In Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, Harold Bloom notes:
[W]ithout Horatio, we are too distanced from the bewildering Hamlet for Shakespeare to work his guile upon us… Horatio pragmatically is the most important figure in the tragedy except for Hamlet himself. Through Horatio we the audience contaminate the play.
Highest and lowest are one in the Hamlet-world. But they aren’t for us, and our representative in that world is Horatio. Where theatricalism governs all, and Hamlet is master of the revels, we hold fast to Horatio, who is too drab to be theatrical. We hope we are not drab, but we cannot keep up with Hamlet who is always out ahead of himself.
In other words, we need Horatio. We need him to mediate the larger-than-life-ness, the all-at-once-ness, and the too-too-much-ness that is, as Bloom calls it, Hamlet-world. We need Horatio to be the one reliably real thing in the matryoshka-doll nesting of plays within plays within plays that is Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
And yet the Sonia Friedman production of Hamlet now at London’s Barbican Theatre (yes, the one starring Benedict Cumberbatch) features a wan and rather clueless Horatio, one who fails to give us anything to which we can hold fast during Hamlet’s whirlwind tour of life, man’s universe, and everything in it. Through this failure, this lack of a good and true Horatio, Hamlet becomes just a man — a smart man, a conflicted man, a man aware of all his thoughts and feelings and more aware of them than any other man before or since, a man of exuberant, often excessive drama, but still, just a man. And Shakespeare created something more than just a man when he created Hamlet.
The last time I was this disappointed in Horatio was nine years ago to the week, when I saw the Terry Hands production of Hamlet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. How do directors arrive at an interpretation of the play that robs the audience of its one reliable companion for the journey?
Not that there isn’t much to recommend here, from the unconventional star’s turn in a bucket-list role to the jaw-dropping set and its many effects, from the twitchy heartbreak Ophelia represents to the intelligent self-possession Gertrude uncovers. National Theatre Live has already announced its encore performances. It is $20 well spent.