REVIEW: NT Live Hamlet – Barbican, London

What do I think? Well, it can be boiled down to one simple sentence: an outstanding Hamlet in a massively flawed production.

There are few productions in recent history that have garnered as much press as Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet, well I say Turner’s Hamlet, but this is very much Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, Turner’s subsequent production (Tipping the Velvet at the Lyric Hammersmith) opened last month to very little ado, and it is undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s name attached to the production that has sparked the ticket buying frenzy.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet | Image – Johan Persson

There’s the issue of reviews being posted during the preview period (the counter argument to this being that the producers were charging full price for tickets, unlike normal practice during previews and therefore, fair game). It is also well-documented that the changes the director made with the text were not well-received, though, it seems that much of what irked the most has been removed but, does what has now been presented as the finished product, measure up?

Anastasia Hille as Gertrude | Image – Johan Persson

Firstly, NT Live is a wonderful thing, a strange, but wonderful thing. It affords the thousands of us who didn’t get tickets to a production a chance to see what all the fuss is about, however, it can be a strange, detached experience which lacks the atmosphere and absorption that live performance provides. (I’ve also got a personal gripe about the quality of the filming which in my experience can be grainy and lack sharpness).

Opening to the strains of Nature Boy is at first thought unusual, but actually is really rather perfect, as the lyrics testify:

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”

However, this is one of the only examples of where the liberties taken with the order of the text or the directorial choices add anything to the production. It matters not a jot whether you are familiar or unfamiliar with the work, if you know it, you might spend your time as I did, trying to work out the  jigsaw puzzle of what should have gone where or you might just be plain old lost. Lindsey Turner obviously has a mind brimming with ideas, but there are too many of them and not all of them thought through or carried out effectively. I am at a loss to understand how making a work more incoherent makes it better. All those glorious and oft-quoted lines are here – just not where you expect them to be.

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Ciaran Hinds as Claudius | Image – Johan Persson

One aspect of the production which is spectacularly effective is Es Devlin’s monumental set.The sheer size and scope of it is breathtaking, it is beautiful and moodily atmospheric, so absorbing is it that it is often more interesting than what’s going on on top of it.

I can’t help thinking that the actors have been done a great disservice here, the universally outstanding cast is lost in the mire of all this trying-to-be-cleverness. The relationships between key characters don’t feel fully-formed because of all the chopping and changing and by the time the final scene comes it is rendered strangely unmoving.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes | Image – Johan Persson


Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is a gripping Laertes, but his onstage time is limited, Sian Brooke is convincingly disturbed as Ophelia and the rest of the cast, both featured and ensemble deliver solid and often highly emotive performances.

Sian Brooke as Ophelia | Image – Johan Persson

Cumberbatch is outstanding, it is a perfectly judged performance infused with humour as well as great sensitivity, he is at all times, even in the depths of his ‘madness’, real and entirely believable, there are no histrionics, nothing is overblown, the hurt, the sadness and the madness are utterly relatable, the biggest compliment I can give is that it is a truly ‘human’ performance.

cumberbatch hamlet red tunic

If you get a chance to see the NT Encore screenings from 22 October then do so – for all its faults don’t miss one of the greatest actors of a generation deliver a near-perfect performance. Just pray that it won’t be long before Cumberbatch returns to the stage.

NT Live information: here

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