Hamlet, at the Barbican with Benedict at the helm: Part 1

As y'all probably know, I have a full-fledged, adult woman crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. Yes, I think he can wear a suit like no one else, is full of class in a way too rare today, and has hauntingly sexy eyes. He plays slightly-mad genius like it's his job but is as capable with comedic wonk and suave intelligentsia. He is the perfect Sherlock. I also think he'd be a fucking blast to hang at pub with. He is good-hearted and a feminist whilst also hard-working, well-educated and refreshingly, appealingly understated. In short, he seems damn near perfect, and so my tickets to last-night's showing of Hamlet were treasures to me like few others. 

It is really something to see magnificent theater firsthand. To see a person you feel you have some sense of transform so completely as if to disappear, birthing another character or being whom you get to know for just a little while.

Julia Roberts was really fantastic in Pretty Woman but since has been, for the most part, Julia Roberts playing someone else. I always feel like I'm watching Julia Roberts try to pull the wool over my eyes by donning a good costume. I am never tricked. 

Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, is never Daniel Day-Lewis. He is always Cecil or Abe or Christy or Tomas. 

I do feel that Benedict has, despite his singular looks, the ability to change as completely. To transmogrify, really. He is a brilliant, perhaps drug-addled sociopathic detective. He is a maybe-gay intelligence agent and a wildly uncomfortable man in love with his half-sister. He is, with slightly more of a stretch, the enigmatic founder of WikiLeaks, and now, with no stretch at all, he is a Danish prince.

And so, in long form short, a review.

It should be admitted now that I am not a fan of Shakespeare. Yes, I loved Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film production of Romeo and Juliet. Olivia Hussey, Leonard Whiting and Milo O'Shea were perfectly cast and the movie has stayed with me clearly through today, even though I first saw it many years ago. I've seen it many times since but not in ages. 

Shakespeare's insults are unsurpassably brilliant, and more linguistic tidbits than I'll ever really know were born by his pen, but his works are somewhat an effort for me and long-winded ones at that. A fault that may be, but it's the truth.

I made this pilgrimage to London and the Barbican and Hamlet for one reason only: Benedict.

The Barbican Centre is an odd place. It's like Star Wars met a Communist-era architect and they joined hands with Kafka and planned a theatre. Lots of concrete and elusive elevators and almost zero helpful signage. It's huge and yet can feel too small. Our row of seats, for example, sat only six, and we were ushered through a narrow wooden door that seemed crafted from a thick wood plank and that sealed shut behind us. As if we were on a submarine.

The stage is enormous: deep, tall, wide. Impressive and it leaves much room for real exploration of it. It was fronted by weirdly-70s gold lamé sheets. I have no idea what they're actually constructed of, but they lent a real disco vibe to the already conflicted aesthetic.

view from my seat of the stage, still covered by the curtain

view from my seat of the stage, still covered by the curtain

Lyndsey Turner, director of this production of Hamlet (and just the third female recipient of the Lawrence Olivier award), had such a spectacular and fresh vision for this show. As you may have heard, the "To be, or not to be..." soliloquy was initially moved to the open of the play; by last night's performance, it had been moved back to Act III. Wherever it was, it worked. The willingness to move these famed lines is brave, and even though the change didn't stick, it still serves to highlight all the modernization, shifts and reinterpretations Turner ventured to make. 

Though many characters dressed in costumes reflective of old-school Danish royalty, Hamlet's outfits (and those of his peers: Ophelia, Horatio and such) were current: hoodies, backpacks, sneakers. It didn't distract at all but rather helped bring the story, still so obviously of another time, to an easier understanding via the present. An angsty prince in modern attire is, perhaps, even more accessible than he might be when buttoned behind uniforms, crests, epaulets and the like. 

Indeed, I found Cumberbatch's Hamlet to be totally understandable. He is angry, betrayed, grossed out and grief-stricken. He's scared and shocked and desperate to exact revenge. This Hamlet never struck me as whiny or spoiled; no, he seemed to understand himself well. To be cognizant of the "inky cloak" that weighted his shoulders too often and why. The burden not only of this understanding but also of the realization that "if one doesn't know what follows death, there is a chance that the unknown is worse than life was" is tremendous, and Cumberbatch negotiated that vexation beautifully.

If you've only seen Benedict in films, you might not know what a talented comedic actor he is. He's downright hilarious at times: quick, obviously very smart, willing to play the fool, willing to be silly and enjoy it. And he ably teased out, as Hamlet, the many instances in which madness is funny. In which the only thing that can tame grief is finding levity in the situation that's caused it. 

We laughed out loud many times during the show, and these moments were real snatches of relief during an otherwise intense few hours. 

It must also be said that Benedict expends huge amounts of mental and physical energy during the play, and as he walked offstage after the last ovation and bow, I could only imagine his exhaustion. I believe he must have also been exhilarated by the experience, of acting such a vaunted role in front of sell-out crowds on the London stage. In concert, the fatigue and thrill must wear after a while and when the run ends in late October, I hope he can catch some rest.

Ok, I must get to bed, so Part 2 tomorrow, but as a teaser, I'll let you know that I waited my the stage exit and saw...Benedict's hair!!!!!!!!!