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Nature Boy: Hamlet at the Barbican


Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo by Johan Persson for Reuters.

Spoiler alert. Everyone knows the plot of Hamlet, but this post contains plenty of spoilers regarding the set and direction.

We saw Hamlet on only the fourth night of previews (the notorious night of “technical difficulties” and Cumberbatch’s stage-door plea for people to stop filming him), so I wouldn’t call this a review. It is more a document of my experience as a theatergoer, and my thoughts about the production as it stood that evening. There may well be changes to come, since that is the purpose of previews. I only wish I could return after opening night in order to savor it anew.


The “Curtain” is in two parts. One lifts up and the other sinks down.

In the first scene, the “curtain” (actually a solid, metallic looking barrier) opens to reveal Hamlet on the extreme front part of the stage (center stage and upstage are still hidden), rummaging through some boxes as if in an attic. Before him sits an old portable turntable, playing “Nature Boy” by Nat King Cole. By now, it is well known that this production begins with “To be or not to be.” That was a brilliant move by the director. It takes people off guard and deflates the soliloquy so that you hear it more as real speech and less as an enshrined monument of the English language. Cumberbatch delivered it conversationally and informally. In terms of the plot, the change emphasizes that he’s contemplating suicide before he learns of his father’s demand for revenge, rather than after. The entire Act 1 Scene 1 with Horatio, Marcellus, Barnardo and the ghost is cut (along with some beautiful lines). Right away, you realize that Liberties Are Being Taken. But that didn’t bother me. Re-interpretation is a must with this play, to prevent it being merely a string of famous quotations.

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea

A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day, a magic day
He passed my way, and while we spoke
Of many things, fools and kings
This he said to me

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return”

Why “Nature Boy”? I spent a little time investigating the song and learned that it refers to the Wandervogel and Lebensreform movements in Germany, established around the turn of the twentieth century. Their back-to-nature philosophy was widely influential, finding its way into Nazi ideology but also shaping the “Summer of Love” and the Hippie movement in the US. At first I thought there might be some complex political allusion in the play, but I concluded that the song itself is a key to Lyndsey Turner’s interpretation of Hamlet. Indeed, the title sums it up in two words.

First, NATURE. Hamlet is deeply concerned with the question of what is “natural” and “unnatural.” The “To be or not to be” soliloquy makes clear that flesh is heir to “a thousand natural shocks”: to be human is to suffer. In the next scene, the Wedding Feast, we are told that death is natural. Both Gertrude and the King urge Hamlet to accept the inevitability of his father’s death, the common fate of all. The King goes so far as to call Hamlet’s ostentatious mourning at the wedding feast a fault against the dead, a fault to nature. The King’s position is specious, yet we are not to know this until the Ghost imparts his terrible news. Hamlet’s intuition of the rottenness at the core of Denmark (shared with Marcellus, who voices the thought) is accurate enough. Of course, the King himself, by his twin crimes of kinslaying and incest, is the cause of the unnatural circumstances Hamlet faces. These are the most primal taboos, and yet the charge of incest, pressed by the Ghost and insisted upon by Hamlet, holds little weight among the courtiers of Elsinore. Even Horatio seems less disturbed by the fact that a man has married his brother’s wife than by the “o’erhasty” speed of the wedding. (The issue was perhaps still current in England, given that there were questions about who was to succeed the elderly Elizabeth, and her own legitimacy depended on the claim that Henry VIII’s first marriage to his brother’s wife had been incestuous and thus invalid).

So the play sets up a conflict between natural death (represented by poor Yorick and his naked skull), and the unnatural state of things which gradually engulfs and overwhelms Elsinore: murder most foul and unnatural, as the Ghost puts it. An unholy union founded upon that murder. And suicide—an unnatural death contemplated by Hamlet and carried out by Ophelia. As Horatio says in the final scene, it is a story of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts. Set designer Es Devlin underlines these themes by transforming the set in the second half of the play. The palace of Elsinore with its high ceilings, chandelier and royal portraits is now heaped high with soil pouring in at every door. It is as though the moldering grave itself is rising up to engulf the palace.


A photo of the set after the curtain call, from Tumblr. Click for source.

Natural? Yes, the way of all flesh. And yet it is uncanny and unnerving to see the grand (if faded) space prematurely rush toward the final stages of decay and ruin, foreshadowing the terrible events to come, and the fall of the royal “house.”

Second, BOY. Although there are as many Hamlets as players, there are two principal approaches to the character. He can be mature and gloomy, even if he betrays a mordant wit. Think Richard Burton, Rory Kinnear or Simon Russell Beale. Or he can be young, humorous, but lacking in kingly gravitas despite his brilliant mind. Scholars tell us that in the Ur-Hamlet penned by Shakespeare or a contemporary, Hamlet was a teenager. This would explain a lot about the play—why Hamlet and his friends are “students,” why he seems unprepared to challenge Claudius, and why he is still possessive enough of his mother to feel such outraged revulsion at her remarriage.

