Snobbery about Sherlock (aka Benedict Cumberbatch)

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! They can’t go to it, because en route to the Barbican box office, they were trampled beneath a stampede of Cumberbitches, Cumbermatches, and the rest of the sizeable fan base belonging to the star who is playing the lead. Yep. ‘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 very miffed about it.

Apparently the rude lot who have pushed in are not people who want to see Hamlet ‘for its own merits’. They aren’t even going because it’s on the A Level syllabus. Imagine! They want to see Hamlet…because of the leading man, although to my mind, this is a totally valid reason. Impresarios have been casting the sexy and the popular into lead roles since before the Globe was built, because it is a sure way of guaranteeing bums on seats. 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 to go who may not be ‘regular’ theatregoers. 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 theatregoers, 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. This was The Jerry Springer Opera, produced by Nick Hytner. Before then, the foyers and auditoria of the National, supported by the taxpayer, would be full of ‘regular’ theatregoers; people like my parents, and friends of my parents. Jerry Springer changed all that. My parents and friends of my parents still go, but now the National has a far more diverse audience. I think the Springer effect was critical. It encouraged people who were not ‘regulars’, who liked what they saw, and thought they might go back for more. Has it ever occurred to these miffed ‘regular’ Hamlet devotees that having seen their hero hide behind the arras, some of the Cumberbitches might possibly start a playgoing habit?

The layered cultural snobbery surrounding this event has been astonishing. In one newspaper yesterday there was actually a Hamlet quiz, presumably so readers could demonstrate they understand Hamlet ‘on its own merits’, or perhaps so they could ‘out’ other readers who shamefully do not know either what an arras actually is, or the name of Hamlet’s girlfriend. The paper tried out the quiz on the Cumberbatch fans queueing up outside the theatre. Imagine! Only one person in ten got all the questions right.

In a nutshell, 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 important to know what the arras is? Or, indeed, who Hamlet is. Shakespeare lays it all out before you during the show. That’s his job, remember.

Frankly, there is nothing worse than seeing Hamlet, Macbeth, The Cherry Orchard, or the rest of the ‘regular’ role call alongside a bunch of dreary know-alls who can recite every single line, and in the interval, knowingly compare this arras to the one used by Donald Sinden or indeed, the one hanging in their drawing room. Save me from people who have such a theatrical ‘hinterland’, and never stop going on about it. You don’t need a hinterland for live theatre, which is why it 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 actually 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. He wasn’t writing for a dull old bunch of ‘regulars’ who will compare Cumberbatch’s Hamlet to that of Ralph Fiennes, or Stephens Dillane and Tennant, or any of the other worthies who have stepped up and juggled with Yorick’s skull.

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 ‘regulars’ stumbling into an unfamiliar surrounding, although who knows; it might introduce them to quite another art form.

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