Something is rotten: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and the rising cost of London Theatre

By December 11, 2015


Benedict_Cumberbatch_Imitation_Game_10_TIFF_2014Recently the BBC reported that the price of theatre tickets in the UK has risen 5% in the last year, in yet another case of the arts becoming more inaccessible to those with lower disposable incomes in Britain. Interestingly, this report coincided with Benedict Cumberbatch’s much talked about run as the eponymous Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre. There seems to be an unusual correlation in the amount of celebrity actors performing on the London stages and the notable rise in ticket sales, with tickets for Hamlet costing on average £85. And Hamlet is not the only example – Kevin Spacey’s recent appearance in Clarence Darrow at The Old Vic, and Kenneth Brangah’s upcoming series of productions at The Garrick, featuring the likes of Judi Dench, Lily James and Richard Madden all boast sell out crowds, but fiercely expensive tickets.

These big names are drawing crowds to theatres, no doubt. Tickets for all of these productions sold out and people could be seen queuing outside the theatres in the early hours of the morning for a chance to score an unwanted or discounted ticket. However, are they the kind of crowds who really need access to theatre? And what are these big name productions doing to damage the role of affordable theatre in the UK?

I would argue that this hike in prices is due to the fact that theatre has become so heavily commercialised: theatres rely on big names to draw crowds, but big names cost money, and so theatre becomes a lucrative but isolating business. The young people, the poor, and the people who just generally don’t have a spare £150 to take them and their date to the theatre lose out, and talent goes where the money is. People in the business of making theatre understandably want to turn a profit and thus head for jobs that will provide them with the opportunities. Big celebrity names draw crowds, and those who can afford to attend performances will inevitably flock.

However, where does this leave those who love theatre but cannot afford highly priced tickets? It means there is a larger gap developing between volunteer and free theatre, and professional theatre, and regrettably if all the talent is headed towards companies and theatres that draw big names, smaller companies and new companies lose out. There needs to be more money and talent injected into middle ground theatre, theatre that is both affordable and high quality will allow it to be more accessible and therefore allow the industry to flourish.

As for Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, money and names clearly do not always result in quality theatre. The production itself was astounding; the attention to detail in the set and costume was incredible. The overall effect of the supporting cast and direction was wonderful, and Cumberbatch as Hamlet was a job well done as far as I am concerned. Yet the show itself lacked edge. Hamlet is a character who is raw with emotions, and Cumberbatch was too polished in his role. The state of Denmark is ‘rotten’ in the play, crumbling at the edges, and yet the destruction of the set at end of the first act was over-engineered and gauche. Something about the entire production felt just too produced. With all the money and media frenzy that fuelled this production, something of its edge and darkness was left behind.

Perhaps that’s just it, with all the anticipation and attention this production gained it was always bound to disappoint. An Oscar nominated actor with such a dedicated following as Cumberbatch is bound to draw both manic crowds and subsequently extortionate ticket prices, but I can’t help but wonder. If Cumberbatch with all his pristine talents, had been performing the same role without the world watching, his Hamlet might have provided the satisfaction we all hoped it would.