Most actors don’t play Hamlet until they are nearing forty, and Cumberbatch himself is 39. But he looks much younger, and Lyndsey Turner has made an obvious choice to portray him as a youth, or perhaps as a man only in years, a Hippolytus who cannot successfully negotiate the final steps into adulthood and thus perishes. This choice is proclaimed not only by the song “Nature Boy” (reprised later in the play during the fight with Laertes) but by Hamlet’s costumes (e.g. hoodie and jeans) and Cumberbatch’s performance, which has an unexpected sweetness and vulnerability. When he addresses the Ghost, he says, “I’ll call thee King… Father?” and his voice rises and catches uncertainly at the name. Hamlet’s strategems, his assumed madness, the play within a play, come off as clever but ineffectual mischief. After all, Claudius does not know Hamlet has been told the truth, so why the need for a show of madness? That Hamlet pretends to be a soldier, dragging out his childhood play castle and donning a “toy soldier” uniform for the purpose, makes his inability to take direct and martial action all the more evident. When taunting the King with the “Mousetrap,” he wears a formal jacket similar to the one Claudius has, and takes over the role of the Poisoner himself. Lest Claudius (or the audience) miss the point, he has clumsily scrawled “KING” on the back of the jacket.


Even the posters emphasize the theme of “Hamlet as Boy.”

The contrast in authority between Hamlet and his stepfather is most glaring when Hamlet has been brought, under guard and in disgrace, to face the King’s judgment for murder, the very crime of which Hamlet knows the King to be guilty. This is the one verbal confrontation between the pair, and Hamlet (unlike in the scene where he verbally scourges his mother) is at a distinct disadvantage.

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Ciarán Hinds as the King. Photo by Johan Persson for Reuters.

During the questioning, a more mature Hamlet (like Richard Burton’s for example) dominates the scene, with his confident baiting of the King. But the beautiful, epicene Cumberbatch has a slight build and is thin enough to pass (at a distance) for a teenager. He is like Telemachus in the Odyssey, a youth who has his father taken away too soon, before he is ready for kingship and before he is mature enough to face his enemies. This Hamlet seems to be using his brilliant wit to deflect his fear of physically confronting the far more powerful, masculine usurper. (Instead he uses taunts: “Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”) This is why Ciarán Hinds, with his forbiddingly masculine looks, makes the perfect Claudius. He’s only an inch or two taller than Cumberbatch, but has a far more imposing physical presence and a dangerous, piercing glare. When Hamlet was brought before the king, I had a visceral, reflexive twinge of sympathy for the humiliation he must be feeling, in spite of all his brave talk. And a fearful thrill: Oh shit. He’s in big trouble!

Just after this confrontation and immediately before the intermission, the King has his best scene. Having dispatched Hamlet to England, he stands alone, and facing the audience, he reveals that he has asked England to accomplish “the present death of Hamlet”:

Do it, England;
For like the hectic in my blood he rages,
And thou must cure me: till I know ’tis done,
Howe’er my haps, my joys were ne’er begun.

As he delivers these lines, his voice rises in rage and the lights change to make him look diabolical… then all the doors of the palace are blasted in, as though by a huge windstorm. You can “see” the wind because it carries dead leaves, and there are sound and light effects—the stage goes completely dark and the curtain comes down. It is absolutely tremendous, the best scene in the show.

I’m happy to report that Ciarán Hinds’ talents were not wasted in this production, as they often are on film. Everyone knows that the full Hamlet is nearly four hours and a great deal has to be cut, but from a CH fan’s point of view, it is fortunate that almost all of Claudius’ lines are kept intact. Sadly the same was not true of Polonius, who had such serious cuts that much of the comedy was removed from his role. Jim Norton did the best he could with what was left, but it is a shame that Polonius was not allowed to be his loquacious, opinionated self (“Thus it remains, and the remainder thus. Perpend.” Or his negative review of Hamlet’s love poetry: “Beautified is a vile phrase!” or “This is too long” when critiquing the Player King, or “The moblèd queen, that’s good!”).


It is a measure of how much Polonius’ role was cut that Jim Norton was not included in the first costumed cast photos. This is a rehearsal photo by Johan Persson.

The Oedipal aspects so important in some productions of Hamlet are played down in this one. There is no erotic tie between Hamlet and his mother (indeed BC delivers the lines in her closet with a certain diffidence, as though Hamlet is uncomfortable talking with his mother about sex, but feels he must speak). Actually I think the play could have used a bit more sexing up, because there is not much of a spark between Hamlet and Ophelia, nor even between the King and Gertrude. He never kisses her, so far as I can remember, and the only direct reference to their conjugal relations is a scene after the wedding, when a satyr-like figure chases a giggling woman across the hall, upstage center. But this seems to be a figure of Hamlet’s fevered imagination, because a moment later, a stately King leads his Queen across the same hall—presumably toward the bedchamber, as it is their wedding night, but in a very decorous way. The suggestion is that the King wanted Gertrude, but he was principally driven by ambition, and claiming “th’ imperial jointress to this warlike state” was part of his plan.

