Method in Madness? Thoughts on the Barbican’s Production of “Hamlet”

via the Barbican

ICYMI, the Collected Mutineer and I spent last weekend squeeing over the opportunity to see London’s latest production of Hamlet. She, because Benedict Cumberbatch, and I, well, because Hamlet. It’s my favourite play, and I’ve read it so many times that I no longer need the book; it’s just a nice prop to have in my hands so I don’t appear to be mad when I passionately quote the “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” speech.

So without further ado, here are my thoughts on Hamlet, directed by Lyndsey Turner and starring Bereft Cindersworn (spelling?). 

The Acting

Let’s be real: this production of Hamlet wouldn’t be half as newsworthy if it weren’t for its leading man. Cumberbatch, as the mad prince set on revenge, fits into the duplicitous existence that is Hamlet, flitting back and forth seamlessly between the put-on childlike behaviour of his “insanity” and the deep melancholy that gives soul to the character. Time and again, we wonder if Hamlet is, indeed, as mad as Polonius and the rest of the court think him to be, or if it’s an act to distract the court from seeing the downward spiral of his depression and obsession with revenge. In either case, Cumberbatch as Hamlet offers such a stage presence that even the most ridiculous of moments, such as his play-acting as a toy soldier, becomes as natural as breathing to the character.

Though the entire cast deserves much applause for their work, and I could write thousands of words on their performances, I feel that I must single out Sian Brooke for her portrayal of the tragedy-struck Ophelia. Brooke’s young, waiflike approach to the character gives an air of innocence, or naivety almost. Her transformation from the young, wholesome Ophelia to the broken and unhinged woman in Act 4 is, perhaps, more impressive than Hamlet’s turn with madness because, unlike Hamlet, we know that Ophelia’s insanity is real. The broken notes that Brooke sings to Laertes and the queen are symbolic of a broken mind, and I, for one, was moved to tears for it.

Staging and Costumes

Whether we bought the tickets because of Benedict Cumberbatch or not, my friends and I left the theatre agreeing that the staging (done by Es Devlin) in and of itself was worth the price of the ticket. The first half the play takes place in a grand, opulent palace. Chandeliers, portraits, decorative swords, a staircase–it very much looks like the setting of a Bronte novel. Clever prop switches and lighting allowed for the characters to move about in indoor and outdoor settings with ease, much like other productions we’ve seen here in London. However, when the second act began, and the curtain lifted, the opulence had disappeared, and what was left was a palace in shambles, overtaken by mountains of crumbling furniture and dirt. The characters continued to act on as if they weren’t climbing over mountains of rubble for their scenes, and the juxtaposition of a cast of regal characters in a world that is collapsing around them illustrates the madness behind the careful methods in each character’s courteous civility to one another.

This is also reflected in the costuming. Ophelia, for example, begins in Act 1 in an all-white gown, a visual representation of purity. By Act 4, she wears all black, her outfit in tatters and her feet bare. Like the staging, the costuming (done by Katrina Lindsay) represented the deterioration of the mental, physical, and/or emotional stability of the characters. Such subtleties showed us that, indeed, there was method behind the madness.

The Directing

Before I discuss the directing of this play, I must disclaim that the performance we attended was a preview, and therefore the production may well have changes made before opening night. That said, I can commend the director for choosing to produce a Hamlet that is visually and stylistically different from other versions, while expressing my confusion over certain directorial choices. The most obvious example would be the famous “To be or not to be” monologue, which did not appear in Act 3 just before Hamlet encounters Ophelia, but earlier, just after he accused Polonius of being a “fishmonger.” To those less familiar with the play, the change may have been nearly unnoticeable, but for myself, the speech’s placement seemed to diminish its significance, as it came immediately after a high-energy, humorous scene of Hamlet prancing about as a toy soldier. I have since read that the monologue has been variously situated throughout the show’s run, and can only hope that by opening night, it will continuously appear in Act 3 where it belongs.

To See or Not To See?

See. Most definitely see, if you can.

Whether tis better for thine pocketbook, I cannot say.

-The Collectress

Hamlet will be at the Barbican theatre until 31 October 2015. Tickets can be found here.

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