Barbican Theatre, London

Carole Woddis

*** (three stars)

After all the hullabaloo, is it possible for a performer to live up to the hype? Has the Bard fallen prey to rank commercialism?

Well, Shakespeare was nothing if not a shrewd businessman. And this Sonia Friedman-Sky Arts Hamlet, `starring’ Benedict Cumberbatch, with its £10 daily ticket scheme and devoted Sherlock fan base must have repaid its investment in publicity ten times over.

But what of the production? Lyndsey Turner whose previous hits have included the multi-award winning Chimerica and Posh has delivered a spectacular, almost cinematic visual feast, somewhere between a Hapsburg Empire in melt-down and WW1 meets Beckettian desolation. Modern and yet Ruritanian – a bit like our own dear monarchy. Es Devlin’s grandiose opener of vast dining hall dominated by family portraits and sweeping staircase makes clear this is a play about private feelings played out, uncomfortably, in very public spaces. By the end, the outer external world has literally invaded the inner, court corruption made manifest by mounds of earth piled up at every entrance. Visually stunning if slightly mad.

But then madness, feigned or otherwise, is at the heart of Hamlet, the great philosophical meditation on indecision, self-doubt and our mortality. Cumberbatch makes a dashing toy soldier, Nat King Cole loving rebel who even administers the poison himself in the Gonzago play-acting scene.

But in truth, his is not an interpretation that goes very deep. There is little evidence of internal journeying from agonised soul-searching to ultimate resolution. Charismatic, be-jeaned, Cumberbatch is just too deft, too sharp. Around him, a heavy-weight cast try but fail to make any discernible impression. A compendium of talents, gone to waste.

Needless to say, he was cheered to the rafters. Job done.