I did object to another important scene with the King, the one where Laertes bursts into the palace. He’s pointing a pistol at Claudius, who falls to the floor as if knocked down; Gertrude on the other side of the stage also falls, so there is a tableau with Laertes in the center. In the text we have, Laertes asks “Where is my father?” The King coolly answers, “Dead” and Gertrude quickly adds, “But not by him!” By these words she reveals her love of Claudius. In this production, the line assignments are reversed. Gertrude answers, “Dead,” and the King cries, “But not by me!” To my mind, this completely goes against the character of Claudius as written. From the start he knows exactly how to handle Laertes, who is all action and no brain. It’s clever Hamlet who perplexes and infuriates him. I think this “cravening” of Claudius was done to help set up the idea, developed later, that Gertrude loses respect for her husband and finally rejects him. In fact, I had the impression that she drank the poison knowingly, especially as her line about realizing she has been poisoned is given to Horatio. (By the way, if you’re a Horatio lover, as I am, prepare to be dismayed because his part is drastically cut. Not only that, but Hamet inexplicably says, “There are more things in this world, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”)

I have given short shrift to the non-King parts of the production, but I would add that Ophelia and Laertes both turn in good performances, if not always as gripping as I expected. Ophelia’s character is presented as slightly nerdish and she’s given a camera to fiddle with. Sian Brooke was a bit colorless during the first half, even in the nunnery scene, but in the second half she improved dramatically (no pun intended). Her madness was quite convincing and deeply moving, especially in the parts where she sang.


Sian Brooke as Ophelia. I think they should have kept her as a blonde. Photo by Johan Persson.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith made a fine Laertes, not quite as hotblooded as he ought to be, but very fine in the scene where he is told of Ophelia’s death. He truly seemed stunned by the news, overcome and close to tears.


Kobna Holdbrook-Smith with Cumberbatch before the final fight. Photo by Johan Persson for Reuters.

Anastasia Hille was good as Gertrude, very tender in the scenes with Ophelia. There’s a great moment where Ophelia speaks her final lines, then exits upstage through a veil of mist. Suddenly Gertrude jumps up with a start and follows her, as though she has guessed Ophelia’s intent. (I liked this because I always wondered how Gertrude could possibly know and report the circumstances of Ophelia’s death.) The Player King was confidently played by Ruairi Conaghan, who sounded very Irish. My favorite of the other actors was Karl Johnson who doubled the Ghost and the Gravedigger and was brilliant in both roles—he had the same surefooted delivery as Mr. H., borne of talent together with long experience in theatre.

Karl Johnson, photo by Johan Persson.


Anastasia Hille with Cumberbatch in the “closet scene.” Hamlet wears his toy soldier pants and the jacket that mimics the King’s coat during the Mousetrap scene.

As for Benedict Cumberbatch himself, I thought he made a convincing Hamlet, if not the heroic sort of Hamlet we are used to in the film versions of Olivier or Branagh. He delivered the soliloquies beautifully, and he has a gift for comedy which Lyndsey Turner put to excellent use in the mad scenes. Only once did his diction fall apart, in the very emotional graveside scene, where I had trouble grasping the lines. It is hard to imagine the strain that anyone playing Hamlet undergoes, with the huge number of lines to be delivered and the sense that the whole show is riding on you. The night we were there, a technical problem caused the show to have to start over just as he was about to begin “To be or not to be,” and a second glitch happened right after the Ghost left, just as Hamlet was starting his “smiling, damnèd villain” speech. The stage manager walked directly onto the set and spoke a word to him, and he turned and exited to stage right. As soon as he was off the set, a roar could be heard. Some say that he yelled “F•••!!” but from where we sat, the words were not audible. The curtain went down and after a few minutes, Cumberbatch appeared, causing the fan-filled audience to scream in excitement. He explained that the trap door in the center of the stage (where the ghost had exited) was stuck and that nobody could walk across the stage until they had ensured that it was safe. So we waited awhile, and he started the scene over again (and was very good in it too). At the end of the play, the players received a very heartfelt and lengthy standing ovation. Afterward we went to the stage door and had a chance to say hello to Himself and Jim Norton before they were whisked away in a car (security being understandly tight). Then we went off for a celebratory drink, not even remembering to wait for Cumberbatch.

But I had already seen everything I came for.

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A fan photo from Instagram. Click for source.

Text copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss