Cumberbatch delivers great performance in ‘Hamlet’

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is probably the best performance I’ve seen in that role.

The rest of the production, however, is somewhat uneven.

Having studied, watched and taught Shakespeare’s magnum opus for nearly 40 years, I’m always seeking new performances to add to my experience. That’s why I drove to Ithaca, New York, on Monday for the Cumberbatch version.

It was not a live performance, but rather the reprise of a 2015 stage production from London’s Barbican Centre — and yeah, Southern New York was the closest movie-house carrying this one-night-only revival.

For me, “Hamlet’s” key feature is the way each production can recast the play as its own unique version. And here, as so often with these various tweaks, some work, and some don’t.

Successes include the use of Nat Cole’s classic tune “Nature Boy,” as well as giving Hamlet an actual role in the play-within-a-play. Director Lindsey Turner also manages the soliloquies well: Rather than vacating the stage for our long-winded protagonist, she has other actors freeze, or work in under-lit slow motion, while Hamlet gets the spotlight.

But the production’s triumph is Cumberbatch, beloved star of TV’s recent “Sherlock,” along with the Marvel superhero series (he plays Doctor Strange) — as well as “Twelve Years a Slave,” “The Grinch” and “The Imitation Game.”

Cumberbatch’s control of his body seems effortless. Better yet, his frank and open Danish prince never feels like a stage character. I can’t think of another Hamlet whose grief for his lost father is so potently palpable.

Cumberbatch does such a mesmerizing job that he single-handedly makes this production work, while also causing the other actors to look somewhat anemic. I hate to disparage performers who are obviously working so hard; but then, hard work should not be so obvious. Veteran actor Ciaran Hinds is very strong as King Claudius, but most of the others — especially the frantic Horatio and the fidgety Ophelia — did nothing for me.

Changes that do not work include having Hamlet dress as a tin soldier and “play war” like a five-year-old; tying him up on his way to England (not justified by the text); and in particular, a flood of dirt and rocks that covers the entire stage throughout the second half. This is clearly supposed to symbolize the moral ruin of Denmark under a corrupt king, but it’s terribly distracting — especially as crud keeps getting all over the players. (And why do both Claudius and Gertrude lie in this mess while dialoging with Laertes in 4.5?)

In addition, the ending feels rushed, glossing over the queen’s fate and omitting Hamlet’s vital prophecy about the subsequent king.

Other than the distracting dirt, the play is impressively staged in two long acts with a 20-minute intermission. The sets are massive, allowing for generous blocking, along with sensational lighting in several scenes.

There’s no such thing as a perfect “Hamlet”; but at the same time, every production adds its own cool new take — and like so many others, Turner’s version certainly broadens our understanding of this endlessly malleable work.

Here’s hoping a DVD version is available soon.


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