BENEDICT Cumberbatch – known around my house as “Darth RADA” – is having problems with his Hamlet run in London’s West End.
One obvious problem is that reviewers gave its very early preview performances only two stars out of five. This has generated a wider discussion (led by John Tiffany, formerly of the National Theatre of Scotland) about how negative hacks should give hard-working thesps a break, as they “develop” and “emerge” their productions over a run.
I expect “Shakespeare” – whatever individuals or historical processes stand behind that term – made exactly the same mud-spattered complaints about perfidious punditry backstage at the Globe, somewhere between 1599 and 1602 (the date-range of Hamlet’s origin).
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But Cumberbatch’s other complaint is much more interesting and ironic. For myself, it also explains why I am increasingly (not decreasingly) fascinated by the works of Shakespeare, and in general Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and poetry, as I get older.
In short, if you are interested in how modern times came to be, and what it feels like to transition from one epoch to another, you have to stay in touch with Shakespeare – not respectfully, but dynamically, opening out its language and themes to the present (and future).
Darth’s second problem is both ultra-modern and perennial. Last week, after a lacklustre performance, the actor came out to meet the backstage crowds of “Cumberbitches” (their self-chosen name: he doesn’t like it). He then delivered a rather contradictory message about their use of social media and smartphones during the performance.
“Please tweet, blog and hashtag the shit out of this play”, Benedict asked the swooning crowds. However, the “red lights” of recording smartphones in the auditorium, glowing as they captured the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy, had been so distracting to the actor that he had to stop and start again.
“It’s mortifying and there’s nothing less supportive … I can’t give you what I want to give you, which is a live performance that you will remember and hopefully in your minds and brains – whether it’s good, bad or indifferent – rather than on your phones. So, please don’t.” Or in subsequent performances, Cumberbatch warned, you will be evicted.
There are three issues here – historical, artistic and philosophical. Firstly, were the original conditions in which Hamlet was performed all that reverential? Not at all.
Audiences in the “penny-stinkers” ate and swilled, chatted up fanciable prospects, booed or threw objects at poor performers or infamous villains – and even answered back to soliloquies. By comparison, the potentially silent video-recording of a moby seems thoroughly respectful.
Secondly, most Shakespeare plays are artistically structured to cope with the diverse demands of their original audiences – both the nobles in the boxes and the artisans in the stalls. Hamlet himself calls the latter “groundlings” (typical of him). They are “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise” – and you can nearly hear the cat-calls answering his princely, screwed-up contempt.
But even in the playtext of Hamlet there are insertions of raw entertainment into the overall court-angst. Songs, capering clowns, gravediggers as stand-up comics, lunging swordplay, Hamlet’s own relentless piss-taking.
Of course, the original audiences could be enraptured. “Sit in a full theatre”, wrote Shakespeare’s near-contemporary John Webster, “and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, whiles the actor is the centre.” Cumberbatch may be looking for exactly that raptness – and he may get it. But he should be more robust in the face of the evident pleasure and appreciation of audiences, as Shakespeare’s work intrinsically is.
But the third issue – sparked by the use of these “funny electronic things”, in Cumberbatch’s fogeyish words – begins to capture the profound relevancy of Shakespeare to the present. Is there a character more relevant to the age of screens and selfies, avatars and updates, subversive stunts and freak performances, than Hamlet?
Hamlet is out to confirm his ghostly late father’s claim – that he (the king) was murdered by his own brother. Hamlet’s stratagem is to put on a cheesy court-play that parallels the murderous act, which the prince sets running before the suspect brother on his throne. From the side, Hamlet keenly watches his stepfather’s reactions for signs of guilt.
David Tennant’s brilliant rendition, which the BBC filmed in a modern setting in 2009 (available online), actually has Hamlet using a small super-8 handheld camera to record Claudius’s face. When he wants to make sure he is alone to soliloquise, Hamlet rips the security camera from the wall of the central chamber, crunching it underfoot. The production highlights that much of Hamlet is about the surveillance of the state, closely observing the behaviour of those who might challenge its legitimacy and power.
Surely the challenge for any contemporary producer/director of Hamlet is to respond to our hyper-aware world of mass self-communication – a world where we shape our own image, and critique the shaping of others, at will. And surely that means not chasing mobys (and their users) out of the sacred, whispering space of establishment theatre. To bastardise the original line: the digital “play [or replay] is the thing, by which we catch the conscience” of the kingly elites of our current world. Let me mention Assange, or Snowden, or Manning, or Mitt Romney, or the Falstaffian Lord Sewel…
Yet it’s not just Shakespeare’s Hamlet that easily meshes with the concerns of early 21st-century modernity. As Paul Mason recently wrote in his book PostCapitalism, you go to The Complete Works to feel what it’s like to live between the fall of one old model of economy and society and the rise of an entirely new one.
In the history plays, old feudal loyalties are being dissolved by money concerns and mercenary ambitions. In the comedies and tragedies, Mason notes, there are as many “bankers, merchants, companies, mercenary soldiers, trading cities and republics”, as there are aristocrats, castles and monarchies.
And the heroes, whether noble or not, display all the self-fashioning skills of the coming merchant era. Othello is defined by his bravery, Hamlet and Prospero (from The Tempest) by their philosophical intensity, Portia (in The Merchant of Venice) by her mastery of the law.
I have seen two recent productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company of non-Shakespearean Jacobean plays – the anonymous Arden of Faversham and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Both of them cranked up the appetite-driven, materially obsessed, ambiently violent tendencies of the original texts to an enjoyable modern extreme – somewhere between The Only Way Is Essex and Monty Python.
Some do have a grumble about all this. “Can’t they just do it straight, for once?” But this presumes the originals were ever “straight” themselves, rather than their words buckling, mutating – and sometimes flowering – under the pressure of their age.
So grapple with Shakespeare. It’s taken me a good 30-odd years to feel fully capable of it. My early educational experiences, like many, were not good. But now, freed from the exam and peer-group angst, I’m enjoying myself.
Look also for those who simply want to be inspired by him, to make new works. Close to home, David Greig’s Dunsinane – his sequel to Macbeth – wants audiences to think as much about self-government, Gaelic and Gulf imperialisms, as it does bloody daggers and malevolent women.
And perhaps most important of all: read Shakespeare out loud, and in your own accent, unencumbered by any anxiety about “speaking it right”. One of my favourite chapters in one of my all-time favourite books, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose, is called the “People’s Bard”. Rose recounts a huge, inspiring 19th-century workers’ culture of Shakespeare appreciation.
Perhaps the more social media Darth RADA gets from his CumberFans, the more Shakespeare can be replugged back into the vital currents of everyday culture. If I were him, thinking of the thespian long-term, I wouldn’t complain about those wee red lights.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today)