Everyone’s a critic: preview reviews are in for Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Two of our favourite topics collided this week in the ‘outrage’ at newspapers publishing early reviews of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.  Yes, it’s the circular argument about whether it’s OK to review a preview, of which we have already written, and celebrity casting, which more or less pervades this blog, whose inspiration was an intense frustration with casting shows and celebrity casting.  And of course the two are intimately linked, because there is little incentive for newspapers to offer a sneak preview of a show few people are interested in, and this level of ‘buzz’ is the result of Cumberbatch’s celebrity above all else.

The Times and Daily Mail were the first to pop their heads above the parapet, to a storm of outrage. Samuel West kicks off with a tweet full of dignified and barely contained disgust –

“Really shoddy journalism for the Times to review the first preview of Hamlet. Breaks all boundaries of protocol, taste and art. Bad form.”

Really?  Yes, it breaks a protocol based on critics getting free tickets, which obviously didn’t happen here.  Where is the problem with ‘taste’ and ‘art’, though?

There there is Eddie Marsan with his suggestion that –

“Kate Maltby at the Times, in same spirit as your review of Benedict’s Hamlet 3 weeks early, let us see & judge 1st drafts of your articles.”

Well, the really ironic thing about this (apart from the fact that an army of scholars have already done that very thing with Shakespeare’s work) is that if Benedict Cumberbatch were to become a great legend of theatre, no doubt many future theatre enthusiasts who never got the chance to see him would love to have some material which might show how his performance evolved over time, just as great writers often end up donating their first drafts to museums.  So Kate should really be quite flattered.

According to her, the paper had got wind of a deal that had been done with another prominent paper to allow early access in return for favourable reviews.  That wouldn’t surprise us in the slightest – Andrew Lloyd Webber did the same with the Wizard of Oz after his bruising experiences with ‘Love Never Dies’.  It would certainly explain the absence of comment from key players such as Sonia Friedman, the producer of the show.

But those who are upset on behalf of Cumberbatch are stuck in a paradox.  If they believe that he doesn’t deserve to be reviewed on opening night, that seems to suggest that if he wasn’t very good, another 19 previews (yes, you heard us, 19) will be enough for him to transform himself into a great actor by opening night.  The man is 39 years old.  If he is not ready to play Hamlet, he is not ready.  Except that in Cumberbatch’s case, the readiness has everything to do with his celebrity, and little to do with his maturity as a stage actor.  He can’t afford to wait – this level of popularity is unlikely to last forever.

What we’re really struggling to find here is victims, or people who need to be defended. Mark Shenton puts up a good fight for the critical establishment and points out that some of the critics sent in were inexperienced.  We hardly think these ‘reviews’ were ever meant to be part of the usual canon of theatre criticism.  The Daily Mail’s is listed under ‘news’, along with extensive coverage of the ‘story’, for example fans queuing up overnight for day tickets.  Many of them take time to review the audience (and to report the audience’s reception) as well as the show, and include embedded videos and tweets.  And let’s not forget, many papers such as the Telegraph have links to ticket agents, witness a link at the bottom of every article of theirs inviting readers to see the play in a ‘dinner and theatre deal’ of a mere £289 (and that includes an article about how the Barbican plans to crack down on touts!)  This is an ‘event’, and it is the gift that keeps on giving – the fact that twitter can’t shut up about it should surely reassure us that there will be room for everyone, including the ‘serious critics’.  The show is critic-proof anyway, and if some of the comments are a little wounding, would it be any better if they’d come 19 days later?

