Tuesday, 6 October 2015


This post is a little out of order, as I saw 1984 on Friday night, before the Kids Lit stuff on Saturday, but it seems a little out of place among the cheery fun stuff!

This production is, like the original book, very far from being cheery or fun.

It incorporates the appendix to the original book, which is written as from a historian looking back at the events - in the play, this is used to frame the events of the story - the play starts with a group, perhaps students, or a book club, discussing Winston's diary.

We then see the events in Winston (Matthew Spencer)'s life - with on-going uncertainty about what was real, and what was not, or was simply memories (and if so, whose), with occasional 

It's deeply unsettling - the production makes a lot of use of cameras and lighting - cast members disappear off stage and appear on camera on the screen above the stage, the characters unconscious that they remain under observation, blackouts spare us the worst of the scenes of violence and torture (or perhaps give us the opportunity to imagine the worst), and it's never entirely certain what is fact, what fear, what memory.

There is no interval so there isn't any respite.

It must be an exhausting play to perform.It's not a cheerful evening out but it is terrifyingly well done. I think it is going on an international tour, next..

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Welcome to Night Vale

Saturday was a very good day - as well as seeing Chris Riddell and Michael Rosen, I got to see, and hear, Jason Webley, and a live Welcome to Night Vale show. 

Jason Webley
I admit, I'm not very familiar with Night Vale - I originally booked because I like Jason Webley, and it's been a long time since he has been in this country. But I'd heard good things about Night Vale, so I thought it would be fun. And it was.

Weird, faintly disturbing, but totally accessible and understanding to a newcomer.

I won't mention details, as we were asked not to make recordings or post spoilers, and while the UK tour has now finished, I don't know whether the same (or similar) versions for the live show are showing elsewhere, and in any case, there will be a podcast or recording made in due time.

I will say, however, that I particularly enjoyed the Sheriff's Secret Police and the Intern. 

And now, if you will excuse me, I have some podcasts to download..

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Pugs and Ukuleles and Doctor Who

Saturday means more Bath Kids Lit Festivals events.

The first today was to see Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve  who were in Bath as part of their #PugsRoadshow tour.

I admit that I am just a little bit older than the target audience for 'Pugs of the Frozen North' but it's a lot of fun.

I haven't yet read the book but I understand that it follows the adventures of friends on a race to the North Pole, in a dog-sled pulled by 66 pugs (in warm woolly jumpers) competing with various other characters (all with splendid names, such as Sir Basil Sprout-Dumpling, and his butler Sideplate)

The event included a musical interlude with added 'Yip's from the audience, the creation and playing of a game  and a quick lesson in how to draw a pug.

I also got a lot of fun from eavesdropping on some of the conversations which various small children were having with their parents... (particularly the small boy behind me, explaining excitedly how Sarah got her Yeti Hands!

And it was very nice to meet Philip again, and to meet Sarah in person after following her blog and having  the occasional exchange on twitter.

Pugs of the Frozen North is the 3rd book these two have created together, and they are all well worth checking out, particularly if you have children!

 Then I had to dash across Bath city centre to get to the 'Writing Doctor Who' panel.

As advertised, the panel was supposed to include A.L. Kennedy, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Mark Gatiss, but it turned out that Gatiss was unavilable, so James Goss (who has written both Doctor Who and Torchwood novels, including Summer Falls) took his place. A L Kennedy has also written a Doctor WHo novel (featuring the 4th Doctor) and Cottrell Boyce wrote the Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'

A.L. Kennedy talked about being a lifelong Doctor Who fan, and about a habit of wearing sensible flat shoes due to noticing at an early age that women wearing high heeled shoes tend to tip, or break their heels, and get killed by Daleks or other monsters..

Cottrell Boyce made the point that one of the effects of the show's longevity is that it is now written and produced and run by fans - it's basically its own fanfiction. He also said that when he was asked to write an episode, his immediate response (like everyone's, he says) was to ask whether his children could visit the TARDIS, and to accept when told they could - no questions about fees or deadlines or anything else..

There was a lot of love for Romana, and for City of  Death, and discussions about different Doctors. And of course, as soon as the panel noticed that someone had brought K9 along, the entire panel ground to a halt as K9 came up on stage...

