In the first of an occasional series on all things Shakespeare*, Paul Kent - author of "101 Short Essays on Shakespeare" - discusses critics and Cumberbatch....
It’s a view I’ve held for years, but the last few weeks have confirmed my prejudice in spades: theatre critics are bad for theatre. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre in London has cruelly exposed the vast majority of their many inadequacies, like some large suppurating boil coming to a head on the face of a beautiful friend. Well, time for the needle, boys and girls . . . let’s see if you can take the pain as well as dish it out.
The first thing critics don’t like is that Cumberbatch is a star, and even worse, in media other than the theatre. So it’s about time he was cut down to size. When you read the reviews, there’s an unmistakeable sense that they’re willing him to fail. In many ways, this has proved a difficult ambition to fulfil, since his Hamlet is so good. Amid the slew of celebrity pops at the part over the last few years, his reading is undoubtedly one of the most successful, so not many palpable hits from the critics, but a lot of grumbling about the very idea of someone so popular attempting the role. It’s distracting, they claim. Then why not concentrate a little harder? That way, the excellence of Cumberbatch’s rendition will make you forget who’s playing the role, and you’ll end up watching Hamlet up there on stage, and not The Star Who Is Benedict Cumberbatch Playing Hamlet. This is how theatre actually works when it’s done well. And that’s precisely what Cumberbatch manages to deliver, if you’d been paying attention rather than grinding your axes.
Second fault: it’s a populist production, aimed at “kids brought up on Moulin Rouge” as the London Times’s reviewer sneered. Um – and even if that were true, what’s the problem? Moulin Rouge was an excellent film – funny, glamorous, original and, of course, wildly popular. But why shouldn’t Hamlet appeal to young audiences? Are we not allowed to like Shakespeare until we’ve reached a certain age? Who made that rule up? Oh, I get it. Kids couldn’t possibly understand such a difficult play. And any attempt to help or encourage them effectively trivializes one of the greatest works of drama ever written. No, let them struggle and be put off Shakespeare for life! Actually one of this production’s great triumphs is the clarity of the narrative line, effected by judicious cutting, the re-instatement of several neglected scenes and episodes, and some interesting text shuffling (which the critics have also criticized). So what we end up with is a story well told – something that is often lost amid Hamlet’s ditherings. But don’t forget, kids –critics will always know better than you, and their opinions will always count more than yours. So back in your boxes.
So: we have an excellent central performance, and a comprehensible text. What else is wrong?
The set’s too big. It’s “cinematic”, one complained. Sometimes it feels like many critics simply go to the theatre to channel their inner Puritan. If the production doesn’t involve a bunch of nobodies with two beer crates for a set, it’s somehow “extravagant”. Well, chaps, you’re in a THEATRE. Theatre is THEATRICAL. And no-one understood this better than Shakespeare. You know, the guy who wrote this stuff, the guy who’s been at the top of the theatrical tree for over four centuries. And have you ever seen his Henry VIII? It was the Hollywood blockbuster of its day, complete with a huge cast, pomp, pageantry, masques, mimes and special effects. Makes Moulin Rouge look like Beckett. And what about the opening of Henry V, in which the Chorus repeatedly apologizes because things aren’t spectacular enough? Listen, chaps: here’s the facts of life. Shakespeare understood what worked in the theatre, and what would put bums on seats. He wrote as much for commercial gain as art – probably more so, since he had a wife and kids, a theatre and a company to support. So when the curtain goes up at the Barbican and we’re plunged into a lavish banqueting scene, why not allow your inner child to go “ooooh!” rather than your inner Puritan to ponder “I wonder how much that cost?” It’s what Shakespeare would have wanted.
I could go on, but to be honest, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Theatre critics immerse themselves in the world of theatre, yet time and time again they prove that while they may be in it, they’re most definitely not of it. Being professional theatregoers, they’re focused entirely on their personal relationship with what they’re watching, to the total exclusion of the casual theatregoer and anything he or she might bring to the party. Yes, we exist. So why not try and include us? Why not say, “If you like the glamour and glitz of Moulin Rouge this is the Hamlet for you, rather than “This Hamlet’s full of glamour and glitz, I don’t like it so don’t go”?
And in any case: how come, despite all your posturing, pouting, huffing and faint praise, Cumberbatch is playing to packed houses that regularly reward his efforts with near-capacity standing ovations? Are we all wrong? Are we all sheep, hypnotised by his celebrity, paying homage at the altar of his fame?
We’re too busy enjoying ourselves;. We don’t live to generate clickbait, and we aren’t being paid peanuts to parade our professional ignorance and petty snobberies in public.
So that, critics all, is my opinion of your opinions. And like your opinions, I’m entitled to it.
Time for one last one: I think Shakespeare, Hamlet and Mr Cumberbatch may all survive your attentions. Somehow.
*this post first appeared on Creative Content's website