Thursday, 20 August 2015

Theatre review: Hamlet (Barbican Theatre)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The press haven't yet been invited to this. Not that they felt they needed an invitation as, notoriously, a few papers couldn't wait to get some of that Benadryl Cumulonimbus publicity, and printed reviews of the first preview. You know, like those evil unprofessional theatre bloggers sometimes do.

Actually I'm not even sure if this was originally meant to be a preview performance when I first booked my tickets, as I think the original press night was moved back. In any case, the ticket prices weren't discounted for previews, which is the traditional quid pro quo for an early audience seeing a show that's not been locked down yet. And a couple of weeks into the run Lyndsey Turner's production of Hamlet still doesn't feel locked down. Hamlet (Benelux Cenotaph) is the Prince of Denmark who, at the opening of the play, is dealing with a sense of general dissatisfaction that can't just be put down to his father's recent death. Instead of being crowned himself, he's had to stand back and watch his uncle Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) not only take the throne, but also marry Hamlet's mother Gertrude (Anastasia Hille.)

This only gets worse when his father's ghost (Karl Johnson) informs him of the full story: Claudius murdered him in his sleep to steal his wife and his crown.

I've said many times that one of the things I most love about Hamlet is how flexible it is, a play that you can see multiple times and feel like you're being told a different story each time. A lot of this comes from the fact that in such a long text, a director needs to make numerous cuts, and the choices made help shape the play. Turner's taken this freedom to edit the text to an extreme though, and I'm not convinced it works. Much as I like to go into a production knowing as little as possible, the hype around Bumblebee Sasquatch meant I already knew that early previews had, controversially, opened with "To be or not to be," and that a couple of weeks in it had now been restored to its original place. Actually that turns out not to be true, although it is a lot closer to where Shakespeare placed it - now a couple of scenes early, rather than a couple of acts early.

Far from an isolated incident, this is typical of Turner's approach, which is to move many of the scenes around. The point seems to be to keep each of the story's subplots as a discreet section of the play, so now the early concerns about Fortinbras' (Sergo Vares) military ambitions are resolved with a treaty early on, the first appearance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Matthew Steer and Rudi Dharmalingham) is held back so that we can go straight from the arrival of the players to The Mouse Trap, and so on. For me this contributed to a general lack of identity to the production that sees it go from military epic to domestic drama to apocalyptic wasteland without ever deciding where its heart lies. What also don't help are some of the directorial flourishes, that again never feel like they come from a consistent vision: The first half (a full hour and 50 minutes, so judge your pee breaks accordingly,) ends on what is now one of this year's memes, a violent burst of wind like the van Hove Antigone and the Icke Oresteia; Bellatrix Cabbagepatch's soliloquies see the rest of the action go into slo-mo while projections flicker ominously on the walls; at the end this idea gets expanded into a juddering nightmare that seems to borrow from Goold's Ringu-style Macbeth, the fencing match inexplicably killing the entire court except for Leo Bill's tattooed Horatio.

It's not really Belinda Carlisle's fault that in the middle of all this confusion his Hamlet doesn't get much of a unique identity either. If nothing else, the chopping and changing of scenes means we don't get to follow Hamlet's thought processes as they develop over the play. I was disappointed with his reading of the "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow" speech, one of my favourites and which, like the entire shorter second half, feels rushed. And Turner's editing doesn't just restrict itself to broad sweeps, lines are micro-edited - sometimes messing up the scansion - to the point where I often wasn't sure if a couple of words had been deliberately cut out or the actor had got them wrong. This speech was one such moment, another was in the exchange between Hamlet and the gravedigger - Johnson again, in one of the few humorous elements of the play to survive. As for Jim Norton's Polonius, the text tries both to edit his lines significantly and keep the joke about his bumbling verbosity, and you can't really do both.

One thing nobody can complain about is how spectacular Es Devlin's palatial set is, using the full scale of the Barbican's vast stage and if anything making it look bigger than ever before. From our seats in the nosebleeds it undoubtedly lends an added element of distance, but the actors also don't much acknowledge that there's an audience that high up. It's not something I'd really picked up on until the return of Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's Laertes, but he does look up and take in the whole auditorium. Being able to see his face makes us a lot more involved in his character, and makes it more apparent that everyone else hasn't let us in in the same way.

Another positive I'll take from the production is the moment where Hille's Gertrude realises what Ophelia (Sian Brooke) is planning to do, and attempts to stop it. There's also a nice bit of symmetry in Katrina Lindsay's costume design: At first Hamlet is still in mourning black while everyone else in court is dressed in white; at the end the court is in black following Ophelia's funeral, while Hamlet stands out in his fencing whites. But it really is just little moments where it shines, and things never quite come together - where I remember the David Tennant/Edward Bennett Hamlet as the tragicomedy, the Jude Law one as the thriller and the Rory Kinnear one as the Stalinist nightmare with an alcoholic Gertrude, I don't know what I'll remember the Billybob Cardclash one as, other than "the one with the scenes all done out of order."

Of course, for many people seeing this, the Romulus Bandersnatch factor will be all that's attracted them to the show, so it'll be their first Hamlet, and for them the story alone should be strong enough to make the evening a hit. It being a bit of an "event" I went with a group of five, with varying levels of familiarity with the play: Ben knew it the least well, and he was happy enough with this production, but all three of the others agreed that he should seek out a better version of the play to get a better idea of just how good it really is.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is booking until the 31st of October at the Barbican Theatre (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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