Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch

Cumberbatch, Hamlet, and the Theatre of Snobbery | Theatre

Emily Garside reflects on the backlash surrounding the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in a National Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In the year since the ‘Cumberbatch’s Hamlet‘ was announced there has been a tension – a backlash against not just the casting itself, but the perceived audience it would attract. Casting judgements are to be expected, particularly for ‘big name actors’ even without the added celebrity element there will always be pre-emptive judgments made on suitability for such an iconic role. What is less usual is a judgement on the audience presumed to be watching the play.

Cumberbatch, Hamlet
Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock (image credit: Vulture)

Taking first Cumberbatch’s perceived suitability for the role. Cumberbatch has a solid track record in theatre, having been seen in nine London theatre roles before seemingly bursting ‘as-if-from nowhere’ in Sherlock in 2010 (while also racking up numerous television and film credits). These theatre roles include parts in Peter Hall’s production of Hedda Gabbler and Thea Sharrock’s production of After the Dance at the National Theatre. He was back at the National months after Sherlock first aired in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein. The idea that Cumberbatch lacks the acting credentials necessary to attempt Hamlet is a mark of lazy prejudice on the part of those dismissing him at ‘just Sherlock’ or ‘that guy from Star Trek’. That’s not to say that reasoned doubt or criticism is not a valid response. But it’s one thing to say ‘I don’t care for his acting’ or ‘I can’t see him as Hamlet’, but another to dismiss him entirely based on him being in recent years a film and television actor. What actually lies beneath much of this criticism is a snobbery. This snobbery also extended to the audience associated with Cumberbatch.

Moving on to the second issue to dominate the production: fans of Cumberbatch versus ‘real theatre fans’.

Firstly, the idea that Cumberbatch fans wouldn’t know how to behave at the theatre. True, many will be first time theatre goers, drawn by the actor. But this does not mean they do not know how to behave. I’ve seen seasoned theatre goers behave very badly, so the insinuation that these people would be any less well-behaved than these alleged ‘real’ theatre goers however is both absurd and insulting. There is a deeper dialogue at work here about perceptions of female fans and associated behaviour – that somehow they will always default to mass hysteria – that is rooted in far deeper cultural prejudices. What in fact I witnessed was an audience far better behaved than many I’ve seen elsewhere, predominantly because it was made up of people who wanted to be there very badly and were highly engaged with the play and performance.

This leads to the secondary prejudices against the Cumberbatch fans: that somehow their desire to see the play or their engagement with it has been somehow ‘lesser’. That for the most part the fans at the theatre are there only to ogle the actor and behave as ‘hysterical fans’ rather than to simply see an actor they admire in a seminal role. Again we see ingrained prejudices and stereotypes of fans, and in particular female fans, emerging. The idea that they are engaged with nothing more than an actor’s looks, when even a peripheral engagement with many groups of fans would show critical, engaged individuals with a shared passion. Indeed the passion for an individual actor often leads to a wide and varied engagement as fans follow their work across genres and forms – Cumberbatch fans through his work would have accessed British Television drama, big budget Hollywood films, small British indie cinema and radio drama alongside the theatre work listed above. A wide and varied cultural education if ever there was one, and that’s just via one actor. The hypocrisy also of anybody levying such accusations is also profound – I’d challenge anybody to tell me they have never watched a play/film/television series because they wanted to see a certain actor.

What is most insulting really is the idea that theatre ‘belongs’ to regular theatre goers rather than these ‘fans’ and the idea that the two are mutually exclusive. As someone who is a regular theatre-goer, writer of many things theatre-related, and professionally qualified in theatre, I would probably qualify as a ‘theatre fan’, but since 2007 when I saw him in Amazing Grace I’ve also been a Cumberbatch fan. So where does that leave me?

Perhaps I feel this more keenly because I first went to the theatre to see a ‘famous actor’ and it began a relationship with theatre which changed my life. Had I not been a huge fan of a cult Television show (The X Files) I’d never have followed an actor (Gillian Anderson) to the theatre, for the experience of seeing her perform live, and I likely wouldn’t have discovered theatre. I am certain many of those going to see Hamlet will fall in love with theatre, and with Shakespeare as a result. And for the life of me I cannot see what is wrong with that. Theatres desperately need new audiences to survive, and what if those fans next follow a slightly less famous actor, to a slightly smaller venue. And then they see an actor in that play they decide to follow, and go and see all their plays too. And then start looking at other plays and performance art. Some of them may even decide, based on this play, based on wanting to see Cumberbatch, to forge a career out of the arts. They might be starting with what has been called a ‘Blockbuster Hamlet’ but actually where they will go next is just as important.

Many, it’s true, won’t do any of the above. They’ll see this Hamlet, applaud and go home, and wait until the next time Cumberbatch is on stage or maybe another actor they like that means a play they want to see. Likewise, many a ‘real’ theatre fan will go, applaud and go home, until the next play they want to see. If neither is bothering their fellow audience members (fan of either or both) I fail to see the problem or the difference.

Emily Garside is a writer, an active member of the Cardiff theatre community, and a contributor to Wales Arts Review.