I doubt I'll bother to see Cumberbatch in Hamlet - I don't want it marred by screaming fans

It doesn’t kill a work of art to want it left alone temporarily. I've reached Peak Hamlet

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Of the secular mysteries to which I wake with fresh and sometimes angry amazement every day, the queue is the second-most baffling. The first is the fan. Not the fan in the Lady Windermere sense. I mean the fan who is an abbreviation of fanatic, that self-abasing follower of a person or a thing whose ardour could in fact do with some of what fans of the other sort provide.

The queue and the fan are of course closely related, in that fans will queue any length of time in any weather to see, touch, watch, hear, read, wear, or simply enjoy proximity to the object of their devotion. There is a shop close to where I live, outside which, on certain nights of the month – I’ve no idea if the transit of the moon determines precisely when – fans of designer skateboards queue from early evening in order – well in order, I presume – to be among the first to jump on a skateboard when the shop opens in the morning. Why don’t they just pop into Hamleys? Or walk?

The same occurs outside trainer stores (where they sell gym shoes – that really is the only way to describe them – that neither you nor I would want to wear), hotels (where someone you and I have never heard of is staying), bookshops (for books neither you nor I would want to read), clubs, theatres, and suddenly, even, town halls and similar buildings suitable for revivalist meetings in Labour constituencies. There is no let up of excitement either, I am assured, outside the Barbican where Benedict Cumberbatch is being Hamlet, a person (Hamlet, not Cumberbatch) who wanted for nothing, was a fan of nobody, and therefore, we can fairly deduce, never queued in his life. Find all the uses of this world weary, flat, stale and unprofitable, and there is no designer skateboard you would hang around all night to buy, and no celebrity of either sex you are going to sit on wet pavements for two days to get a glimpse of. There’s a lot to be said for misanthropy.

I am stern in the matter of being a fan in the fanatic sense, and blame the parents. A proper dose of comic scepticism administered at the right age could stop all that. Listen to your parents shrieking “Him!” or “Her!” or, better still, “That!” with sufficient derision each time you announce the worthless fame-phantom you’ve grown enamoured of – “What’s Hecuba to you, or you to Hecuba – I’m speaking figuratively – that you should skip school to gawp at her? Fortinbras, you say? That speck of nothing? That stain of hyena’s vomit? That bowl of undiluted cat’s piss? A dog wouldn’t stop to rub his nose in that piece of shit” – and there’s just a chance you will start to question your judgement, your self-worth, and your sense of smell. I say just a chance, but just a chance is better than no chance. And it beats having fathers who are still wearing Chelsea shirts in their middle-fifties and mothers who queue all night themselves to get a ticket for Justin Bieber, whose name I might just possibly have made up.

I was a supply teacher briefly in another age and whenever I encountered an incidence of mass fandom – more moderate in those days with no social media to inflame it – I would get the whole class to write out “I am not a slave” a thousand times. I don’t say it worked but it made them hate me, and that at least introduced the principle of resistance into their lives. Better to be surly than a serf.

So is this just a roundabout way of saying that I won’t be braving the frothing fans to see Sherlock metamorphosing into Hamlet? Not exactly, but no – no, yes, no, as they say – I doubt I will be going. I feel the play is too much mine to have it taken from me by yet another interpretation that might or might not be interesting, but which, for the moment at least, I have no mental space for.

When it comes to Shakespeare, I am a theatre-of-the-mind man. No production beats what you read on the page and go on seeing on the stage behind your eyes long after, though I doubt that Hamlet himself, a lover of plays and a connoisseur of acting styles, would have agreed with me. “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue,” he tells the first Player, not “Hum it trippingly to yourself”.


And I accept that what lodges a play like Hamlet in your imagination – to the degree that you can’t remember when you ever didn’t know it, or when you ever had a thought that wasn’t in some way Hamlet-influenced or related – is not only the attentive reading you give it. Just as knowing a text well will enhance the experience of watching it performed, so might an actor’s interpretation change the way you read it the next time. But you can allowably feel you no longer need or want to know how Hamlet strikes someone else. You can be as satiated with performance as you can with critical exegesis. Enough exposition. Enough acting. You can want the play to breathe quietly in your arms for a while.

I didn’t say expire in your arms. It doesn’t kill a work of art to want it left alone temporarily. “Thou still unravished bride of quietness,” was how Keats addressed a Grecian urn at the beginning of that ode that ends with the famous lines about beauty being truth, truth being beauty, and that being that. Which isn’t quite saying shut the fuck up, but it is a plea for quiet and reserve. Ours is a noisy culture. We see the bustle of the throng and the size of the queue as proof that’s all well in “the arts”, as we disrespectfully call them. But zest and numbers aren’t the measure of everything. A little unravished stillness, and not a trainer-wearing, skateboarding, bestseller-carrying  fan in sight, can  also be a mark of  civilised appreciation.