Oh, and when you hear about a movement to have the Doctor Who theme music adapted as the new National Anthem - this is where it started..!

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Poems and Pictures

My next Bath Kids Lit Festival event took place on Saturday afternoon, and featured Children's Laureate Chris Riddell, and Michael Rosen (who have recently collaborated on a book of poems for very young children).

I admit that I mostly booked it because I like Chris Riddell's work, and I could not make it to his solo 'Goth Girl' event, and I did feel a little bit conspicuous because I was not accompanied by a child, but despite that it was fun.

Chris was live-drawing to the poems as Michael read them. The Poems are mostly very simple rhymes, playing with words and actions, and eminently suitable for small children and Michael was encouraging the audience to join in, (which they did - with great enthusiasm) but adding his own little touches.

The pictures were projected onto a big screen on the stage behind Mr Rosen, who could not, therefore, see exactly how Chris was representing his poems..!

Michael Rosen:26.09.2015
 For instance, a poem about (among other things) dancing fruit, resulted first in a picture of orris dancing mangoes, followed by  sneaky picture of a Morris Dancing Micheal Rosen...!
It was a lot of fun, and quite a few lucky people from the signing line went home with original Chris Riddell drawings!

(I went home with a signature in my copy of 'The Sleeper and the Spindle' and a signed copy of the latest 'Goth Girl' book, so I was happy!)

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Judith Kerr and Other Heroes

A highlight of last week was the encore broadcast performance of Coriolanus - the Donmar Warehouse production, featuring Tom Hiddleston, Mark Gatiss and Hadley Fraser. I was fortunate enough to see the production live, back in January 2014, and I really enjoyed being able to see it again, and to realise once more what stunning actors Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss are.

Then on Friday, came the start of the Bath Children's Literature Festival, now in its 9th year. The first event, and the first I booked when the brochure came out, was with Judith Kerr.

Her 'Mog' books are some of the earliest books I remember reading, as a child, and then when I was older, her book 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' was an early introduction to the history of Nazi Germany, and experience of Jewish refugees, and I then read the other 2 books in the trilogy when I was rather older.

This is the third time that Kerr has been booked to appear at the Festival, but on each of the previous occasions she had to cancel due to poor health.

So, I was particularly keen to see her this time, and really pleased that was able to make it (she turned 92 this summer, so its hardly surprising that she's not always able to make it to events!)

She was interviewed by Julia Eccleshare (former Children's Book Editor of the Guardian), and it was an interesting evening. She was officially publicising her most recent book,  'Mister Cleghorn's Seal'  which is a short novel for older children, abut a man who adopts a seal. She explained that had wanted to do a book with lots of pencil drawings, and to suit the age where children can read. in her words "they are too old for picture books but a 250 novel is a bit daunting - the gap between Dr Seuss and Sherlock Holmes". 

Judith Kerr : 25.09.2015
She went on to explain that the book was inspired by an incident in her father's life - he ended up with a baby seal after it's mother was killed in a cull, and he decided to take it home rather than allow it to be killed. She described how he took it by train from Normandy to Berlin, attempting to feed it on a mixture of milk and cod liver oil, before arriving in Berlin and taking a taxi to a restaurant, as he had run out of his milk mixture! 

In real life, things didn't end well for the seal,I think the fictional one probably does better!

Kerr's love and admiration for her father and his skills as a story teller came through loud and clear. Moving on, she spoke about Mog - who was a real cat, the first that she had, when she and her husband first had a home with a garden, and gave us a number of anecdotes about various cats, including the current one who has trained Kerr to open the door for her (after looking out through the cat flap)!

Which led on to The Tiger Who Came to Tea . Julia Eccleshare raised the fact that Michael Rosen has suggested that the Tiger represents Kerr's memory of, and fear of the Nazis - Kerr immediately responded that she loves Rosen and is happy for him to say anything he likes, but that the Tiger was a story for her daughter incorporating all of her daughter's favourite things, and was made up when her husband was, unusually working away from home so she and her children were lonely and wanted someone, anyone, to visit. She also explained that she was able to then make the story into a book once both of the children were in school and she had time.

