cumberbatch hamlet

Method vs. Madness? Holmes vs. Hamlet

The papers have been awash recently with reviews, stories, and updates on The Barbican’s Hamlet. And the cause of all this coverage? Benedict Cumberbatch, of course. Here, Jodie Russell asks if it is possible to forget Sherlock Holmes, and just see the Dane. 

Benedict Cumberbatch is a man known for many things: his acting talent, his star roles (including Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing), his infamous cheekbones, and his cult following the self-titled “Cumberbitches” of whom I consider myself a member. It is no wonder, then, that when Cumberbatch took up the role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet his adoring fans flocked to see him on the stage.

Having such a celebrity in a play has undoubtedly been a bit of a game-changer for the theatre and regular theatre-goers, and has even raised some important questions and issues. Following Cumberbatch’s request for fans to cease filming during the preview performances, we might even question whether the “Cumberbitches” ought to see the play at all, or whether they should stay at home with their Sherlock DVD and leave the theatre for the passionate Shakespeare fans and critics. Moreover, if having such a famous actor causes such big issues as the filming debacle and, potentially, the prevention of genuine theatre lovers from getting tickets or, indeed, enjoying the play, we might argue that theatre companies ought not to hire such big names. Instead, you might argue that it’s the duty of theatres to search harder for undiscovered and unknown talent, and bring it to the fore.

I consider myself to have a foot in both camps, so am in a position to sympathise with both sides of the argument. Ultimately, however, I fall on the side of my fellow “Cumberbitches”. While it’s true that theatre companies will inevitably make huge profits from bringing in celebrities to key roles, at the expense of the regular theatre audience and potentially talented new actors, it’s important to remember that Cumberbatch might just inspire a younger audience to enthuse about a huge part of our literary heritage. By maintaining theatre for the “theatre-lovers”, we could exclude members of the next generation of whom the burden will eventually fall upon to carry on the traditions of English theatre. It is without doubt that Cumberbatch has introduced his following into the realm of ‘drama’: we need only see the pictures of them queuing, cucumbers in hand. Whether they are there for the right reasons or not might be an irrelevant factor if he’s getting the ‘youngsters’ into Shakespeare. Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be elitist, so maybe it’s about time Hamlet was brought into the mainstream and started hitting the headlines.

Another issue may be raised in rebuttal is that celebrity status does not guarantee quality acting- as a nation we are familiar with Cumberbatch on-screen, but not so much with his stage performance.  What’s more, it may distract from the performance, to an even greater extent than the fans filming the performance: it may be hard to picture Cumberbatch as anyone other than Sherlock.

‘Quality’ is, perhaps, a somewhat subjective assessment, but I would argue that from Cumberbatch’s career we can tell that he is an actor of a higher calibre than most. If we compare his Mr Holmes to his Mr Turing we may see similarities (Sherlock is definitely not a ‘people-person’ but neither is Alan Turing) yet there are obvious differences too. Alan Turing has a fragility while Sherlock has the energy and liveliness needed to carry the wit of the character. Therefore, I do not doubt that Cumberbatch will be able to read into the depths of Hamlet’s character and draw out the insecurities there. However, the question remains: can a Cumberbatch fan, such as myself, separate the actor from a much loved character, such as Sherlock, when his interpretation of Hamlet is presented in stage form?

I remain optimistic on this point. Having seen David Tennant play King Richard II, I know that from experience all past roles tend to melt away. Stage is very different from screen; you are faced with immediate, unadulterated action and it can be a little disorientating being within the physical space that the action is taking place. A completely different atmosphere is created which I think helps break down that association between the actor and his previous roles. But a lot of it is down to the performance of the actor; Cumberbatch will have to put the effort in to convince us of the legitimacy of his interpretation of Hamlet.

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