It's safe to say that no show has been more eagerly anticipated this year than actor-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch starring in the title role of Hamlet, in a new production at the Barbican Theatre. When tickets went on sale a full year ahead of its run, they sold out almost instantly.
And now that it has begun previews ahead of its official opening on August 25, the feeding frenzy of news (and even reviews) has been unstoppable. Reviews? Yes — as Broadway theatre owner Jordan Roth put it in a feature on deadline.com, "several London critics didn’t just write the headlines, they were the headlines."
No fewer than three major national papers broke the usual respect for embargoes on reviewing before the press night and behaved like some bloggers, filing reviews straight after the first preview. In the case of the respected Dominic Cavendish, lead critic for the Daily Telegraph, he openly acknowledged his indiscretion, but then offered a wild defence: "Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge a production by its first preview. In the case of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, though, the pressure to deliver a verdict at lightning-speed is intense, and in a sense he only has himself to blame." That, to be honest, is a bit like saying a molested woman only has herself to blame for dressing too provocatively.
As Roth again also eloquently argued, "Given that the artists are continuing to rework and refine, what’s the point of a review that’s out of date as soon as it runs? Would a restaurant critic sneak into the kitchen, take a spoonful of soup off the stove and print that it needs more seasoning? And if she did, how would that be indicative of what that chef is capable of and how would that help readers decide if they wanted to eat there?"
But it seems that plenty want to eat there, and getting a reservation at this particular theatrical eatery is virtually impossible. Fans were pictured camping out overnight at the Barbican before the first preview for a chance to secure one of the £10 day seats being offered.
Not all, however, have been behaving as respectfully as you'd might hope. Cumberbatch was forced, a few days into the run, to make an impromptu stage door appearance to tell the fans gathered there, "I want to try to enlist you. I don't use social media, and I'd really appreciate it if you tweeted, blog, hash tagged the shit out of this: I can see cameras, I can see red lights, in the auditorium." That night, they had to re-start the show after, as he put it, "I could see a red light in about the 3rd row on the right — it's mortifying and there's nothing less supportive or enjoyable an actor being on stage experiencing that. I can't give you what I want to give you, which is a live performance, rather than on your phones."
And then he warned them: the theatre was "going to get strict now — people will be detected and evicted. I don't want that to happen — that's a horrible way to police what is a wonderful thing."
I sincerely hope that the production turns out to be a wonderful thing, and I'll be there to review it for londontheatre.co.uk on August 25. But right now, I'm already starting to feel like I've already seen it, such has been the media furore around it.