It's a "Hamlet" with Hollywood-level hype and an A-list star in Benedict Cumberbatch. But London's latest stage sensation is more than a Shakespearean star vehicle.
The play's the thing, and this sold-out production has a visual wow factor as big as its lead actor. It's mounted at the Barbican Theatre on a vast set of crumbling opulence by Es Devlin, who has designed stadium shows for the likes of U2, Kanye West and Lady Gaga.
"When the curtain went up on the set, I slightly gasped," said Cumberbatch's "Sherlock" co-star Mark Gatiss after Tuesday's opening night, attended by Cumberbatch's wife Sophie Hunter, "Sherlock'''s Martin Freeman and "Downton Abbey" stars Dan Stevens and Allen Leech.
"I thought it was magnificent," Gatiss said.
The response from critics Wednesday was more mixed, with many finding the subtle lead performance at odds with director Lindsey Turner's bravura staging. The production has a cinematic scope, using freeze-frame moments and stylized movement to underscore the drama — or, some felt, undermine it.
The Daily Telegraph's Dominic Cavendish judged Cumberbatch "a blazing, five-star Hamlet trapped in a three-star show." The Guardian's Michael Billington said the actor was "a good, personable Hamlet" but panned a "dismal" production "full of half-baked ideas."
Kate Maltby in The Times said Cumberbatch was a "thrillingly charismatic" actor in a "gaudy and commercial" show.
Others were more impressed by Turner's staging, which nips and tucks Shakespeare's longest play into a pacey three hours. The Independent's Paul Taylor thought the production was "stunningly designed" and praised Cumberbatch's "whirling energy."
Still, the mixed reviews won't dent the fan frenzy sparked by Shakespeare's sexy, sulking Dane and the popular "Sherlock" star. The play's three-month run sold out quicker than any show in West End history. Inside, a special "Hamlet shop" sells books, programs, mugs and skull-shaped piggy banks.
Outside, fans form snaking lines at the stage door each night. Early in previews, Cumberbatch emerged to plead with them not to record the performance on their phones.
For all the hype, critics agreed this was more than stunt casting. Cumberbatch is an accomplished stage actor and won an Olivier Award for his performance in "Frankenstein" at the National Theatre in 2011.
Reviewers praised the star's subtle handling of the soliloquies — including the almost too-famous "To be or not to be" speech — in which the prevaricating prince mulls revenge for the murder of his father.
Dressed like a scruffy modern-day student, alternately pensive and manic, this Hamlet is a man whose mind buzzes faster than he can process — a quality shared by several Cumberbatch characters, from sleuth Sherlock Holmes to code-breaker Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game."
Henry Hitchings in the London Evening Standard said Cumberbatch was "a charismatic Hamlet, energetic but also pensive."
The play will be broadcast live to movie theaters around the world on Oct. 15.