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12 August 2015updated 21 Aug 2015 11:48am

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and why there’s now a class war in our theatres

“The play’s the thing”, except in this case, it isn’t.

By Caroline Crampton

Describing how the ghost of Hamlet’s father looked when he appeared on the battlements of Elsinore castle, Horatio tells the ill-fated prince that he had “a countenance more in sorrow than in anger”. Coincidentally, that is just the face Benedict Cumberbatch was making when on 8 August he appeared at the stage door of the Barbican in London and was filmed begging fans not to take photos of him or to film while he was trying to soliloquise.

“It’s mortifying, and there’s nothing less supportive or enjoyable as an actor than being on stage experiencing that,” Cumberbatch said. His comments, captured on one of the very devices he was earnestly deploring, have been seized upon by the media, caught in the customary news drought of August. He is hardly the first big-time actor to have a wobble about cameraphones disrupting a play – last year, during a performance of Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey responded to the sound of a ringing mobile phone in the audience with a barbed: “If you don’t answer that, I will . . .” A decade earlier the late Richard Griffiths ordered an audience member to leave a performance of The History Boys for the same reason. Yet Cumberbatch’s comments have caused a furore that far exceeds any of the previous griping, for one reason – this time, it’s Shakespeare.

Not even just Shakespeare, but Hamlet. The British are fervently peculiar about the Bard, especially his quartet of great-man tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth). We feel a sense of ownership towards them, as if the pentameters were our collective property. Anything that impedes a performance is, therefore, not just a little inconsiderate, or an inconvenience: it’s an attack on our culture, roughly equivalent to urinating on the Cenotaph or not standing to sing the national anthem. It is disrespectful, borderline Bolshevik. Shakespeare must be appreciated in total silence, or else the establishment will be in mortal danger.

You might assume that in the past few years, as the cost of living has risen and wages have been squeezed, fewer people would go to the theatre. Yet the annual Society of London Theatre box-office survey for 2014 shows attendance up by 1 per cent on the previous year, with an increase of 4 per cent if you take plays alone.

That is because producers have found a reliably bankable way of getting punters through the door: casting a famous actor in a well-known play. And what is better-known than Shakespeare? That’s why, in the past couple of years, David Tennant has played Richard II, Jude Law has done Henry V, Tom Hiddleston was Coriolanus, and Martin Freeman has given us his Richard III. The thesps get to show off their “serious” acting skills; their fans get to see them live and up close; the theatres make money. It’s win-win-win.

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It is also why there is now a class war going on in our theatres. The likes of Tennant, Freeman and Cumberbatch attract a new audience, often young, not that well-off, and unabashed about their excitement at seeing their chosen star. To the “seasoned theatregoers” (as the right-wing press loves to call them), who can afford to go the theatre more frequently, this crowd poses a cultural threat. They like Sherlock and Doctor Who, but also Hamlet? Well, their critical faculties can’t be up to scratch. They must be mistaken. Plus, they do strange things, such as share their thoughts about the play on social media and clap after the scenes they’ve enjoyed most. They are, quite frankly, eroding the core of what it means to be British.

Yes, people should be considerate of their fellow playgoers and try not to disrupt proceedings gratuitously. But this cuts both ways – quite often, it’s all the huffing and tutting at some perceived slight that causes the kerfuffle. Theatres also need to move with the times and give their paying public what it wants, whether that’s cerebral pre-show lectures or post-show autograph opportunities with celebrity cast members.

I had never been in a more highly charged, tense audience than when I saw a preview of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet last week. Partly this was because the actor playing Polonius was taken ill and the show had to be paused as he was helped off stage. But also, the leading man garbled key lines and the production is full of baffling gimmicks, including the decision to steal the “To be or not to be” speech from its context and use it as a prologue, which is downright weird.

“The play’s the thing”, Hamlet crows at the end of Act II. Except, in this case, it really isn’t, and all the fussing over phones is a distraction from that.




Now listen to Caroline discussing Benedict Cumberbatch, theatre and fandom on the New Statesman‘s pop culture podcast: