Review: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet the ‘very best’ |

Review: Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet the ‘very best’

Benedict Cumberbatch shows immense star power in Hamlet, which has two more runs locally at Sierra Cinemas.
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Know & Go:

WHO: Sierra Cinemas Presents

WHAT: National Theatre Live: Hamlet

WHEN: today at 10 a.m.; Thursday, at 7:15 p.m.

WHERE: Sierra Cinemas, E. Main Street, Grass Valley

TICKETS: $18 Adults, $15 Seniors, Children 12 and under & students with ID; Available online at or at the Sierra Cinemas Box Office

INFO:, 530-477-9000

It has been said that at any given moment, somewhere, someone is performing Hamlet.

The most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s plays, more than Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream: playing the lead has become a rite of passage for “serious” actors. John Barrymore, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier (whose 1948 adaptation was the first Shakespeare-inspired film to win the Best Picture Oscar), Kenneth Branagh (overwrought), Ethan Hawke (surprisingly OK), even Sarah Bernhardt (!): the list could go on and on.

And now, the actor hotter than a Habanero, who appears to be just about everywhere, takes his turn.

A smash hit, the fastest selling ticket in British theater history, the sell out crowds testify to Benedict Cumberbatch’s immense star power.

They have turned out for him, not for the moody protagonist.

This protagonist, “The Melancholy Dane,” has plenty of reasons to be upset. He broods, he sulks, he acts out.

His father, old Hamlet, whom he idolized, has recently died, and his mother has hastily remarried, “within a month,” to the dead man’s brother, a man young Hamlet loathes.

This all happens prior to the curtain.

In the Elizabethan world of 1600, such a marriage would have been illegal, would have been considered incest.

Thus, Shakespeare’s audience would be shocked at their marriage, and also appalled that of those on stage, only Hamlet is dressed in mourning.

Although Gertrude’s new husband Claudius, now King of Denmark, appears at first to be a capable, strong ruler, to Shakespeare’s audience, he is immediately vile, sinful.

The England of 1600 was grim, tense, a veritable police state, with a broad network of government spies and informants.

It’s Catholic versus Protestant with an aged Queen who will leave no heir.

Shakespeare opens the play in the dark, on the battlements, in a country preparing for war.

An armed guard demands, “Who’s there?”

Good question; it’s a world off-balance, where moral stain upsets the natural order of things, a predominant Shakespearean theme.

In this version, directed by Lyndsey Turner, these lines are given to Hamlet, spoken to no one in particular.

The entire first scene, the first visitation of the Ghost, is cut.

There are many cuts and transpositions of scenes. Lines are taken from one character and given to another. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Cumberbatch, as expected, astounds.

He explodes with energy. Articulate and authentic, he amazes.

So too does Ciarán Hinds as Claudius.

Such a powerful presence, such authority and devilish charisma: one can see how Queen Gertrude was seduced by him.

The Ophelia of Siãn Brooke evokes sympathy. Everything she does moves us; why then are her lines slashed heavily, even inserting Hamlet’s as well as non-Shakespearean lines? Regrettable.

Still, this is one to see for the galvanizing performances of the leads.

For further reference, if you get a chance to see the 2010 NT Live Hamlet with Rory Kinnear, do so. And there’s the RSC David Tennant/Patrick Stewart version.

Any great play supports multiple, differing interpretations that remain true to their source.

Cumberbatch’s extraordinary take on the doomed prince ranks as one of the very best. I’ll be going again.

John Deaderick is a local theatre artist and the author of Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis, available at

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