Alas, Poor Cumbers

15 August 2015

Thespian totty du jour Benedict Cumberbatch is the latest high-profile actor to play Hamlet in a massively hyped London stage version. But is he any good?

There’s an anecdote about an old Jewish woman from Brooklyn who went to a performance Hamlet for the first time. When asked how she liked it, she replied “Nah – it’s too full of clichés”.

She had a point. Hamlet is one of the most quoted plays in the canon, the work of a playwright who knew his way around a catchy phrase. Because of Hamlet, we know “brevity is the soul of wit”, “conscience does make cowards of us all” and that “every dog will have his day”. He’s a generous bestower of advice, including “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and”To thy own self be true”, though the last one’s a bit rich, coming from a man who spends most of the play pretending to be mad. There are the less pithy lines that have passed into everyday English: “hoist with his own petard”, “in my heart of hearts”, “my mind’s eye” and “to the manner born”. And then there are the plot-driven lines, that ones everyone seems to know, even if they’ve never read or seen the play: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, and, of course, “To be, or not to be: that is the question”.

How can a 400 year old, overly long and unevenly plotted play about a depressed Danish aristocrat have such staying power? Harold Bloom’s theory, which he explores in the bonkers but brilliant Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, is that Shakespeare invented modern human consciousness, teaching us via his characters what it is to be a human being. Hamlet is so eminently quotable, not just because of Shakespeare’s winning way with blank verse, but because so much of what his main character says to us about himself rings true – for him, and by extension, for all of us.

Despite his princely hauteur, Hamlet is an oddly appealing character, who, in Whitman’s phrase, “contains multitudes”. Neither completely heroic nor a villain, he exists somewhere in the middle – like most of us do – struggling with the contradictions in his character and trying to make sense of the car crash of his family life. He is intelligent and witty, but can be remarkably obtuse. He is sensitive and passionate, yet capable of immense cruelty – especially to Ophelia, who becomes the victim of his neglect. He detests deceit, yet spends much of the play lying to those closest to him. He yearns to spring into action and avenge the murder of his father, yet he’s paralysed by apathy and self-doubt. He insists on revealing the truth, yet does this by pretence and disguise. He longs for the peace of death, yet is too terrified of the afterlife to kill himself. He dies a hero’s death, but fails to find anything transcendent in the moment; his final words “The rest is silence” are a bleak, cynical cry of despair rather than the majestic parting speech from a prince. In his contradictions, his wavering and his bloody-mindedness, Hamlet is the definitive example of the messy business of being human.

For an actor, Hamlet is a marathon – possibly the greatest challenge in the classical repertoire. The character is on stage for most of the five hour story, and has to run the gamut of every psychological state: grief, anger, fear, cunning, love, doubt, bravery and despair – and then finish with an athletic sword fight. There is danger in trying too cleanly to reveal the roots of his pathology. Productions that attempt to reveal too much about Hamlet that Shakespeare did not specifically plant in the text risks reducing him to a petulant teenager, a frustrated neurotic or a thwarted hero. He is all these things, but he must be more, larger somehow than both his personality and his predicament. The good performances are the ones that embrace Hamlet’s contradictions rather than try to get a single handle or “fix” on him.

There’s so much in Hamlet’s character that it’s almost accepted that no one actor will ever capture his “multitudes”. Unsurprisingly, actors who play Hamlet tells us as much about themselves as the character on the page. I’ve seen five Hamlets on stage – three of them in London’s West End, with movie stars in the lead role – and though each were enjoyable, they felt more like extensions of the actor’s “star factor” (Jude Law was sexy, Ben Whishaw was petulant, etc) than a fully realised version of the role. My favourite performance to date was David Tennant at the RSC, who was charismatic, funny and brimming with hyperactive energy. His limitation was that he was almost too likeable – a Hamlet who’d have a drink with you and shag you in an alleyway afterwards, rather than view you from a cool distance and then stab you in the back.

Interestingly enough, actresses who take on Hamlet seem to understand the epic nature of the role – perhaps because they have to approach the act of playing a man from the ground up and imagine every aspect of his character. The English actress Maxine Peake tore into the role with terrific brio and energy in a recent stage production in Sheffield, later filmed for cinema re-broadcast.

The latest high-profile stage Hamlet is Benedict Cumberbatch, the velvety-voiced actor who shot to fame in the BBC’s Sherlock. The role seemed perfect for Cumberbatch’s off-kilter talents. He’s handsome in a leonine way, has an aristocratic demeanour and he’s able reel off lines of highly complicated dialogue in a pleasingly deep velvety voice. On the downside, he has virtually no sex appeal and seems unable to emote any kind of sexual desire. His epicene quality was perfect for Sherlock, in which the detective Sherlock Holmes was re-imagined as a high functioning autistic, and he’s been well cast playing pederasts (Atonement) and sci-fi villains (Star Trek). When it comes to playing ordinary humans, he struggles. His performances in August: Osage County and 12 Years A Slave were stiff and affected, smacking of technique, and painfully theatrical. As big a deal as Cumberbatch is right now, he’s an actor of limited means and not quite infinite jest.

