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Cumberbatch, Cooper and Kidman - the West End A List
The strapline 'A-list Celebrity' is something that people all over the world strive for their entire lives. With Twitter, Instagram and reality TV churning out 'celebrities' by the day, the top percentile remains a closely guarded club which requires an unprecedented amount of skill, talent and self branding to access.
Nowhere is this elite more exclusive than in Hollywood, with actors and actresses aware of their social standing in the 'City of Angels', directly related to pay cheques and film offers that land at their feet. To many, appearance fees for even the most trivial film can mount to millions - a figure no theatre production could ever hope to compete with.
Celebrities on stage have always been a part of the West End and Broadway, with the bright light attracting performers from all over the world. With many actors having originally trained in stagecraft, the artificiality of films and the multiple takes can often destroy the 'magic' of acting, something that the stage is quick to deliver.
I was struck last week whilst watching Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man, not just by his acting ability, but by the audience the piece has drawn to the Theatre Royal Haymarket. On paper, Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play is fairly unremarkable - and would struggle in this market to sell out a fringe venue, despite who was directing and performing. The mere presence of Cooper, and indeed the full Broadway cast, levitates the piece to a much high standard in the eyes of the 'ordinary' theatre goer. As someone who attends a variety of performances across London on average four times a week, I couldn't help but notice the diversity of the crowd that had been drawn in for this particular performance that made a refreshing change to most other West End houses.
Bradley Cooper in 'The Elephant Man'
This phenomenon is of course nothing new. Daniel Radcliffe, David Tennant and Jude Law are all (British) names who have created a box office stir thanks to them 'crossing over' to live theatre. Peter Shaffer's Equus was a similarly obscure choice for Radcliffe fans to sit through, but sit through it they did - if only for a chance to gawk at Radcliffe's 'wand'.
Celebrity led Shakespeare productions are again nothing new. Actors in every generation want to tackle the 'big' roles, whether it be Hamlet in their younger days, Macbeth in their middle age or Lear in their twilight years. Many of these monolithic roles appear on bucket lists for reasons of personal challenge and in many cases to shake off more popular film roles and prove a point that they can 'act' in a more traditional sense.
Daniel Day Lewis famously played the Danish King in Richard Eyre's 1989 production of 'Hamlet' at the National Theatre, a role that pushed him to the edge in every respect. Midway through a performance, the actor stopped and began to sob uncontrollably, and was unable to finish the performance. Speculation mounted that he had said he could see the ghost of his own father, resulting in him walking off stage and hasn't set foot back on it since. He was replaced in the role by the late Ian Charleson, performing the role for his second time, despite ill health.
Daniel Day Lewis in Hamlet
Benedict Cumberbatch's turn in the Bard's classic tragedy was met with surprise and excitement when originally announced last year. The production went on to become the fastest selling live theatre event of all time - with tickets flying off the virtual shelves almost instantly. The anticipation created a sensation in itself - as the tickets became like gold dust, despite such little information available about the actual show itself.
There's an old Broadway adage often repeated of the tourist who says "I wanted to see that show, until I realised you could get a ticket for it..." Audiences are constantly drawn to the show that their hotel concierge is struggling to get a ticket for - the mere fact it has sold out creates a second wave of buzz and attention - and the product becomes further in demand. A similar thing is happening on Broadway at the moment with the new musical Hamilton - Lin Manuel Miranda's hip-hop history lesson about the founding father who is now immortalised on the $10 note. From humble beginnings downtown, the show used its own success to breed further success, and has already become the most talked about and sold-out production of the season.
Cumberbatch's box office power is thanks in the main to the self proclaimed 'Cumberbitches' who are eager to jump on anything he does. As an actor, he has collected fans throughout a variety of projects - from working on stage at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre and the National to TV roles in 'Sherlock'. Most recently, his Hollywood screen break came in the form of Alan Turing in 'The Imitation Game' - a role which saw him nominated for an Oscar. He credentials as a celebrity rose almost overnight, and at least at the moment, he is part of the exclusive 'A-list' that's so sought after by many.
Benedict Cumberbatch in 'Frankenstein'
In an economy when going to the theatre is considered expensive, theatres around the country are attempting to diversify audiences as much as possible. There are many who moan that celebrity productions 'devalue' the West End and are opportunistic moves by Producers who are eager to make a fast buck. The flip side of this however means that a wider base of people get to enjoy an otherwise maybe alien text, that they would never have ordinarily been to see. The Elephant Man is a powerful and affecting piece of theatre - and something that I hope has inspired the mixed audience to explore further. The upcoming production of Photograph 51 - an original play starring Nicole Kidman will again bring a relatively unknown story into a much wider field of play - which can surely only be a positive.
Hamlet is a text many have struggled with - be it at school or further study - but the mere presence of Cumberbatch has drawn a new audience, not only to the piece but to the work of the director Lyndsey Turner, and to the Barbican itself. If even 1% of this new audience chooses to see another piece of theatre, another Shakespeare or even take a risk on something altogether new - then there is justification and a place for A-listers in the West End.
Don't miss your chance to see the most talked about production of the year.
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