The Cumber-down

cumber-down“I’m going to try my hardest not to scream the minute he walks on stage” revealed one of the many Benedict Cumberbatch superfans to a WSJ reporter at last night’s first performance of Hamlet. I’m sure the Gielgubitches said the same back in ’48. Despite the worries that a legion of hysterical Cumberfans would have to be transferred to the nearest nunnery before the end of act one, the audience were by all reports eminently well behaved.

It was the press, however, that broke all the rules of reviewing etiquette. Rather than waiting to press night a number of nationals sent their star columnists (who cares if they’re not really critics!) to the Barbican to get the inside scoop. What we got wasn’t so much reviewing as page 3 gossip from your Elsinore correspondent. Ranging from The Times’s two star slating (“Alas poor, Benedict”) to the Mail’s five (“electrifying”) we’re also none the wiser.

What the fuss around Lyndsey Turner’s production shows is that the conventions of theatre reviewing are not equipped to attend to the mass interest generated by events such as Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. Papers are not interested in considering this kind of play as a collaborative process that evolves through previews into a polished piece. Rather, they are competing with the audience themselves, each one coming armed with iPhones and twitter handles and ready to fire off pithy 100 word reviews seconds after the curtain falls. Papers know that for a sell-out play that people with outrageous fortunes will be paying upwards to £15,000 for tickets on the secondary market, a well-considered review of the production’s merits and shortcomings would be slightly pointless. Desperate to hang onto their influence, editors have cast aside their traditions for the sake of remaining vaguely relevant. For their thoughts to be heard they need to be as blood-riling as their most vituperative columnists; no Poloniuses please.

Something may be rotten in Denmark but as the Barbican’s Hamlet shows the London theatre business is in a fine state. Across the West End attendance has been up by 4% year on year and theatres are managing to attract some of the biggest names in Hollywood to spend several weeks in drizzle grey London. Big event theatre draws in people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested, such as the student interviewed on the Today programme whose only previous experience of Hamlet was a two minute Lego animation on youtube. On the flip side, when there is so much star-powered money involved the critical faculties of everyone, from cultural grandees to humble day ticketers, are strained. For audiences previews once meant discounted seats, like going to a test screening or trialling a service. Now it’s the paid-for privilege of being the lucky first. For the rest of us, dazzled by hype and without the trusted critical guides, a line of the moody Prince springs to mind: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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