What we have here is a clash of new and old, and an understandable desire to have the advantages of both.  Samuel West speaks of protocol and taste.  Yet, it is quite obvious that Cumberbatch jumped the queue because of his TV celebrity.  He is quite happy to use TV fame to his advantage by bagging a prestigious theatrical role.  Many actors now claim TV fame is a pre-requisite for getting leading roles.  However, look at this plea to his fans, whom he wants to ‘recruit’ in a campaign to stop audiences filming the performance with their mobile phones.  Just to be clear, we don’t approve of filming.  But what strikes us here is that the Barbican front of house seems helpless in the face of it.  They can’t seem to see any way of enforcing the rule without draconian measures (despite warnings that bag searches are in operation).  When the protocols about theatrical reviews were written (or unwritten) the idea of the lead actor coming out to talk to fans in this way and literally pleading with them not to film because it makes his job so difficult and stressful would have been preposterous.  Professionalism on the stage, for better or worse, is about ignoring distractions.  What would critics of the old school have made of this, we wonder? Management must surely have realised fans would want to capture his every move on camera, and that is part of the deal when you bring your fans with you into the theatre. And what is the point of getting annoyed at the papers publishing reviews when the leading actor himself is seen publicly complaining about all the ‘problems’ that have occurred, with new stories emerging of swearing and ranting both on and off stage.  You can’t have it both ways.

The reviewing landscape changed forever with the internet and insisting on a protocol that existed when word of mouth was literally that, compared with a time when audience opinions can be replicated in an instant online and on twitter isn’t really helping.  How ironic, indeed, that these defenders of tradition are using modern technology to do it. Producers are more than happy to make use of gushing audience feedback on twitter and via embedded videos.  John Tiffany in the Guardian makes a plea for privacy during previews and claims that they are frequently used to make major changes. But, as we have blogged before, the mechanism for this process remains strangely mysterious.  The day we attend a preview and are given a little questionnaire to fill out, or are asked to stay afterwards to give some post-show feedback, is the day we will take these arguments seriously.  Kate Maltby was giving some quite useful, if public, feedback in her review – will it be heeded?  Somehow we think not.

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2 Responses to Everyone’s a critic: preview reviews are in for Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

  1. jeb54 says:

    Though I could take this whole Cumberbatch-in-Hamlet situation seriously, and maybe I would if I had more time, it’s easier to look for amusement in it. While I disagree somewhat with your stance on previews in the first link—my experience tells me that having an audience can be useful, and this doesn’t require any actual asking of questions or seeking of comments—I basically think that if members of the public (rather than an invited group of friends and colleagues, say) can see a show, they’re entitled to comment on it. Trying to suppress this is just laughable.

    As for the idea that a little red light on a phone would be distracting, I again agree with you: appearing on a stage depends on ignoring distractions. What about the woman who’s trying to read the playbill instead of watching the show, the kid who’s squirming restlessly in his seat, the man who has nodded off and sits with mouth agape, the young person who’s texting? This is to say nothing of all the sounds one may hear from an audience: coughs, rustling, “whispered” comments that are audible elsewhere… What about the actor who just missed his entrance, or the one who misspoke her line (which yours depends on), or the prop that just fell on the floor and broke, or the problem with the set?

    Photographing or recording a stage show is forbidden by management in every theater I can recall attending lately and is also proscribed by law in some places. It should suffice—but sometimes doesn’t—to remind audiences of that. Not having heard Cumberbatch’s plea, I think it conceivable that he chose an indirect and tactful way of asking people not to do it, but perhaps he really is a little more shaky on the stage than I would’ve thought.

    Speaking of distractions reminds me of an actor joke I read once, in an interview with Robert De Niro. You can find it on my blog, here.

    Like

    • rageoffstage says:

      Hi John – looks like this may run and run, we’ve got press night to come, not to mention live cinema screenings. He does seem to be a little on edge – he really needs to pace himself….

      We loved your joke, by the way, and here is one in return, a true story told to us by an actor friend: Back in the days when they still had prompts on the West End stage, one of the actors dried, and after a pause, the prompt gave the line. Silence. The prompt then repeated the line. Again silence. The prompt repeated the line for a third time. Finally one of the actors said ‘We know the f**king line, but who says it?!’

      Like

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