LONDON — To rewrite, or not to rewrite: That is the question.
A controversial twist in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Hamlet has been abandoned after it was savaged during the previews. William Shakespeare’s original tragedy may be 400 years old, but there has been a last-minute rewrite of this mega-budget West End version after a withering two-star verdict in The Times.
Director Lyndsey Turner had overhauled the Shakespearean masterpiece to open with the play’s iconic “To be or not to be” soliloquy. While some theater insiders praised the freshness of the radical approach, Times critic Kate Maltby described it as “indefensible...theatrical self-indulgence.”
Her scathing review, published on the first night of previews, provoked a bitter backlash within the theater world, which was aghast that she had broken the convention of waiting for the official first night before writing a review.
Maltby defended her premature rejection of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet by citing the director’s major structural changes, which she felt limited the range available to the Sherlock star and infantilized the production. The overall structure, she argued, was unlikely to be altered during three weeks of previews. She was wrong.
With opening night still a week away, the producers have already abandoned their most innovative intervention. Turner’s unconventional opening scene has been cut and the crucial speech returned to its rightful home, as Hamlet plunges into the depths of despair in Act III.
It’s unclear who ordered a return to the structure conceived by Shakespeare, but Cumberbatch admitted last week that he was finding it difficult to open with such an emotional scene. “It’s not the easiest place to begin a play, full stop,” he said to fans outside the Barbican theater.
The Shakespearean structure allows the actor to fully explore Hamlet’s descent into madness. He begins the play about as casually as possible given the celebrated speeches he must deliver, then, as the first half unfolds, Cumberbatch’s conservative dress and demeanor are replaced by the eccentric costume of a toy soldier, twirling batons, and a thrilling emotional crescendo.
Long before the ill-fated first night of previews, his turn as Hamlet was being hailed as the hottest ticket in a decade on the London stage. The entire run was sold out at the Barbican box office minutes after going on sale.
Cumberbitches have been queuing overnight or paying vastly inflated sums on the black market for the chance to see one of the best actors of his generation play arguably the greatest role ever written for the stage.
With previews still running, it is too soon for the definitive verdict, but Monday night’s standing ovation will surely not be the last. Given a vast stage and glorious, epic set to master, this Hamlet-in-a-hoody is beguiling, athletic, and edgy.
A strictly enforced no-camera policy, emphasized by Cumberbatch pleading with fans himself, may suggest an actor feeling the pressure, but his playfulness on stage was a joy, from pretending to walk down a flight of stairs behind a wall to imitating a record pulled into reverse when delivering one of the play’s classic lines: “For yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if—like a crab—you could go backward.”
The high-energy performance is matched by electric direction, a pulsating soundtrack, and stunning stage design by Es Devlin, whose grand visual style was honed during stadium tours for the likes of Kanye West, U2, and Lady Gaga.
It may be wise to back away from such a big gamble in the opening scene, but it would be a terrible shame if any of the show’s bombastic energy were lost to conformity. A rallying cry to the groundbreaking director, Lyndsey Turner: “To thine own self be true.”