Kerr than answered questions from the audience. She explained that she considered herself to be an illustrator first, and writer second, and that she felt she had learned a lot about writing from her husband (Scriptwriter Nigel Kneale) and her son (novelist Matthew Kneale). She also explained that she thinks in English, and that while she does speak French and German can only write (books) in English. She wrote When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit because she wanted to tell her children about her own childhood, and that she was surprised when it was published, in part because it did not conform with what might be expected; that normally in children's books (at least at that time) parents were remote but could do anything, but her own parents were not like that, and that despite everything, she had a happy childhood. She also spoke at some length about her experience of being a refugee, her feeling of gratitude to Britain for letting her family in and saving their lives, and commenting that even during the London Blitz, with people dying every night, no one was cruel or offensive to her parents (who both had strong, and obvious German accents). She was asked about the current refugee crisis and simply said that she did not think that the scenarios were the same, as the sheer numbers of people now involved are so much greater, and she doesn't see there being an easy or obvious answer.

Finally, she was asked by a young girl whether there really was a Pink Rabbit, and whether it was left behind. And she confirmed that yes, there was, and it was left behind. But, she added, "I've got over it".

Over all, she came across as a wonderful, witty and optimistic person - I would have loved to have had the opportunity to say hello but (understandably) she did not do a signing, but I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to hear her speak. It was a fun evening.

Monday, 28 September 2015

What I Did on My Holidays

I have had some time off, and while I didn't go away on holiday, per se, I did go down to Devon and spent several days at my parents' house.

On one day, when it stopped raining, I went down to Woolacombe and to Barracane Bay.

The sea was flat as a pancake (which didn't stop some hopeful surfers from going in!) and from time to time the sun came out, briefly.

I was able to go for a short walk and enjoyed a picnic sitting on the cliff overlooking the bay. It was a very pleasant, restful day.

My parents came home on Monday, and as it was a grey and drizzly day I wasn't tempted out, so instead I stayed home, and baked, and made dinner, and read.

It was good to catch up with my parents, and we decided, a day or two later, to go to Exmoor Zoo,which is just down the road, and which they'd never visited!

It is small, for a zoo, but seems well kept, and the animals seem content. They have 3 cheetahs, who were fed during our visit.

They also have some penguins, and pelicans (and ducks and seagulls, but I think those are simply opportunistic and not part of the zoo's own complement!

And otters. I do love the otters.

There were also some very dramatic Scarlet Ibises, and a rather bedraggled peacock (I think he had been moulting. His head was beautiful, but he had no tail to speak of. 

There was also a peahen (well, there were several) but one with a single chick; we met them several times as we were walking around, they are not confined at all.

We had an an enjoyable day wandering around, and with it being a greyish weekday there were not too many other people around.

And as well as the days out, I also spent a lot of time pottering around my parents home, reading some of their books, watching their TV and picking runner beans in their garden.

It was a pleasant, low-key way to spend an extended weekend!

Monday, 21 September 2015

East isEast

I've somehow missed seeing the film, East is Eastbut I had heard good things about it, and also about the live stage version, which was previously on at Trafalgar Studios in London, which seems to produce consistently good theatre.

So when I saw it was coming to Bath, of course I booked a ticket. And was glad I had.

The play follows the Khan family, George Khan (Simon Nagra), a Pakistani Muslim, his White British Wife Ella (Pauline McLynn) and 6 of their 7 children, living in Salford in the 1970s, and dealing with issues of family and identity, and the strains both impose.

George, despite having lived in the UK for over 30 years, and married an Englishwoman, wants a traditionally dutiful and obedient wife and children, including expecting his children to accept his choices for them for marriage.

It's  frequently very funny,  often disturbing (quite apart from the off-stage exile of his eldest son for refusing an arranged marriage, there is also domestic violence, for instance), and very well-written.

The cast is extremely strong - particularly Adam Karim, as Sajit, who spends most of the play wearing a parka so has to perform from inside a hood, without out being able to see his face.

It was also nice to see a much more diverse audience than usual at the theatre! 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Time Off

I've got some time off work, but I'm not going away,partly as I'm not organised enough, partly because I'm too tired and just want to unwind, and partly because I spent all my money on having work done to my house.

However,I do have various fun things lined up for my holiday, and I'm also aiming to get things done round the house - for instance, buying and putting up curtain rails (and curtains), and unpacking more of the books.

On Monday I got to spend the day with one of my oldest, closest friends. We agreed to meet up in Cardiff, which both of us could readily get to by train, and I was looking forward to a relaxing day pootling round the city centre, perhaps visiting the pier and looking at nice views of the sea.

It didn't work out quite that way.

To start with, it was a very, very, wet morning, and the traffic was absolutely horrendous, which meant that despite having left myself about twice a much extra time as I thought I would need to get to the station, I missed the train. (I worked out, during the unexpected spare time I had while waiting for the next train, that I had averaged 11 m.p.h on my drive in...)

Sadly there's only one train an hour, so I arrived an hour later than planned, and it turned out that it was wet and windy in Cardiff, too.

However, we walked from the station to the Wales Millennium Centre, which is an absolutely beautiful building, not just the stunning front, but the rest of the exterior, which features lots of (presumably Welsh!) slate

No sign of Captain Jack Harkness or Torchwood, sadly. Clearly that perception filter is still working! 

We had lunch at the Millennium centre, (very nice tapas for J and I, and wearable broccoli and yogurt for A (J's little boy, who is 6 months old. He is approaching solid food with enthusiasm. Fortunately J had brought him a change of clothes!)

We then went back into the city centre, where we found a rather nice clock, complete with 3 (presumably blind?) mice..
And we got rained on some more, and then had coffee and cakes, and there was a lot of chatting, and lot of baby-appreciation, and generally, despite the late start and the nasty weather, a good time was had.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Another weekend

On Friday, I had the unusual experience of having to go to a Beer Festival for work. Which was interesting, and quite entertaining. We had sponsored one of the barrels, so naturally we had to go along to say hello, and to make sure that they were treating our beer well. 
They were, although (whisper it) I found two other beers which I liked better than the one we sponsored. Clearly I shall have to consider more carefully next year when the time comes to pick one to sponsor (assuming, of course,that we do it again) 

And it was nice to relax and unwind a little with a colleague. Especially as he agreed to be the designated driver!

Then on Saturday night,  after a grey and drizzly day, during which I managed to do a little bit of housework, and cut the grass because it really, really needed it, despite being a bit too damp for proper lawn-mowing, and failed to go shopping for curtain rails because I couldn't face the thought of B&Q, I headed into Bath, to the Theatre Royal, to see 'Mrs Henderson Presents', a brand new musical version of the film, based on the true story of the Windmill Theatre.

It was fun - it could have used a larger cast, so they could make the big ensemble numbers bigger, with more chorus girls, and I was, I admit, disappointed to see that, unlike in the film, the gentlemen of the cast were only seen from the rear during the 'everyone gets naked' scene.

There's a strong cast, minimal plot, catchy songs, and lots of naked women.

Tracie Bennett plays Mrs Henderson, and is appropriately tart and posh. 

Emma Williams   appeared as Maureen, tea-lady turned performer.

I particularly enjoyed Graham Hoadly's Lord Chancellor, perfectly stuffy, and with more than a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. (and, of course, the freemasons...)

This show premiered in Bath, but I think is going to be seen in London later this year. Its a lot of fun. A very good evening out. And it was clear thatthe entire audie ce was enjoying itself!

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A Trip to Dismaland

I don't live all that far from Weston-Super-Mare, although I very rarely visit, but when I saw that Banksy (and others) had created a pop-up amusement park there, I thought it was worth a visit.

Tickets are not easy to get.. either you go to Weston and queue for hours, and maybe you get in and maybe you don't, or you try to catch the website in one of the brief moments when tickets are on sale and available, and pre-book. 

Which was what I managed to do. So on Sunday, I set off on my way to Weston. 

It started to rain as I left the house, which seemed appropriate, and as I got closer to Weston I found myself feeling more nervous, which I rather think is due to the fact the only reason I ever used to go to Weston was for driving lessons, and to take my test (we had to go to Weston as we didn't have any roundabouts or dual carriage ways nearer home). 