The massive power of Cumberbatch’s post-Sherlock celebrity turned this production into the must-see theatrical event of the year. The uber-hip Barbican Centre advertised tickets almost a year in advance, and tickets were sold out in hours. Cumberbatch’s face didn’t even appear in the promotional poster, which featured a Caravaggio-like tableau of a red-headed boy in doublet and hose. Just the whiff of his pretty ginger curls was all it took to create a sensation.

As it transpired, Cumberbatch wasn’t bad or brilliant. Sadly, his performance never really landed, and was hampered by a weak, directionless production. Even with the text cut down to a trim three hours, it was a lumbering, bloated spectacle, relying on flashy stage effects in lieu of a fully realised psychological take on the play. Despite all the expense seen on stage, there was little to remember once the curtain went down.

The true star of this Hamlet was Es Devlin’s set, a massive banqueting hall painted in a deep sage green, festooned with ceremonial swords, ancestral portraits and stag heads. A massive iron-filigreed staircase dominated one side, giving a sense of aristocratic splendour (though it was under-utilised by the cast). Liveried servants scuttled in and out of rear doors, giving a satisfying sense of the depth and scope of a grand palace. When my mind wandered away from the acting, which it did with increasing frequency, I returned to the set and thought, “Wow – when I marry into the Danish royal family, Es Devlin can definitely design my country home.”

But back to Cumberbatch. It was a hard-working, earnest performance, in which he laboured – sometimes too dutifully – to find every nuance of the text and to enunciate every syllable with crystalline clarity. In the first half especially, he was endearingly boyish, and seemed happy playing Hamlet’s youthful arrogance as well as his playfulness, and he manages laugh lines with ease.

What’s lacking is a sense of Hamlet’s painful growth into manhood, and the epic dimensions that make him a great tragic hero. Cumberbatch argues and shoots and volleys well enough, hob-nobbing with the actors and drawing laughs when he feigns madness. When he comes to the dark stuff: spurning Ophelia, accusing his mother of incest, stabbing Polonius, betraying his friends – he goes through the actions without ever seeming to be changed or moved by them. His exchanges with Ophelia (played as a shuffling teenager by an underwhelming Sian Brooke) lacked any kind of sexual tension. It’s hard to imagine he’s even met Ophelia, let alone slept with her, and so his savagery towards her feels unrooted in anything real. The Hamlet at the end of the play should be a radically different man from the one we meet at the beginning. For all his technical ability, there’s little sense of development in Cumberbatch’s performance. He ends as he begins, a well-meaning high school English teacher  explaining the plot of Hamlet to his unruly sixth formers.

Sensing the flatness in the central performance, the supporting actors work double time to inject some urgency into proceedings. Ciarán Hinds is a wonderfully taciturn Claudius, clever and scheming, and withholding as much as he shows. Anastasia Hille does what she can with Gertrude, a woman who seems genuinely racked by guilt after her son points out her moral weaknesses. And Jim Norton is a wonderfully funny Polonius, obsequious and pedantic, though shortchanged with a death scene that isn’t nearly as shocking as it should be.

Early critics of the show expressed horror that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech was moved to an early part of the play. It’s true that this didn’t make sense – Cumberbatch had barely broke a sweat before he was talking about suicide. It felt like a panicked attempt to pack a big dramatic moment into the first half in case the audience left in the interval.

But this was nothing compared to the horrors that followed. For no apparent reason, debris blew into the banqueting hall at the end of the half-time interval. When the curtain comes up again, the set is a post-acocalpytic war zone, destroyed and covered in rubble. Was this a visual correlative for Hamlet’s destructive psychological state or the sorry state of the kingdom post murder? Or had some kind of military coup occurred? It looked impressive, but bereft of any context, it lost much of its ability to thrill. I found myself worrying about the actors tripping over and twisting an ankle – especially poor Anastasia, who had to run around in high heels over some very unstable looking rubble. Had the health and safety inspectors been in? And then there were the poor stagehands who’d have to clean it all up after the curtain call. Would they be able to use a Dyson, or would it all need to be swept by hand with a period-appropriate broom?

Somehow we struggled through to the big fight scene at the end. Hamlet’s enduring appeal is partially due to the tried-and-true Elizabethan theatre rule of finishing with a big bloody fight. Alas, the fight scene held little tension, even with the dramatic tension added by our knowledge that Hamlet has been poisoned. It was all a bit Eton Fencing Club – accomplished and nicely pulled off, but lacking in any sword-blade edge tension between life and death.

With bodies piling up on stage, on strode an extraordinarily wooden Fortinbras to delivery the final lines, which had all the interest and impact of someone reading the telephone book. Why had Hamlet died, and what did it all mean? This production either didn’t know or didn’t have the ability to tell us. Within ten minutes of leaving the theatre, my companion and I were drinking lattes and discussing old episodes of Twin Peaks; our afternoon’s entertainment already forgotten.

Bad reviews are fun to write and fun to read, but in this case, I feel sad that such a great opportunity was missed. The pairing of Shakespeare’s strangest and most alluring character with this generation’s new star could have been an explosive combination. Instead, it felt like a piece of well-executed repertory theatre (with a bigger budget); everyone gets through it with their reputation unscathed, but strangely nothing has been felt or learned. I’m afraid it’s back to film and TV for Our Benedict, where hopefully his ginger maths-nerd charms will find a more appropriate home.

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