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Benedict Cumberbatch's 'Hamlet' is good and righteous; lifts London broadcast

Benedict Cumberbatch's 'Hamlet' is good and righteous; lifts London broadcast
The self-dissecting words falling from Benedict Cumberbatch's lips transcended the cult of his celebrity. (Johan Persson)

There has been such a frenzy of ticket-buying desperation and media-manufactured hype and controversy over the London production of "Hamlet" at the Barbican starring Benedict Cumberbatch that it was a relief to hear the soothingly familiar language of Shakespeare's tragedy as I settled into my seat at the cinema for the NT Live broadcast.

This melancholy Dane may have been dressed as though he had a personal shopper at Barneys, but the self-dissecting words falling from his lips transcended the cult of Cumberbatch's celebrity. The play is still, blessedly, the thing.

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Cumberbatch's Hamlet struck me as modern traditionalist. His well-balanced portrayal combines classical clarity with an emotional openness that draws us deeper into the character's inner stalemate.

The production, which will have encore screenings throughout the area (visit www.ntlive.com for details), tries to be adventurous with old-fashioned auteur touches that don't — on the big screen, anyway — translate into a developing vision.

Lyndsey Turner's staging traps the characters inside an eerily posh Elsinore castle. This Denmark is so politically rotten that the palace is eventually reduced to rubble. To exact his revenge before those flights of angels sing him to his rest, Cumberbatch's Hamlet must pick his way through this superficial apocalypse.

It's a credit to his agility as a performer that he can execute all the empty gestures of Turner's production — donning a silly drum-major uniform, taking cover inside a toy fort, delivering soliloquies while standing on a giant banquet table — without ever losing the interior thread of a scene.

Tall, lean, athletic and weirdly handsome, Cumberbatch cuts a dashing figure as he flies gamely across the stage. Clearly he didn't want to star in a tame museum reconstruction of the play, though Turner's liberties are hardly groundbreaking.

The text is edited in ways that I found occasionally vexing, but the production ditched the silly idea of starting the show with Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech and the rearrangements that remain are neither especially disruptive nor purposeful.

The cast fails to coalesce into an ensemble, though Jim Norton's busybody Polonius, always digging into his notebook of tired precepts, and Ciarán Hinds' suavely Machiavellian Claudius bring an unforced freshness to their roles. The same cannot be said of Sian Brooke's Ophelia, who mopes about looking like the recently axed frontwoman of a cover band, and Leo Bill's Horatio, who wouldn't register at all were it not for his tattoos.

Cumberbatch holds the center with his sympathetic responsiveness to Hamlet's plight. His grief at his father's death is intermixed with disgust at his mother's overhasty marriage. When he explains the situation to Horatio, he wants to convince his friend of the lucidity of his emotional logic.

This Hamlet is fundamentally good and righteous. When he tells Ophelia to get to a nunnery, there's not a hint of salacious innuendo.

In the bedroom scene with his mother after he's caught the conscience of the king with his theatrical trap, Cumberbatch's Hamlet doesn't betray any Freudian complications. Anastasia Hille's Gertrude might be perfectly at home in a lusty Ingmar Bergman deconstruction, but her fastidious son is too busy coping with shattered ideals to notice.

If this characterization sounds dull, it isn't in the least. Cumberbatch's intelligence and empathy illuminate Hamlet's moral dilemma. To redress his father's murder he must become a murderer himself — no easy task for an intellectual accustomed to debating every side of an argument. The tragedy here is of a ruined mind, too noble and smart for the swamp of politics yet unable to shirk the responsibility that fortune has mercilessly assigned.

Cumberbatch's Hamlet's descends into chaos only to restore order. This may not be the most deeply probing of appraisals, and it certainly isn't radical or revisionary. But it elegantly builds a solidarity between the character and the audience. The sorrow at the end is mixed with relief. This wise and sensitive Hamlet could never have survived the guilt over such bloody, necessary deeds.

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