However, on this occasion, no-one made me do an emergency stop, or a three point turn, although I did have to do some reverse parking on a bit of wasteland which had been co-opted by the council as a spare car park.

It was still pretty grey and grim when I arrived in Weston, (to be fair, it's pretty grim even in glorious sunshine. . it is a town which would like to grow up to be Blackpool, but can't quite make it.. It is a perfect venue for a subversive theme park.

It starts with a queue (even if you have pre-booked), but I had brought a book for that. Then once you get through the queue there is an airport-style security checkpoint, with meticulously hand-crafted cardboard surveillance cameras and x-ray machines, and convincingly grumpy 'police' who randomly take people aside to search, and to question for offences such as smiling or looking cheerful (while telling other attendees to 'move on, nothing to see')  Accompanied by nervous laughter from those selected. . .

Once inside, things get even more interesting.

Stallion : Ben Long
There is a magical castle (a little battered, of course) and some amazing, gigantic sculptures, including the Stallion made entirely from scaffolding, which I loved, and a pair of articulated tanker lorries which were either dancing or mating...
Big Rig Jig : Mike Ross
There are sideshows - where you can try to win an anvil at an anvil-shy (like a coconut-shy, but with anvils..) or try to catch plastic duckies (dead ones, from a pool with an oil-soaked pelican in the centre, of course) 
There is a ferris wheel, and one can play mini-gulf  (like mini-golf, but with added oil-based war)

There is also a merry-go-round, which is almost normal, (and available for the children to ride on)  until you look closely, and realise that there is already one passenger on the roundabout...

And then there is extra art. There is a pickled unicorn, by Damien Hirst, some of the most disturbing crockery you are ever likely to see, by Ronit Baranga, not to mention some trophy heads which are a worrying mash-up of wedding cake, false teeth and great, curving horns..

In a another gallery there is more art, including an embroidered car, a mushroom-cloud of a tree house (or perhaps a tree-house of a mushroom cloud), by Deitrich Wegner, and a perfect, macabre fairground horse.

It is here, too, that one of Banky's own pieces (Mickey Mouse engulfed by a snake) is to be found,  along with lots of other art, some amusing, some disturbing, almost all thought-provoking. (I enjoyed Kate Macdowell's box of mice (each with it's own human ear), and Jessica Harrison's china tattooed ladies.

Did I mention Death?  He is there, too, spinning around on the dodgems, to a raucous rendition of 'Staying Alive'.

There is a lot more, too. It's all weirdly fascinating, often depressing, in places thought-provoking and in others surprisingly funny. 

And the determinedly grim and grumpy staff are a constant reminder of how any sane person would be, if working in an amusement park and not contractually required to smile...!

I had reservations about going, and I nearly decides against it when I saw the queue, but I am glad I persevered.

 (more photos on Flickr if you are interested)

Oh, and then after leaving Dismaland, by way of contrast I visited the Sand Sculpture festival, which was not seeking to be subversive or controversial at all. It was weird.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Greeks and Drama

I forgot to blog about it at the time, but on 14th August, the Almeida Theatre, with the British Museum, arranged a reading of the whole of Homer's Iliad, by a relay of over 60 actors and readers. ('Iliad Live'). I t started at 9 a.m. at the British Museum, and at 8 p.m. moved to the Almeida Theatre, and the whole thing was livestreamed
Iliad Live scripts
It was, in every sense of the word, Epic. 

I did not get to watch or listen to it all as I was working, but I dipped in and out all day, and was *very* impressed. Of course, the Iliad was written to be be performed, not read in a book, and works well even if you cannot see the whole thing. (Also, whoever was running the @IliadLive twitter account is a star in their own right and deserves greater recognition!) For instance:

GHOST ALERT: Now speaking is the ghost of Patroclus. He's asking to be buried. Which is fair enough after quite a long time dead.

So, having seen this, I was looking  forward very much to seeing the Almeida Theatre's production of Bakkhai (The Bacchae), a new translation of Euripides' classic. (which I booked months ago). The play premiered in 450 BC, so I shall not worry too much about spoilers...

