How I became a Cumberbitch

One of the biggest hits in the history of British theatre opened this week in London. Benedict Cumberbatch, star of Sherlock and “The Imitation Game”, plays Hamlet in the Barbican.

The guard sits on the right of the stage facing the audience. He watches every movement. If anyone reaches for his or her mobile phone, he will rise and expel the perpetrator. There shall be no video on You tube of Benedict Cumberbatch reciting “To be or not to be” on the Barbican stage in London. It was Cumberbatch himself who begged his fans not to film him and distract his performance. The administration of the Barbican did not trust the goodwill of the fans. They installed a watchdog. Successfully it seems. The performance lasts three hours and no one lifts an iPhone.

The incredible cyber silence can be superbly supervised from above. Seat B62 is located directly under the roof. You had better not suffer from fear of heights. The ticket was only 10 Pounds – who needs to sit in the best seat of the house anyway? What counts today is to be here at all. Tickets for three months of Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet were put up for sale online a year ago. And they sold out within a few hours. The 39 year old actor, known world wide for his TV and movie career, has landed the Barbican one of the biggest hits of British theatre history. Cumberbitches, as female fans call themselves, camp out in front of the theatre to queue for one of 30 tickets released every day.

I managed to get a ticket via the website. Returned tickets are released from time to time. Anyone who has the patience or is married to her computer might get lucky (http://hamlet-barbican.com/). Unfortunately the build up of getting seats leads to quite an anticlimax at the actual event. This must have happened to Michael Billington of the “Guardian”, who gave the production on August 25 only two of five stars. (http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/aug/25/hamlet-barbican-review-benedict-cumberbatch-imprisoned-prince) (He gave Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet at the National Theatre in 2010 four stars. So it is in principle possible to stage a modern Hamlet without being torn to pieces.) Billington calls Cumberbatch approvingly a “real actor”, but director Lyndsey Turner gets a beating for “gigantism”.

It seems unfair. The production moves fast, maybe due to Cumberbatch, who jumps with lovely ease over the banquet table in the first act as if it was a mere threshold into Elsinore, the king’s castle. Here his uncle just murdered his father. His mother married the murderer. Is Hamlet mad or is he just pretending to be? We would surely loose our marbles, too, if we would lead such a tragic Shakespearian life. Benedict Cumberbatch, expert in playing highly achieving sociopaths like Sherlock Holmes or Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”, knows exactly how to play a man in a world gone crazy.

Maybe Lyndsey Turner could have made a clearer decision where to place this drama: First World War? Second World War? Why not 2015 with a war breaking out between Northern and Southern Europe over austerity policy? The harshly criticised set design of Es Devlin is also not really to blame. Yes, Devlin designed the Olympic closing ceremony in 2012 and is used to big scenes, maybe too big scenes. But she manages to create visually impressive moments. The first part of the evening ends with a storm. The first dust of war is blown through the gates of Elsinore. The second part opens with debris filling the halls. The destruction has already happened. The dying bodies of the royal family are only an afterthought.

One could argue, however, that the director did not manage her cast well. There is as much sexual tension between Hamlet and Ophelia as there is between Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game”. But in the film he played a gay scientist and the erotic malaise was part of the tragedy.

Hamlet and Ophelia, however, deserve more of an erotic conversation. To a certain extent this is Cumberbatch’ fault. But otherwise he masters his Hamlet with British precision, elegance and the necessary eccentric expression. When he marches on stage with a tin drum and kneels down on the table to deliver his “To be or not to be”, we worry about this tall tin soldier. When he pleads with his mother, we believe their tears. Cumberbatch keeps the production together. Which is a good thing as some of his colleagues are less than brilliant.

The storm of applause for Cumberbatch at the end is enormous. His Hamlet stands out. The cast wears funeral clothes, he is the only one dressed in white. As if he represents the eternal hope to save the theatre from oblivion. It is ironic that Benedict Cumberbatch, the TV star and movie celebrity, brings 1000 people every night to the theatre to watch the story of the prince who despairs over the corrupt and cruel world he lives in. Three hours of Shakespeare and no selfie. It’s a triumph. Enough to turn me into a Cumberbitch for the night.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz