We shouldn't be such snobs about people seeing Hamlet for Benedict Cumberbatch

Ever since theatre began, audiences have been tempted by successful actors being cast in leading roles. To my mind, it's an entirely valid reason to see a play

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The Independent Online

Help me, hence, ho!, as Lady Macbeth might say, fainting to the ground. Look to the lady! And to all the other “real” theatregoers who might be currently swooning, because they have all been effectively excluded from experiencing their umpteenth version of Shakespeare’s other great tragedy, Hamlet.

Poor things! En route to the Barbican box office they were trampled beneath a stampede of Cumberbitches, Cumbercookies, and the rest of the sizeable fan base belonging to Benedict Cumberbatch, the star playing the lead. “Regular” theatregoers - who presumably book the same seat for every performance in the Barbican season (“Mine’s 19F, thanks”) - have had their treat denied them thanks to the sharp elbows and superior booking skills of diehard Sherlock fans. And they are miffed.

Apparently the rude lot who have pushed in are not the people who want to see Hamlet “for its own merits”. They aren’t even going because it’s on the A Level syllabus. They want to see Hamlet because of the leading man.

To my mind, this is an entirely valid reason. Impresarios have been casting the sexy and the popular into lead roles since before the Globe was even built. What is seeing Hamlet “for its own merits” about, if not the magnetism of the titular hero?

Surely the whole brilliance of casting Cumberbatch, himself hardly a stranger to the boards (darlings, I saw him play Tesman in Hedda absolutely yonks ago at the Almeida, yah boo!), is precisely because he will encourage people who may not be regular theatregoers to enter the auditorium. Can we just remember that this is a production at the Barbican, which, when I last looked, was a partially publicly-funded enterprise? Subsidised or not, it is absolutely the theatre’s duty to bring in irregular visitors, for such a deed ensures the continuing life of the art form.

I remember when audiences at the National Theatre changed. In my view, a single production did it: Jerry Springer, The Opera, produced by Nick Hytner. They liked what they saw, and thought they might go back for more. The National now has a far more diverse audience.


The layered cultural snobbery surrounding this single event has been astonishing. In one newspaper yesterday there was actually a Hamlet quiz - presumably so readers could out those who, shamefully, could not say what an “arras” actually is, or the name of Hamlet’s girlfriend. The questions were posed to Cumberbatch fans queueing outside the theatre. Only one person in ten got all the questions right. Imagine!

This pathetic exercise displays all that is threatening to turn British theatre into a moribund death mask.

Can I just remind everyone that before you go to a production of Hamlet, it really is not necessary to know what the arras is, Or, even, who Hamlet is. Shakespeare lays it all out before you during the show; that’s his job.

Frankly, there is nothing worse than seeing Hamlet, Macbeth, The Cherry Orchard, or any of the rest of the regular roll call next to a bunch of dreary know-alls who can recite every single line, and knowingly compare this arras to that.

Theatre can be the most gripping and thrilling art form possible. It will be a very special thrill for Cumberbatch, and the rest of the cast, to venture on stage and say those spectacular lines before an audience which doesn’t already know what goes into the king’s ear. Because that’s who Shakespeare was writing for.

I have a ticket to see the show. It’s for a live relay into my local cinema. I’ll laugh if the auditorium is full of grumbling theatre buffs stumbling into an unfamiliar surrounding - although who knows, it might introduce them to quite another art form.