the royal exchange manchester

10

#wearehere

On 1 July 2016, 1,400 volunteers took part in a national memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. ‘We’re here because we’re here’ saw soldiers in First World War uniform appear unexpectedly in locations across the UK. Commissioned by 14-18 NOW, conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre and 27 other organisations including Lyric Theatre Belfast, Manchester Royal Exchange, National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre Wales.

The soldiers congregated without ceremony in public places up and down the country. Like ghosts, the soldiers remained silent throughout the day and when approached simply handed out a white card displaying the name, rank, battalion and regiment of a real soldier who had died at the Somme on July 1 2016.  All the volunteers carried the details of a different soldier.  

19,240 British soliders were killed on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme.

How will Sherlock shape up to the toughest role an actor can face?

News that Benedict Cumberbatch will play Hamlet at the Barbican next year has prompted a ticket frenzy. Is the actor ready for the ordeal ahead of him?

Watching an actor take on Hamlet is the closest we get to witnessing someone go into battle on stage. Does that sound like hyperbole? I don’t think it is.

The mad rush for tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at the Barbican next autumn – which began yesterday – isn’t simply about seeing the Sherlock star on stage. It’s about seeing how he connects with what must rank as the greatest play ever written, and one from which no leading player emerges quite the same. He – or she – may prove victorious, or be defeated. It is a mettle-testing, rite-of-passage experience. Small wonder that most of us want to be present at the reckoning.

I say “or she” because the challenge of Hamlet can, of course, be undertaken by an actress. Back in 1899, the French star Sarah Bernhardt courted controversy and earned plaudits by tackling the part in a landmark four-hour production, and this September Maxine Peake will fill the role at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

And yet, without wishing to rend the flag of equality in tatters, when we talk about Hamlet, we’re thinking – more often than not – about a male character and when we talk about Hamlet in performance, we’re thinking of the many male actors who have tried to make the part their own.

The mountain Cumberbatch, 38, has to climb isn’t simply the colossal nature of the role – its bewildering abundance of choices, its world-famous lines and soliloquies, and the tortuous psychological journey inscribed in the character’s epic five-act progress towards oblivion. No – just as Hamlet finds himself stepping into his father’s shoes, spooked by his ghost, full of doubt and confusion, so every actor who lays claim to a fresh interpretation is treading in the footsteps of many others, some of them giants of the world stage. Their reputations haunt and daunt. How will Cumberbatch measure up? That is the question.

Hamlet has apparently never been out of the repertoire since Richard Burbage created the role of Shakespeare’s Prince in the early 17th century. Many of us are far too young to have seen Burton, Gielgud, Olivier or Scofield; even Kenneth Branagh’s career-making performance in 1988 has now receded into theatrical lore, as has Jonathan Pryce’s tour de force in 1980. And yet these feats of performance are still referred to, held as benchmarks, just as the mighty conquests of Garrick, Kemble and Kean once were.

Since the turn of the last century alone, we have been spoilt for different shades of Dane. In 2000, Simon Russell Beale gave us an older, wiser, more rueful (and yes, more portly) Prince than we are used to, at the National. In the same year, Adrian Lester presented a different face as well, not just black but incredibly sensitive, sorrowful and gentle, in Peter Brook’s fleet-footed version originating in Paris.

Four years later, 23-year-old Ben Whishaw’s intense, painfully skinny and fearfully young Hamlet was a palpable hit at the Old Vic. Box-office hysteria engulfed then-Doctor Who David Tennant’s angular, wistful and sweetly sardonic turn for the RSC in 2008. And there were queues around the block to behold Jude Law’s febrile, muscular, petulant-yet-charming inaction-hero for Michael Grandage in 2009.

It’s interesting that one of the actors who was most expected to shine as Hamlet – Michael Sheen – came a cropper at the Young Vic three years ago, in large part because of the conceit of the production, which rendered Denmark as a psychiatric institution. I hope the director of the Barbican revival, Lyndsey Turner, took note: the role itself is the wellspring of the play’s intellectual excitement and emotional energy.

Each actor casts the part in his own likeness, and it will be up to Cumberbatch to dig deep to show us what he is made of. From what we have seen so far, he has great reserves of mercurial fascination. He’s capable of charm, intelligence, wit and likeability, but that’s almost only the starter-pack for Hamlet, who must burn with the rawness of grief, storm with the tempestuousness of youth, teeter on the borderline between insanity and revelation.

I worry that, as with far less celebrated performances – notably those by Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman – he may prove too buttoned-up and guarded. His Hamlet can never be all things to all men – but he must be his own man. He has the luxury of a year to brace himself for all this, though, and I’m sure that in his head those immortal words from the play, contemplating mortality, are already ringing: “The readiness is all.”

From The Telegraph…