Press fail (1): Unofficial review of Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Press fail (1): Unofficial review of Cumberbatch as Hamlet


norman lebrecht

August 06, 2015

The Times and the Mail this morning broke with critical convention to review a preview of Hamlet, starring the hotter-than-hot Benedict Cumberbatch. The Times review trashed it.

One of Slipped Disc’s professional correspondents who was present last night offers this assessment.

cumberbatch hamlet

So the morning after, sensible first thoughts on last night’s Hamlet.

1) It was a first preview. As such it was pretty amazing.

2) There is some work to do on pacing and tightening up – especially the second act.

3) He’s very very good – but it’s not quite finished – there are flashes of real torture but not enough in my opinion (and that is what it is – just mine as a seasoned theatregoer).

4) There are two stand out scenes – the comedy of BC which is just brilliant and yet again makes me wish he’d do more comedy – he’s very good at it and Ciaran Hinds (who almost steals the show in my view) with Claudius’ soliloquy at the end of the first part. Both really fabulous performances and staging.

5) Es Devlin who has designed the sets and Jon Hopkins who has done the music get extra special mention – it looks and sounds incredible – again almost over-powering the actual acting.

6) I’m reminded yet again that I actually still think that Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s less coherent plays. It’s got some great soliloquys but the story isn’t that exciting to be honest…..and as for Ophelia it’s a bloody thankless role. Done as well as you can expect here.

7) And finally, the newspapers in this country really are scum. (No spoiler there!) I was waiting for my sister in law who came with me and there was some nasty desperate little toerag outside trying to get interviews with “Cumberbitches”. But it was noticeable that she was not approaching all the “normal” middle class theatregoer types – she was just approaching the younger women and the more obviously middle-aged goth-types. Oh and of course she was from the Daily Fail. Thankfully everyone sent her packing – some with a flea in her ear….. Really quite despicable – a bit like that other right-wing excuse for a rag The Times today doing a review of a very first preview. Tacky. Very tacky.

So overall, if you are going to see it it is absolutely worth it – any production with this good a cast and crew will be interesting whether you like it or not. I can’t wait to see it again in 3 weeks time to see what has developed.

cumberbatch hamlet


  • william osborne says:

    Interesting the degree to which spoken and music theater increasingly have to coattail on the film and television industries to be successful. Base your production on a popular movie. Or at the very least, use a famous film star. It now almost seems a standard practice on Broadway for musicals to derive from Hollywood productions: Silence of Lambs, Spamalot, Mary Poppins, Lion King, Shrek, Once, Wicked, etc. One might say Disney owns Broadway. Something similar is evolving in the opera world with works like Dead Man Walking, Cold Mountain, Silent Night, and The Fly. More and more, live music theater lives by gathering the crumbs from the table of the film and television industries. Hollow echos?

    • CDH says:

      Some of those shows — The Lion King and wicked notably — have achieved great success that looks like it will last as long as the genre. Film and television are the most popular media in the world today (and have been for a long time) and they are pretty much the only builders of “celebrities” any more. (How long since a ballet dancer had the sort of name recognition, and devotion, a Nureyev, had? Baryshnikov, maybe. And opera singers as mega-stars like Pavarotti became looks like dying out with his pal, and near-contemporary, Domingo. Others have followings, but they do not fill stadia).

      Maybe of one or two of the operas that derive from popular cinematic material are actually good enough, they will draw in enough first-timers that the appeal of the genre will be translated.

      Anyway, opera has always looked around for source material. Where would it be without Shakespeare and Walter Scott, to name but two? How many composers have been seduced by Greek mythology? Why not the cinema, if it provides good source material for a composer’s art? And why not embrace the marketplace when you can do it without vulgarity? Cold Mountain, after all, is based on a story by the highly-regarded American author Annie Proulx.

