Benedict Cumberbatch's fussing over phones is a distraction from the real problem. Photo: Johan Persson
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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.

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.

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.

 

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

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist