Benedict Cumberbatch Plays Hamlet in London

Benedict Cumberbatch has played Sherlock Holmes and Julian Assange. Now he takes on the role he’s always wanted: Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Benedict Cumberbatch has played Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing and Julian Assange. Now he takes on the role he’s always wanted: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, at London's Barbican Theatre.

When people talk about ‘overnight success’, it’s usually a metaphor for a rapid rise to fame. In Benedict Cumberbatch’s case, it is literally true. Very soon after his very first Sherlock was broadcast, he was pleased with the way they had updated Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective series to the modern world.

But there was no sense of what was about to hit. ‘It did feel like an overnight change,’ he reflected in Empire magazine four years later. ‘I didn't know there could be an immediate live response to television programmes. The immediate response on Twitter... this thing of my name trending worldwide... it was amazing.’

And there is no sign of Cumberfever dying down. Last year he photobombed U2 at the Oscars ceremony where he was presenting an award; he appeared on Sesame Street; had his likeness immortalised in wax by Madame Tussauds; this year he was an Academy Award nominee himself, appeared on the coveted cover of Vanity Fair’s 21st annual Hollywood Issue.

Harrow to Hollywood

How did an unusual-looking theatre and TV actor become one of the screen’s biggest stars and sex symbols, with roles in blockbusters such as Star Trek and The Hobbit to add to prestige parts such as Julian Assange and Alan Turing?

The son of actor parents, he was gifted even as a child. His drama teacher at Harrow, where he made his stage debut aged 12 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called him the best schoolboy actor he had ever worked with. His voice is a remarkably versatile instrument – just see the MTV interview in which he is asked to imitate as many celebrities as he can in a minute – switching from Jack Nicholson to Christopher Walken to Matthew McConaughey; he nails 11.

Stars of Star Trek Into the Darkness at its London premiere, UK
Benedict with his fellow stars for the premier of Star Trek, Into the Darkness (©Eamonn McCormack/Getty Images Entertainment/Thinkstock)

Playing Hamlet

Such is Benedict’s appeal that he caused the Shakespeare classic to become the most in-demand show in West End history: on the day tickets were released, 35,000 callers were waiting in the phone queue. If you didn’t manage to get one for the Barbican Theatre (5 August-31 October), 30 tickets will be available to queue for each day. It will also be broadcast across 550 cinemas worldwide on 15 October.

Hamlet finally opens this month at the Barbican, but the actor has been planning it for years. Asked at a Q&A in 2012 which play he would choose if he were only able to do one more, he said, in his typically British self-deprecating manner, ‘I think it would have to be Hamlet. I mean it’s a very vain project in a way, isn’t it, Hamlet, because every actor wants to have their go at it.’

From Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes to Jude Law and Michael Sheen, Hamlet is a rite of passage for every new generation’s brightest actors. But rather than being weighed down by the history, Benedict and director Lyndsey Turner have spent the last year stripping the play down and reassembling it. In the same way as he reinvented Sherlock Holmes, Benedict says he wants Hamlet to feel ‘like a new play that just landed as a pdf in someone’s computer inbox at the Royal Court. We want to escape the idea that it has been done before, and we’re looking at the whole play – not just the eponymous hero.’

Benedict promises to be extraordinary in the role. He’s no stranger to Shakespeare, having performed in several of his plays at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre way back at the turn of the millennium, and he specialises in oddballs and loners with a planet-sized brain, even playing Stephen Hawking a decade before his friend Eddie Redmayne did: ideal for the conflicted prince whose ‘native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Hamlet at Barbican Theatre, 5 August-31 October. Find out more about the performance here.

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