In it for the Body: Benedict Cumberbatch Plays Hamlet at the Barbican

I’m a fan of Sherlock Holmes-stories (and radio plays) since my childhood and have enjoyed the BBC’s Sherlock Series, like it’s US counterpart Elementary. I’m not what you’d call a “Cumberbitch”, nor am I particularly fond of actor Benedict Cumberbatch, I didn’t really like him, for example, as Khan in the last Star Trek movie (2013) or as WikiLeak’s Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate (2013), both rather uninspired movies to begin with. I enjoyed his performance as a straight-combed college quizteam leader in Starter for 10 (2006), though. Maybe it was because back then his own post-Sherlock-stardom – he has been varyingly described as “the thinking woman’s crumpet” (Independent, 2011), (one of the) “most eligible bachelor in the UK” (Tatler, 2012), or “gentleman of the year” (Country Life, 2014) – was not as overwhelming as it is now? (all quotes from Wikipedia)

David Garrick as Hamelt, artist unknown, public domain, via WikiMedia Commons

David Garrick in the Character of Hamlet, artist unknown, public domain, via WikiMedia Commons

Still, Cumberbatch’s casting as Hamlet in Lyndsey Turner’s production at the Barbican was hard to ignore. In a review for Deadline, Joe Utichi notes that “Cumberbatch is exceptionally good, merging character and actor without the latter dominating.” On the Barbican’s stage, Cumberbatch seems to have handled well the duality between character and person, inevitable in any performance whether on stage or on screen, and particularly so in the case of famous actors.

But the title of the review suggests that the apparent fascination of seeing this movie and TV star live on stage (see some critics’ and fans’ responses presented by The Daily Mail) is related to something else: “Benedict Cumberbatch, In The Solid Flesh, Opens As Hamlet…”

Philip Auslander, with regard to rock music concerts, uses a tri-fold system to distinguish between different aspects of the body on stage. Besides the “character”, he divides the “actor” into the “real person” and his or her stage “persona”:

“The persona is therefore the signified that mediates between the other two: the audience gains access to both the performer as a real person and the characters the performer portrays through the performer’s elaboration of a persona. ” (Auslander, “Performance Analysis and Popular Music: A Manifesto”, 2004: 12)

Fischer-Lichte, talking about theatre and performance art, stresses “the doubling of ‘being a body’ and ‘having a body,’ the co-existence of the phenomenal and semiotic body.” (Fischer-Lichte, Transformative Power of Performance, 2008: 82) The semiotic body signifies a character by means of embodiment, always based on the (signifying) phenomenal body. But, and this is crucial, either one of the two can never completely eradicate the other. Benedict Cumberbatch, when performing at the Barbican, is both himself and the Prince of Denmark, the difference lies in our eyes.

Statue of Holmes on Picardy Place in Edinburgh, photo by Siddharth Krish via WikiMedia Commons

Statue of Holmes on Picardy Place in Edinburgh, photo by Siddharth Krish via WikiMedia Commons

This is, in my opinion, the major appeal of pansori, too: Enjoying the interplay between the characters embodied by the singer, his or her storytelling about them, and the way that our perception continuously oscillates between semiotic and phenomenal body, in ways that Horatio can only dream of.

Utichi continues in his review of Hamlet: “This production knows Cumberbatch’s star is going to draw people unfamiliar with Shakespeare, so the staging is broad and unsubtle”. I haven’t seen but a few promotion images – Cumberbatch himself urged his fans not to take pictures or videos during performance. But I’m quite sure that many spectators are not there for yet another interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic.

My guess is that most are in it for the body – the phenomenal one. And it’s safe to assume that a worldwide screening of the production later in the run will not be as satisfying as the real “Hamlet”.

But then the tickets are booked out until the end of October… I’ll wait for Sherlock to return in a period piece Christmas Special later this year, and enjoy one or two pansori performances until then.

– 26 Aug. 2015 (水)

PS: I hope I’m not mistaken with the date – it proved tremendously difficult to find out the production’s premiere date, not least because of two weeks of preview shows…


About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in Abroad, At the Movies, Pansori, Shakespeare and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to In it for the Body: Benedict Cumberbatch Plays Hamlet at the Barbican

  1. violamuse says:

    I think you reach some kind of spiritual realm… you can contemplate your topic at any experience. That’s what I really want to be ;)
    Some of my friends recommended me to indulge in Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but this posting is even more. I feel like to get better thought by his Sherlock. Thanks~
    and please check your email box!

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