced... he is not trying to 'be'. It makes the language accessible and it adds pace to the already swift movement of the production. There's a lot of running around. The duel is very personal, a real fight not a gentleman's arrangement. But what is his Hamlet like? It's hard to tell. He is a basically decent bloke. More than that is hard to ascertain because any attempt to find him keeps tripping over his toys.

That's the problem with this whole production; here's the programme:

If the idea was to present Hamlet as a sullen, too-discerning half crazy brat with a mother/nursery fixation, that's OK,if a bit old. In such a case, the opulent set and the pantomime of his behaviour - dragging out an enormous play castle with giant soldiers a la nutcracker around it, trying on an indian head-dress out of a costume chest (his 'antic disposition' geddit?)- would fit perfectly. But the set is telling a very different story to the one the actors are giving us. It's the most cluttered thingful Hamlet ever. In this land of vast toys, Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia can make him look puerile and little-boy shifty. It makes sense of Laertes' and Polonius' warnings, implying that Hamlet has always been a bit emotionally underdeveloped, and Ophelia really does need to be very careful. But BC's Hamlet isn't that guy. He's just in the wrong Elsinore.

As to the prose, well, no chance of such mere stuff as words being allowed to stand alone, clearly the director doesn't trust the play, or the audience. There's all manner of tweaking, cutting and shifting of speeches, and by god, if an effect can be added, it's there. At one point we were faced with the terrifying spectacle of Laertes' death in slow motion surrounded by interpretive dance. It didn't last long, but it didn't need to.

Still, it was enjoyable for the most part. Benedict was rapt in concentration. He did not stir us - how could he, given such a raucous playground? - but he did engage and make us watch, and we had a grand evening. I am so glad to have gone. It makes me feel better about doing stuff this coming weekend, a prospect that I have dreaded since the news. My sick friend is now stable, having had a second tracheotomy, friends are inviting me out and about and though even reading the invitations exhausts me, it's time to do what I can, if I can. Life is coming back in, and I want to make room for it.




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