Taking risks with Shakespeare: lessons from the Cumberhamlet

Although I haven’t yet seen the Cumberhamlet, it’s obviously been on my radar. Reviews and opinions from friends, professional critics, respected academics, and everyone in between flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Theatre reviewing etiquette has been breached, with reviews hitting front pages during previews, well before the official opening night. It’s the fastest-selling ticket in British theatre history. People who would not normally go to the theatre have flocked to see Benedict Cumberbatch have a go at the most famous Prince of Denmark. The combined star-power of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the darling of popular media is irresistible. It’s being broadcast to cinemas across the country. For many, this production will be their only viewing of Hamlet in a theatre; for them, this production will be Hamlet–its imagery, its voices, its style will form their mental picture of what the play is. 

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the critical establishment has taken the opportunity to highlight all the ways in which Lyndsey Turner’s production is not the Hamlet it’s supposed to be.

First, of course, there was the problem of ‘to be or not to be’, which were the first words of the play in early previews. Kate Maltby kicked off the backlash against the shifted speech by calling the change ‘indefensible’. Michael Billington tells us that it ‘mercifully no longer opens the play’, but that there’s still too much ‘textual fiddling’ overall. They’re replaced ‘hoar’ with ‘pale’ in one of Gertrude’s lines–shock! horror! Quentin Letts complains that ‘Ms Turner has still fiddled around with the opening and the order of other scenes’–but, then, he does work for the Daily Mail.

Critics are kinder to Cumberbatch himself than they are to Turner’s production, with most agreeing that he is, in Domenic Cavendish’s words, ‘a blazing, five-star Hamlet in a middling, three-star show’. The production as a whole is considered ‘half-baked’, full of ‘ostentatious act[s] of liberty-taking’ (Cavendish again). According to Andrzej Lukowski, Cumberbatch ‘doesn’t seem to have come up with much of a reading of the doomed Dane. Or if he has, it’s drowned out by Turner’s enormous production’ (how dare she, like, actually direct the play?!).

Turner is hardly the first (nor, I hope, will she be the last) to treat a Shakespeare text playfully. Matthew Warchus’s 1998 Hamlet at the RSC, which also famously moved the opening scenes around, attracted similar kinds of critical attacks, for example. What’s worrying to me is not just that opinions of Turner’s and Warchus’s ‘textual fiddling’ are scarily similar despite the distance of seventeen years–it’s that this kind of critique seems designed to quash theatrical risk-taking, especially with “classics” such as Shakespeare.

If we are to carry on producing Shakespeare and other classic, canonical writers (as I suspect we are), we have to get better at encouraging directors’ and actors’ risks. One of the best ways to innovate with these kinds of texts, to my mind, is to do precisely the kind of ‘textual fiddling’ that the critics so abhor, and to get past the persistent desire for the reproduction of an authoritative or “authentic” text.