      • Derek Castle says:

        Ms Netrebko & Co. don’t do stadia to my knowledge, but they do pay off the mortgage with open air events in city squares, parks, etc. post Kaffee und Kuchen for the André Rieu set. The forthcoming and eagerly awaited bleeding chunks from Carmen will presumably, considering the vagaries of the Welsh climate, be performed by the world’s most popular mezzo indoors. Mr Birtwistle could try a ‘Paolo McCartney di Liverpool’ to get more bums on seats.

      • william osborne says:

        Interesting thoughts. It’s true that the movie-to-opera format sometimes works, and that coat tailing on the Hollywood publicity machine can be advantageous. If this becomes a necessity, however, music theater would lose its own inherent and unique identity which is different than film. (BTW, Cold Moutain is by Charles Frazier.)

        Music theater must break away from the ethos of industrial culture and big money. Traditional opera productions in major houses usually cost a about $750,000 to $1,000,000 a performance. European houses can do more performances of productions which reduce costs a bit, but not much.

        Smaller American companies have become expert at cutting corners, but the results are usually obvious, and not always consistent with what traditional opera was meant to be. We need new, high quality works consistent with modern economic realities, and based on modern theatrical theories of economy of form. Music theater could thus explore its own unique characteristics, speak more directly to the modern world, and not need to coat tail on Hollywood. Sadly, there is not a major house in the USA than even has an active studio theater. They are fairly common in Europe, but usually deeply under-funded.

    • Janis says:

      Meh … I get what you’re saying, but lots of operas have always been narrative retreads in the past. I’m in an “all Haendel all the time” phase right now, and I’m seeing stories from history, mythology, and libretti based on popular potboilers of the time. Lots of others have included fairytales or historical myth. Few operas that I can think of at the moment actually made up their stories and characters wholesale.

      Cinderella, the Tales of Hoffman, Caesar and Cleopatra, Rodelinda (my current binge-fave), Nero and Poppea, King Arthur, Pelleas and Melisande, the Flying Dutchman … most of them got their narratives from other sources where the opera company could assume a certain knowledge of the backstory in their audience.

      It’s just that today, the common source for most people’s culturally shared narratives are TV and movies. That’s replaced the Grimm Brothers as the stories we can all put on shows about without having to engage in extensive exposition on exactly who the main character is. It just makes it easier to get with the singing as soon as the curtain goes up when you can assume a certain level of familiarity in the audience with the main character’s backstory. Haendel/Haym could write their words and music while relying on the audience’s awareness that Caesar and Cleo were going to hook up in the end. Monteverdi did the same with a good dose of sarcasm with Poppea and Nero.

      • william osborne says:

        The issue is not that music theater draws its materials from other sources, but that we face a mass media that creates a totalizing cultural isomorphism that can be culturally destructive. The film industry occupies a vastly more pervasive position in society than myths, plays, and books never had. I notice this because I live in Europe part of the year where efforts are made to balance the domination of the commercial mass media through state broadcasters and public arts funding. The vast majority of Americans do not know that alternatives could be created to give society a richer and more diversified cultural spectrum. Consider, for example, that the USA only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year.

    • La Donna del Largo says:

      “Something similar is evolving in the opera world with works like Dead Man Walking, Cold Mountain, Silent Night, and The Fly.”

      As opposed to the golden days of 19th century Italian opera, when works were based on the latest potboiler melodramas from the Parisian boulevard theater?

  • Halldor says:

    Always good to have an opinion on the UK press from someone who doesn’t think Shakespeare was up to the job.

  • PDQ.BACH says:

    «… Ciaran Hinds (who almost steals the show in my view) …»

    The stage presence of Ciaran Hinds is so intense that having one’s mere existence acknowledged is a signal accomplishment for any other actor.

    So, good showing.

  • Stay Loose says:

    Of course, I always like to be reviewed when I am still rehearsing. NOT.

  • Una says:

    Yet all us opera singers get reviewed on the first night, not the twenty-first night. So I don’t know why there isn’t equal pegging on all theatre, and given far more can go wrong with opera and the forces behind it. But then some people are so anti-opera, even a whole pile of classical musicians I’ve known down the years – the bunch of Italians screaming syndrome!!!!