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Michael Coveney: Cumberbatch takes arms against a sea of troubles

The hype over Hamlet has reached fever pitch

Mother of all hype: Anastasia Hille (Gertrude) and Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at the Barbican
© Johan Persson

When The Times broke the embargo on reviewing Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet at the Barbican, their critic, Kate Maltby, moaned about the play starting (incorrectly) with "To be or not to be." Now, in a front page story, the paper smugly congratulates itself on getting the speech restored to its more accustomed place in the third act, adding that Bendy now kicks off proceedings with "Who's there?"

Ha! If he does, and I bet he doesn't, that's even worse, for Hamlet's not in the first scene and the question belongs to Barnardo, one of the sentinels on the castle watch. In that initially misplaced opening speech Bendy contemplates sleep and death, and whether it is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.

He's taken the second option. The brave lad's hanging in there, not yet suicidal. Having asked his fans to calm down and stop phoning, tweeting, squealing and filming during the performance - reports suggest that they have fallen into line, bless - he's defied the Barbican's own stage door siege ban and done some meeting and greeting and autograph-cum-selfie business with those pesky Cumberbitches after one or two shows this week.

It was always going to be tricky for him, as it was for Madonna on stage here at Wyndham's and, to a lesser extent, David Tennant as Richard II (returning in the New Year) at Bendy's Barbican. But the lad's a born trouper, as we now see from an old Harrovian school chum's account in the Sunday Times of his performances as Petruchio, ginger-haired butch seducer, and Titania, arch queen of the fairies.

Times newspapers, in fact, have been carrying on like hysterical Cumberbitches themselves, adding to the frenzy by not only reviewing the first preview but also by running two versions of the same feature story - Bendy in school shows - with the identical large picture of BC among his fellow junior thespians in the very same Sunday edition (news and culture sections).

Having stirred that frenzy, they then unleashed "killer" columnist and film critic Camilla Long to blow the whistle on their own craven salivating by describing Bendy as "a sanctimonious, snivelling turbo-drip" (perhaps she meant the character he plays, which would make a little more sense), comparing him unfavourably with Dirk Bogarde, her ideal of a real megastar. But... Bogarde was a stage actor before the war and afterwards, at the height of his movie fame in the mid-1950s, he toured in a play, Summertime, that created Bendy-like havoc at every stage door in the country. Performances were disrupted by girls shouting at him from the audience. And, unlike Bendy, he simply couldn't, or wouldn't, cope with it. Apart from one appearance at the Oxford Playhouse in 1958, he never appeared on stage again, defeated by the mayhem of it all.

Then, last week, the greatest RSC Hamlet of all, David Warner, said that he was lucky, in the 1960s, to have pre-empted mobile phones and such-like but that it could be mildly disconcerting - and it was - to have knickers, flowers and bunches of keys thrown onto the stage mid-speech. So, as usual, there really is nothing new under the sun in all this brouhaha. But of course the social media and tweeting has upped the ante on the frenzy and Bendy will probably be relieved at last to know that professional critics will be filing into the theatre over the coming few days, with reviews embargoed until next Wednesday.

'The Barbican hasn't handled this whole business at all well'

The Times reviews editor, Debra Craine, started to defend her paper's action in sending in a rooky, unknown critic to dish the dirt big-time on Bendy by saying she didn't really see the point of previews in the first place; ballet and opera don't have them, on the whole. But this was disingenuous of her as she hasn't, as far as I know, raised this objection to them before. She then defeated her own argument by quoting a whole bunch of theatre professionals putting the case against the Times's action.

The Mail also broke the embargo by sending in a non-critic, Jan Moir, to gush five-star style over Bendy - no complaints about that from the producers, while The Times, apparently, heard from their lawyers! - while the Telegraph's Serena Davies (who has proper critical chops) behaved semi-impeccably by reporting the first preview in an informative but still provisional sort of newsy way.

Three weeks of previews have been a bit excessive, but many musicals take up almost as much preview time and some shows - eg, McQueen, transferring from the St James to the Haymarket next week - use previews to fine-tune so drastically that they have even cancelled some of them, due to technical problems; but there's no postponement of the opening night next Thursday.

Where the Barbican has gone seriously wrong - presumably at the behest of producer Sonia Friedman - is in charging previews at no less a rate than the asking price after opening. And in making that preview period at full ticket price so protracted, they only have themselves to blame for the breaking of the embargo. The Barbican hasn't handled this whole business at all well and, to add insult to injury, even has the cheek to charge £8.50 for the programmes.

There used to be a gentlemen's agreement - those were the days! - between the managements and the Critics' Circle over the amount of time permissible for previews before the public interest was represented in the weighing in of dispassionate, objective reviews; usually a week for "straight" theatre, perhaps double that for musicals. On the whole, that quasi-rule still applies. And, for most of the time, the managements want reviews in quickly so that the public knows what's going on. Again, social media and twitter may have changed the parameters of this discussion; but, let's face it, reviews are reviews, and tweeting is tweeting, there's a huge difference.

The RSC and the NT play strictly by the old practice. Next week's opening of the revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good will open at the NT after six previews, and the same theatre's As You Like It, with Rosalie Craig as Rosalind, in October after seven; at Stratford, the RSC's new Henry V will open next month after just eight previews. That surely should be the norm, and one worth reiterating in the commercial sector by the Critics' Circle. Early on, the Barbican was saying that the Hamlet first night was held back because of critics being in Edinburgh. But many of the major critics don't bother with Edinburgh anymore and, even if they did, they'd rush back for Bendy. Meanwhile, Bendy's in for the long haul right through to the end of October. Good on him. I can't imagine he's no good in the role. Can I have a stage-door selfie, please?

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