Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.

Would the night were come! / Till then sit still, my soul
– I.II

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. The dizzy white rush to the head, the racing heart, is almost overwhelming. A great actor, metres before me, about to embody a character and speak words that, on page and screen, have transported, entertained and moved me.

Horatio enters, dressed in flannelette and wearing a backpack, looking like a hipster, providing the first bit of warmth and light in a play that contains so much of it, alongside the grief, sadness, petulance, desperation, ill will, violence, and Thanatos. One of the reasons Hamlet is my favourite tragedy is because of this expertly balanced lightness: loyal Horatio, Polonius the prattling knave, the sarcastic gravedigger, the failures of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the way Hamlet talks to his father’s ghost – Well said, old mole! – and even the clownishness of Hamlet’s madness.

My beating heart calms a little, and actor becomes character. Hamlet’s madness is one area where Cumberbatch excels. He’s an excellent physical and comedic actor. He hops elegantly onto the central table in various scenes; he prances as he speaks words, words, words to Polonius. When he switches and darkens, lifting the tie around his neck into a noose, questioning existence and why one should keep going against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, it genuinely rattles.

the readiness is all.

Theatre is a uniquely physical, transient medium. I saw Cumberbatch as Hamlet twice at London’s Barbican Theatre, and even between those two performances, a week apart, there were differences in the play’s energy and even in the delivery of lines. I saw it twice because of the limits of my own corporeality, the way my bodily anxiety obstructs my experience of a text. During the first performance my stomach was clenched and moaning. I was trying to suck the play into my body, to imprint every single gesture, while knowing the attempt was fruitless. I wanted to preserve in my mind’s eye the way the actors’ eyes shone with tears, or the way sweat flicked from Cumberbatch’s hair into the air between us. The theatre, as an art form, is wet, not flat and dry like a book or film.

I wanted to see the play a second time so I could relax more, and let it wash over me. To my shame, though, I still felt anxious before the second viewing. I decided to enlist a chemical aid – a pill to help me relax enough to sit and absorb. Certain lines – sit still, my soul – jumped out at me as they never had before. The readiness is all perfectly evokes the workings of an anxious mind.

It’s one of the things I love most about Shakespeare, something that is a marvel to me every time I see a different version of one of his plays: the fact that new lines make themselves known, or take on new meaning, each time I encounter a text. This newness is provoked by the actors’ delivery, and by what is happening both in my life and in the world around me.

One line from Hamlet that leapt out at me on my second viewing of the production was Laertes saying, to Ophelia, And keep you in the rear of your affection. Amusingly, I immediately associated it with the contemporary dating notion of ‘the long game’, wherein a person moves slowly and hides the extent of their affections, not wanting to ruin their chances of reciprocation. What Laertes means, of course, is that his sister Ophelia should try to quiet her affections for Hamlet, because he fears she will be wronged by him. The actual meaning is different from my association, but with Shakespeare we borrow lines and try them out in new contexts, and in doing so give them fresh significance. This has happened throughout history, and it was amusing to hear the audience’s intake of breath in recognition of particular lines: in my mind’s eye; to thine own self be true; though this be madness, yet there is method in it; dog will have his day; the lady doth protest too much, methinks; and many others.

And then there is the play within the play: Hamlet marvels at the actor’s ability to transport him and to make cry real tears for Hecuba. (What’s Hecuba to him? Or he to Hecuba?) This scene emphasises the power of theatre, but the self-conscious nature of the speech also engages the viewer’s intellect, drawing you out of the play for a moment, to consider that you too are being manipulated by a performance (it knows how to play our stops!). With my adrenalised body and intellect reminding me constantly that I was in a theatre, having a twice-in-a-lifetime experience, this scene tickled me afresh.

cumberbatch stage door

Cumberbatch at the stage door. Photo courtesy the author.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt

After the first performance, my friend and I found the stage door. We were too late to get right up the front, but I tried not to care. What would it even mean, to meet Benedict Cumberbatch? Why did I want to? Why were all of us standing there, hearts racing? Some of the actors scooted past, perhaps finding our presence grotesque, while others were friendly and happy to chat and sign programs.

Eventually, Cumberbatch came out. He could not possibly attend to everyone, but he signed programs and spoke to people, as we all took square, Instagram-ready photos on our phones. Even after having given two physically and emotionally draining performances in one day, he was kind and patient. A woman behind me called out in frustration:

‘Mr Cumberbatch!’

He tried to find her face in the crowd.

‘I came all the way from Vancouver to see you!’

‘Thank you,’ he said.

Before the second performance, words began creeping into my head: words I might say if I got to meet Cumberbatch. I dismissed each possibility, laughing at myself, as I realised they were motivated by a desire for him to notice me, to see I was different, that I really loved Shakespeare. We fans at the stage door all wore lipstick for him, dressed our best. I decided I’d just say: thank you for your performance. But then I wondered: is not saying something attention-seeking simply another ruse to grab his attention? I considered not going to the stage door at all, being an adult and accepting that the play, and my view from the fourth row, were enough.

I did go to the stage door a second time, and I was close to the barrier this time. But then a stagehand came out to announce that Cumberbatch had other plans that night and wouldn’t be signing. I tried not to be disappointed, it was absurd. But I had wanted to get just a little bit closer. There’s some kind of sensory deprivation that happens with crushes, even celebrity ones. Your eyes and ears can be thrilled, particularly in the intimate physical environment of the theatre, but other senses are left bereft. Proclaim no shame / When the compulsive ardour gives the charge, says Hamlet sarcastically to his mother.

His visage remains in my mind’s eye, haunting like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

In this distracted globe.

Cumberbatch entreated the audience to donate to the Syrian Children’s Relief Fund. You can too.

Hamlet by Sonia Friedman productions played London’s Barbican Theatre, 5 Aug 2015 – 31 Oct 2015. Season closed.