Benedict Cumberbatch Is No Hamlet

I stayed an extra week in London because I was able to score a ticket to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet at the Barbican. While the Brit media plays up the frenzied desire for tickets (£1500 on Ebay!), it really wasn’t difficult to get one. I simply went on the Barbican website and with a few clicks bought a returned 9th row theater left seat for £92. The play has yet to be reviewed (the media won’t be officially invited for another couple of weeks), so the draw is seeing a real live celebrity up close and personal — and taking on the Bard to boot! Plus Mance Rayder is in the production as well, so it’s a win-win for the millennial generation.

Unfortunately, it’s not a win-win for the literary generation. I have a Ph.D. in English, taught literature for a number of years (including, yes, Hamlet) and really just wanted to see the damn play live in London once in my life before shuffling off this mortal coil. While the stage set was impressive, Mr. Cumberbatch was not. “Look at me, I’m acting!” seemed to be the modus operandi of our leading man. There’s a reason he usually plays cold, emotionless characters such as Sherlock, Khan, and Alan Turing. He simply doesn’t have the emotional depth to play anything else. I never for a moment bought him as Hamlet. There was no dramatic tension of options between should I act (on my revenge)? should I not? Should I just kill myself? The existential horror of life! No, he was Benedict Cumberbatch in a play called Hamlet. If it had been the 1970s, he would have revolted against his uncle and formed the Sex Pistols.

I felt bad for the supporting cast (including Mance Rayder, who didn’t even get to take an individual bow afterwards because Cumberbatch kept hogging them); they knew exactly why the audience was there and were simply acting around Him. Sian Brooke was pretty good as Ophelia; you could actually believe her father’s death drove her into doing a Virginia Woolf. Karl Johnson was actually spooky as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father; you could actually believe he was a haunted spirit doomed with all of his sins on his head. Ciarán Hinds was okay as Claudius, but The King Beyond the Wall didn’t really seem evil and scheming enough to be The King of Denmark. Most of the time he just stood there next to Gertrude with nothing to do but watch Cumberbatch act it up. Jon Lovitz as the Master Thespian: “Acting!” (https://vimeo.com/15476780).

Many in the audience, and many of those millennial women, seemed to be IN AWE of sitting so close to a real live celebrity, leaning forward on their seats and just staring like IN AWE (starstruck just doesn’t seem to cut it in this context). Cumberbatch could have recited the London phone book (if it still existed) and they would have given him a standing ovation. He’s so cute! Look at him prancing around the stage in a toy soldier outfit! (this is Hamlet feigning madness). There was a lot of laughter as “Hamlet” played up the Cumberbatch winking personality in the reading of his lines. He’s so cute! During the Alas Poor Yorick scene, Cumberbatch and Leo Bill (Horatio), standing off to the side while Karl Johnson serving double duty as the Clown/Gravedigger did his shtick, looked at each other and cracked up. Yeah, pretty sure that wasn’t scripted. OK, so watching him recite “to be or not to be,” was pretty cool, but it wasn’t Hamlet seriously debating his options in existential angst, only Cumberbatch reciting the “to be or not to be” speech (and no, it’s not in the opening scene of the play, as reported in the Brit press. Maybe it was on opening night, but it isn’t now). It kind of reminded me of the problem with Vince Vaughn in True Detective. No one bought him as a violent criminal boss in True Detective. He’s Vince Vaughn.

After the final curtain, a hundred or so so-called Cumbitches raced out of the Barbican to surround the stage door exit and wait for another brief moment of veneration of their idol and to snap a couple of over the shoulder selfies with their mobiles, since the theater banned all picture taking after the Daily Mail managed to sneek a couple of pics and annoy the cast while doing so. Oh, my, god, it’s really him! To touch the blue aura of celebrity! For just a brief moment! Our modern gods and goddesses, gods help us.

Walking back through Shoreditch on a late Friday night, with seemingly a thousand drunk 25–35s stumbling around the streets, one puking in front of the Sainsbury Local, another standing dazed supported by friends, bloodied as a Rory MacDonald from a bar altercation, I couldn’t help but think that Shakespeare, who got his start in Shoreditch at The Theater in the 1590s, would have had much more in common with this rabble of misfits and whoremongers than the polite awe-struck worshippers of a current star in the celebrity firmanent.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” To me, this was bad.

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