I had a bit of a trek to get there, due to rail strikes and engineering work. However, I made it, and in time to meet up with a friend for lunch and a catch up, which was lovely.
In some respects, the production is quite traditional - there are three actors, plus a chorus(although the chorus are all women, which no doubt Euripides and the Ancient Greeks would not have approved of). 
There is minimal set and very few props - just a few fawn-skins, some wreaths, thyrsuses, and the occasional severed head.

The three actors were Ben Whishaw, Kevin Harvey and Bertie Carvel, all of whom play more than one role.

Ben Whishaw is Dionysus - he starts by addressing the audience directly "How do I look? Convincingly Human?"  Which at that point, he does, in a T-shirt and low-cut jeans, outlining for us his genealogy. (Son of Zeus, born by a lightning bolt, in case you were wondering)

As things unfold, and we learn that Dionysus is angry at those who fail to accept or acknowledge his godhood. And you really wouldn't like him when he is not happy. Although when he is happy, he could be a lot of fun to be around.
(Photo (C) Mark Brenner) 

King Pentheus (Carvel) ignores the advice of his father in law Kadmos (Harvey) and Kadmos's friend  Teiresias (Whishaw again) to join in Dionysus's rites.

This turns out to be a poor decision. Pentheus is determined to stamp out the irresponsible and unruly Bakkhai and their worship of Dionysus, putting those he catches into prison, and determined to crack down on them.

Dionysus poses one of his own worshippers in order to approach Pentheus, and to lead him on, to attempt to spy upon the wild women in the rituals. 

Dionysus is now no longer in his casual  modern dress but wears a long flowing fawnskin dress and is both sensuous and androgynous, flirting with both the audience, and with Pentheus - but also illustrating, all too clearly, that the Greek pantheon was, on the whole, much better at wrath and vengeance than at mercy. .  

Whishaw makes a very impressive god, very clearly not quite human...

As might be expected for one who has the hubris to challenge a god,Pentheus ends up humiliated and dead, having been tricked into dressing as a woman in order to spy upon the bakkhai in their rites (which, for a straight-laced, misogynistic politician he enjoyed way too much) , and then torn limb from limb by, among others, his own mother (also played by Carvel) 

There are lots of tensions and conflicts- between belief and non-belief, masculinity and femininity, wildness and civilization (or at least urbanity)

And through it all the chorus provides a, well, chorus, of exposition and emphasis, with songs an chants, all perfectly times and almost a concert in it's own right. They were superb.

In fact, the entire play was superb. I don't know whether I have any chance of seeing the other plays in the season, Medea and Orestia, but having seen this, I would like to see the others. And I definitely want to see more of Ben Whishaw's work - I've seen him live once before, in Peter and Alice (with Judi Dench), and on screen as Richard II in 'The Hollow Crown' (and of course as Q in the more recent Bond films) but this gave him the opportunity to demonstrate he has a much greater range. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Hamlet : A Good Play

Over a year ago, I read that Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock, Frankenstein and Smaug fame, was to play Hamlet, live, at the Barbican Theatre in London this year. And I have a group of friends who, like me, like going to the theater- we've previously seen David Tennant in Hamlet, and more recently, in Richard II, and agreed that seeing Mr Cumberbatch's Hamlet would be a good thing to do.

So, with some difficulty, I managed to buy the maximum 6 tickets permitted, (it later turned out that the show was the fastest seller in, well, pretty much ever. I was lucky that there were only a couple of hundred people ahead of me in the queue when I booked - later that day there were lover 10,000)

And a year went by, and on 15th August I reached the point where I was sitting in the stalls, in the Barbican theatre, waiting for the Prince of Denmark.. As the man says 'the readiness is all'

So, was it worth the wait? 

I think so. 

It should be mentioned that we saw the play on 15th August, which was (although not made clear when we booked, or on our tickets) a preview, 10 days into the run.

The play opens, not with the usual scene of Bernardo and Marcellus on the ramparts of Elsinore, but instead with Hamlet, alone on stage, looking though tea-chests (apparently paced with childhood items) while Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” plays on an old gramophone player. (The music familiar to many of us as the music from the film 'Moulin Rouge'), establishing him as, at the very least, a little melancholic.

