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Hamlet at the Barbican theatre

First Published 26 August 2015, Last Updated 6 June 2018

What’s it all about?

After months of hype, ticketing frenzies, controversy and audiences camping out, Sherlock and The Hobbit star Benedict Cumberbatch takes on one of the greatest roles in English language drama, Hamlet.

The tale, if you’re new to Shakespeare, is one of a Danish prince whose dead father, we discover, has been bumped off by Hamlet’s uncle, who’s now his step-father. Unsurprisingly this sparks a lust for revenge and a hefty wallop of existential wrangling.

Who’s in it?

Mr Cumberbatch, obviously. How does he do? He proves that, though he may now be a global phenomenon, he’s lost none of his exquisite stagecraft.

As we first see him, losing himself in an old photograph album, it is clear his Hamlet is driven by world-crushing grief; abandoned by a dead father and let down by a mother who seems not to feel his all-consuming pain. He is the child having the comfort blanket pulled from under him by the underwhelming realities of life.

While much of the action in Lyndsey Turner’s production flashes by at a sprinter’s pace, everything slows – often quite literally – for Hamlet’s great speeches, when the excellent Cumberbatch pours anguish, devastation and the panic of a lost little boy into his scintillating performance. By contrast, his playful madness is one of mania and toy soldiers.

Opposite Cumberbatch, Siân Brooke is electric as a fragile Ophelia, whose broken state has a hint of hysteria mixed with an overwhelming sense of sadness and, again, abandonment, while Leo Bill stands out as the reliable chum Horatio.

What should I look out for?

The start of both halves, when you will be stunned by Es Devlin’s set. The multi-Olivier Award winner has done it again, filling the Barbican’s massive stage with a stunning, opulent dining room plucked from a Russian stately home. It is a glorious feat in itself, but as Elsinore begins to crumble, so the second half brings rocky devastation.

Who was in the press night crowd?

The Sherlock crew – Martin Freeman, Amanda Abbington and Mark Gatiss – were out in force to support their man, along with producer Sonia Friedman’s Sunny Afternoon collaborators Edward Hall and Ray Davies, and Downtoners Dan Stevens and Allen Leech.

In a nutshell?

Believe the hype. Benedict Cumberbatch submerges himself in grief in Shakespeare’s greatest role and produces the perfect Hamlet for the kidult age.

What’s being said on Twitter?

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Will I like it?

Cumberbitch? Then of course, everything Benny C touches turns to gold.

Shakespeare purist? Hmmmmm. Hamlet often gets a good cutting – you could watch a Sherlock box set, including extras, in the full running time of the world’s favourite tragedy – but Turner has given it more tweaking than most, chopping and reassigning lines to suit her purpose.

What is that purpose? It was hinted at by poster artwork that resolutely refused to use an image of its most marketable star, instead depicting a kids party. This is a Hamlet for the generation that can’t or won’t grow up, for the 30-somethings forced to live at home, for those relying on parents for longer. When our parents are bastions for increasing amounts of time, what happens when reality hits? Cumberbatch captures that grief, anger and questioning with piercing intensity.

Hamlet plays at the Barbican Theatre until 31 October. Though the run is sold out, day seats are available from 10:30 each day. The show will also be broadcast to cinemas as part of NT Live on 15 October. 

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