In Depth

Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet 'justifies the hype' despite misfiring show

Cumberbatch is a 'five-star Hamlet' in hit-and-miss production, but is he a victim of his Sherlock fame?

Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre has won positive reviews following the play's official opening in London last night, but the production as a whole has fared less well, and some critics wonder whether the actor's fame isn't part of the problem.

The modern-dress Hamlet, directed by Lyndsey Turner and described as the fastest-selling play in British history, made the news earlier this month when some newspaper critics broke with tradition to publish reviews of the first preview performance. Now the official reviews are out, and they're no less mixed.

Cumberbatch, whose Prince of Denmark slouches in a hoodie, listening to gramophone records as he plots his revenge, is Cumberbatch "a blazing, five-star Hamlet trapped in a middling, three-star show", says Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph.

The man himself "justifies the hysteria" and stands equal to the best modern Hamlets", but the production is "full of hit-and-miss ideas" that dissipate its energy.

For Michael Billington in The Guardian, it's "an intellectual ragbag of a production" full of "half-baked ideas". What makes it  "frustrating" is that Cumberbatch has the makings of a good Hamlet. He is pensive and resonant, but he is given "lots of silly things to do".

In the New York Times, Ben Brantley seems more impressed by the "scenic spectacle and conceptual tweaks and quirks", saying "this Hamlet is never boring", but nor is it ever moving.

Cumberbatch is "superb", says Brantley, and there is "not a soliloquy that doesn't shed fresh insight into how Hamlet thinks", but the rest of the cast barely registers as more than moving scenery. In this version, "Hamlet has never seemed so alone".

Perhaps, suggests The Independent's Paul Taylor, the problem might be Cumberbatch's fame. He may have been better tackling Hamlet "before the global success of Sherlock rocketed him into the celebrity stratosphere".

"The actor commands the stage with a whirling energy but we rarely feel soul-to-soul with this Hamlet," he says. The "insanely pressurised environment" may be to blame for Cumberbatch's failure to lay himself bare, which makes the show as a whole feel "curiously uninvolving".  

Hamlet is on at the Barbican until October, and is broadcast live to cinemas on 15 October.

Recommended

Frozen the Musical: what the critics are saying
Scene from Frozen on stage
In Review

Frozen the Musical: what the critics are saying

Chris Whitty takes on rap star Nicki Minaj
Nicki Minaj and Chris Whitty
Why we’re talking about . . .

Chris Whitty takes on rap star Nicki Minaj

Raducanu’s meteoric rise: unknown wildcard to grand slam champion 
Emma Raducanu celebrates her victory at the US Open
Profile

Raducanu’s meteoric rise: unknown wildcard to grand slam champion 

The Ronaldo effect: what big players mean for the finances of major football clubs
Pin badges showing face of Cristiano Ronaldo
Expert’s view

The Ronaldo effect: what big players mean for the finances of major football clubs

Popular articles

Doctor says we should not sleep naked because of flatulent spraying
The feet of a person sleeping in a bed
Tall Tales

Doctor says we should not sleep naked because of flatulent spraying

World’s most extreme weather events in 2021
Wildfire in Greece
In pictures

World’s most extreme weather events in 2021

The man tasked with putting a price on 9/11’s lost lives
Kenneth Feinberg at a Congressional hearing
Profile

The man tasked with putting a price on 9/11’s lost lives

The Week Footer Banner