So phenomenal is the appeal of Benedict Cumberbatch that he caused a 400-year-old play performed thousands of times to become the most in-demand show in West End history: on the day tickets were released, 35,000 callers were waiting in the phone queue. Hamlet finally gets its opening night at the Barbican tonight, but Benedict has been planning it for years. Asked at a Q&A in 2012 which play he would choose if he were only able to do one more, he said, in his typically British self-deprecating manner, ‘I think it would have to be Hamlet. I mean it’s a very vain project in a way, isn’t it, Hamlet, because every actor wants to have their go at it, but, um, I do want to have my go at it.’
From Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes to Jude Law and Michael Sheen, Hamlet is a rite of passage for every new generation’s brightest actors. But rather than being weighed down by the history, Benedict and director Lyndsey Turner have spent the last year stripping the play down and reassembling it. In the same way as he reinvented Sherlock Holmes, Benedict says he wants Hamlet to feel ‘like a new play that just landed as a pdf in someone’s computer inbox at the Royal Court. We want to escape the idea that it has been done before, and we’re looking at the whole play – not just the eponymous hero.’
Benedict promises to be extraordinary in the role. He’s no stranger to Shakespeare, having performed in several of his plays at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre way back at the turn of the millennium, and he specialises in oddballs and loners with a planet-sized brain, even playing Stephen Hawking a decade before his friend Eddie Redmayne did: ideal for the conflicted prince whose ‘native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’.
Yet you should also expect his to be a vigorous, physical, passionate interpretation. When an interviewer for Elle suggested to him that Hamlet is as sexless as Sherlock, Benedict became quite indignant: ‘My God,’ he exclaimed. ‘He’s got a depth of soul that, if he turned it on you, you’d be the happiest woman in the world!’
When people talk about ‘overnight success’, it’s usually a metaphor for a rapid rise to fame. In Benedict Cumberbatch’s case, it is literally true. I interviewed the actor a week before the very first Sherlock was broadcast. He seemed pleased enough with the way they had updated Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective series to the modern world; but he also talked entertainingly about his time spent with Tibetan monks, and how being car-jacked and nearly killed in South Africa had made him want to live life to the full.
There was no sense of what was about to hit. ‘It did feel like an overnight change,’ he reflected in Empire magazine four years later. ‘I’d never been that tuned into the internet, in the sense of TV shows and their fandom. I didn’t know there could be an immediate live response to television programmes. The immediate response on Twitter… this thing of my name trending worldwide… it was amazing. The noise coming off the country was deafening and I just thought, “F***. That’s changed. That’s crazy.”’
And there is no sign of Cumberfever dying down. Last year he photobombed U2 at the Oscars where he was presenting an award, appeared on Sesame Street, and had his likeness immortalised in wax by Madame Tussauds; this year he was an Academy Award nominee himself, appeared on the coveted cover of Vanity Fair’s 21st annual Hollywood Issue, and had a life-sized statue of him made out of chocolate. (Passers-by, apparently, couldn’t resist a nibble.)
How did a faintly odd-looking theatre and TV actor, well known for his resemblance to an otter, become one of the screen’s biggest stars and sex symbols, with roles in blockbusters such as Star Trek, The Hobbit and upcoming Marvel movie Doctor Strange to add to prestige parts such as Julian Assange, Alan Turing and his conflicted slave owner in the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave? The Curious Case of Benedict Cumberbatch may sound like a tale worthy of Conan Doyle, but it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to solve it.
The son of actor parents, he was gifted even as a child. His drama teacher at Harrow, where he made his stage debut aged 12 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called him the best schoolboy actor he had ever worked with. His voice is a remarkably versatile instrument: just watch the extraordinary YouTube clips of him performing the dragon Smaug, without all the computer enhancements, or the MTV interview in which he is asked to imitate as many celebrities as he can in a minute – switching with amazing speed from Jack Nicholson to Christopher Walken to Matthew McConaughey, he nails 11.
So, to quote Fortinbras at Hamlet‘s close: ‘Bear Hamlet/Benedict like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royally.’
Hamlet runs until 31 Oct at the Barbican Centre. Thirty tickets will be available to queue for each day, and Hamlet will be broadcast on 15 Oct in 550 cinemas worldwide. This blog is an amended version of my feature published in Where London magazine. I have tickets, bought a year ago, for later in the run. I’ll review it in London Hollywood then.