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Matt Trueman: What if Cumberbatch wasn't doing Hamlet?

There are only 30 days until Hamlet opens at the Barbican

Benedict Cumberbatch and cast in rehearsals for Hamlet
© Johan Persson

Cumberbitches, are you ready? Not that any of you need reminding, I'm sure, but there are only 30 days until Hamlet opens at the Barbican. You know, the one with Benedict Cumberbatch in it. 30 days. You can get a six-pack in that time, apparently. You can dissolve a dead rat in Mountain Dew, should you so wish.

Make no mistake, the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet is the most eagerly anticipated show I can remember. You could resurrect Laurence Olivier and have him star opposite Harry Styles and Nicki Minaj in a new Alan Bennett directed by Sam Mendes and people would still be like: Whatevs, how long ‘til CumberHamlet?

We've had 18 months of build-up, a drip-feed of casting news, a poster that gives nothing away and, last week, a handful of rehearsal shots, and anticipation is at full pitch.

If you want a sense of how excited people are, let me put it like this: David Tennant's Hamlet sold out its 6,000-odd tickets in three hours. In the same time, the queue for Cumberbatch tickets was over 35,000 long – on top of all those people that had already managed to book. Another 43,000 applied for the second ticket ballot, hoping to bag one of the 5000 remaining tickets going for £10. That is a lot of people looking to get inside a theatre.

So, here's a question: What if Bendy wasn't doing Hamlet? What if he had picked another play?

Because the thing about fanbases is that they'll follow their favourite wherever they go and whatever they do. Mr C could burp his way through "Amazing Grace" for two hours straight and still pack big houses out. He could sell out a new Howard Barker. That's a lot of power. A fanbase means you can pick and choose your projects and guarantee them a readymade audience. You get to hold sway.

And you know what they say about what comes with great power? Big pay cheques, yes, but responsibility too. If the Sherlock star can get almost anything made and seen, well, should he be throwing his weight behind Hamlet?

It's not like the play needs its case making. No-one's on the fence about Hamlet. Nor have we had a shortage of Hamlets in recent years: Tennant, Kinnear, Law, Peake, Sheen; then less high-profile ones like Josh Maguire, Jonathan Slinger, Scott Shepherd for the Wooster Group, the Globe's world tour, the Tiger Lillies and Northern Ballet. We've even already had a Hamlet on the Barbican stage this year, courtesy of Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa (his fifth, incidentally).

This isn't to begrudge Cumberbatch his shot at Hamlet. It is, after all, the part every young actor dreams of playing and the one the best get to measure themselves against. He's done his fair share of interesting parts on the way to superstardom – be it Martin Crimp, Eugene Ionesco or a rejuvenated Terence Rattigan. On paper, he's a great fit for it too: Hamlet has the same mental agility that marks out some of his best performances – Sherlock, of course, but also Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking and others. Having just turned 39, it's also basically his last chance at the student prince. Even David Tennant was only 37 when he took the part.

But I can't help thinking what else Cumberbatch might have mobilised his fanbase towards: a new play by a promising writer, perhaps, or a neglected classic, a piece with a political message at its heart.

Look what happens when stars take on unexpected projects. How many people saw Coriolanus because Tom Hiddleston took on the title role? A difficult Shakespeare beamed to tens of thousands through NT Live. Or think of James McAvoy and The Ruling Class – a 50 year-old Peter Barnes play, not staged in London since its premiere, suddenly playing to sold out houses in the middle of the West End. Or Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51, a UK premiere for a play with a distinctly feminist message. Or Andrew Scott in Birdland at the Royal Court.

All these unusual, one-of-a-kind projects were given a much higher profile by the presence of a star and their accompanying fans. Imagine what Cumberbatch could have done.

Still all this is a quibble. A big fat ‘What if?' At the end of the day, if Benedict Cumberbatch draws in first-time theatregoers to Hamlet, that's a whole heap of people that might otherwise have lived their lives without seeing one of the greatest plays ever written – and that can only be a good thing. I just hope he comes back to the stage soon and gets his fans to see something else as well.

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