We then moved to a the wedding breakfast, with vast displays of white flowers and of hunting trophies, as Claudius deals with the ambassadors to Norway, Laertes' wish to return to college, an Hamlet's own moodiness.
Hamlet: Scene 2 (official pic by Johan Persson)
Shortly after this picture was taken, Hamlet starts walking on the table and giving the  'O, that this too, too solid flesh..' soliloquy  (with the rest of the cast moved in slow-motion, which I thought was an effective way of allowing the soliloquies to be given, and to be clearly internal,  despite the number of other people on stage.)

Claudius - a trustworthy King
(photo credit as before)
Very effective. 

Obviously Cumberbatch is the headliner in the production, but the cast as a whole is very strong:  

Ciaran Hinds' Claudius doesn't really let the menacing, dangerous side of the character out in the earlier scenes of the play, but as the play progresses and he begins to fear Hamlet, and his own conscience, he becomes more obviously threatening.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was a hugely powerful and commanding Laertes. Given that he has a relatively small amount of time on stage, he packed one hell of a punch.

I don't think I have seen Holdbrook-Smith before but will definitely be looking out for him in future!

Other characters were also, generally, pretty strong - Anastasia Hille as Gertrude made a great foil for Hamlet's flamboyance, and her reaction to Ophelia's madness and death was beautifully done.

Gertrude and Hamlet
I was a little less impressed with Ophelia (Sian Brooke) and with Horatio (Leo Bill) as characters, although I think n both cases this was a fault in the production not in the actors. In neither case did their relationships with Hamlet quite 'jell', for me. Ophelia's madness was beautifully done in its subtle contrast with Hamlet's own feigned madness, but she was less convincing as a object of his love, or even as a 'safe' friend for the emotionally immature Hamlet of this production.

Horatio seemed affectionate but a little distant until the very end of the play, and as a result his anguish at Hamlet's death seemed less consistent with his earlier relationship than it sometimes does. I would love to see the production again, and see whether this changes as Cumberbatch and Bill settle into working together. We did, after all, see a production only 11 performances into the run. I'm planning to see the NTLive broadcast on 15th October, and will be curious to see how the production changes.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstein got what was coming to them.

What of the man himself? 

I was *very* impressed.Cumberbatch's Hamlet has moments of pure, 'Sherlock' style intellect, (Hamlet's reaction to the Ghost' command to the soldiers to 'swear' is perfect!) lots of physical work, and much more humour than you normally see in Hamlet.

This Cumberbatch chap is pretty got with the acting. I think he will go far. Who knows, perhaps he will even make it to Hollywood one day!

And the show is worth seeing for the toy fort part alone.

Which brings me on to the set. 

Which is huge. The Barbican stage is BIG, and this set takes full advantage of that. And there is a lot going on. The set is the Palace, huge, and formal (and gradually cracking and  deteriorating over the course of the play, mirroring the destruction of the lives of those on stage, and that part really works. There is a sweeping staircase, and a balcony to one side of the stage, which works well for all the plotting.

I was less enamoured of the set dressing - lots of white garlands for the wedding breakfast, and lots of flowers, bizarrely arranged in brass instruments , for the play-within-a-play, as well  as an entire mini-theatre, and a war room. Again, it may be that the scene changes will get a little slicker over time, but I did find some of them a little distracting. I will admit, however, that full size toy fort in which Hamlet plays, establishing his madness, was a lot of fun! 

Over all, it's a very good production, with a very strong ensemble cast, some interesting cuts and changes in the text, and just a few too many props! I was happy to see that although some well known lines were cut (Polonius, I'm looking at you) and others appeared in unexpected places, Fortinbras made the cut. There were probably even some sledded Polacks in the wings, if one only knew where to look.

Laertes and Hamlet. Not going to end well.
Oh, and Benedict knocked over a case of swords during the curtain call, proving he is human, and then very tidily picked them up off the floor before taking his bow! 

I am very glad that I got to see it, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again at the cinema. And even if you can't see the show lie, do go to the broadcast if you get a chance.  I give it 4.5 / 5 stars. (half off for the flowers-inna-tuba)

Edited to add - the NT Live trailer is now available on youtube