Is Cumbermania Turning The Media Into Show Doctors?

August 19th, 2015 § 1 comment

Benedict Cumberbatch in rehearsals for Hamlet

Benedict Cumberbatch in rehearsal for Hamlet

Four years ago, I pondered whether, in this age of social media and vastly accelerated information distribution online, “Will The Embargo Hold?” I was referring to the long-accepted practice by which theatrical productions designated a preview period, during which the production would be refined and altered, in view of the public, but with the critical press waiting until the defined opening night to render their verdicts.

The Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet, now in previews at The Barbican in London, has been perhaps the highest profile test of the arts embargo, with several outlets sending critics and reporters to the very first performance. Some wrote out and out reviews, some claimed they were simply reporting on it, but nonetheless, the production was described with specificity and opinions were rendered. A wave of commentary on the breach of the embargo ensued.

A report in The Daily Beast on Monday, elaborated upon in The Telegraph yesterday, added a new twist to the conversation. According to the Beast, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, which had been relocated to the very start of the play in early previews, was now back in its original place in Shakespeare’s script.

There’s no question that the director’s early vision regarding one of the most famous speeches in theatrical history was a surprise, and you may have your own views about whether such a change is advisable. But Hamlet is in the public domain, as are all Shakespeare’s works, which means they can be manipulated, reworked, transformed and pillaged as artists see fit. Director Lyndsey Turner had every right to try this approach.

But because of the reporting on those very early previews, Turner’s directorial decision was subjected not only to scrutiny, but to scorn from some quarters. As a result, we don’t know whether the restoration of the speech to its original place in the script was driven by critical, academic and public outcry, or simply because Turner (and perhaps Cumberbatch) decided it wasn’t working. Deprived of the opportunity to experiment and explore a bit without critical judgment, I expect that even the reviews of the final version will still opine about the placement of the speech, even though it’s back where it began and many critics never even saw the initial, atypical version.

The press’s near-obsession with the Cumberbatch Hamlet is quite extraordinary. It seems that there are news stories almost daily, whether about the production itself, about Cumberbatch’s request that audience members don’t shoot video of it, and so on. It’s not entirely unexpected for a show which sold out its run a year in advance, but surely bigger stars have taken to the stage before; perhaps this is the first UK social media theatre blockbuster and it has forced the mainstream media to struggle to keep up.

While I was fully aware of the increasing permeability of the arts embargo, I’m still troubled by what’s happened with this Hamlet. Has the exceptionally early appearance of reviews and “reports,” which gave other outlets the right to report on that coverage even if they elected not to review the production themselves, had a fundamental effect on the production? Has Lyndsey Turner directly or indirectly been forced to alter her production, in part because the shock impact of reworking the text has been eliminated by the press, and because of criticism of the approach?

While I suspect the slow crumbling of the embargo has been accelerated by Cumbermania, it may last in general use for a while yet. Theatres will likely cling to their stated openings for as long as possible, even when media outlets make their voices heard somewhat prematurely, in the eyes of the producers and artists involved. But it’s possible that, especially for productions with major stars, this may force shows back towards more limited previews, lest the press be allowed to start playing show doctor (or dictator) at their own discretion. And if that’s the case, are artists – regardless of whether they’re working in a commercial or not-for-profit settings – losing out? And ultimately, are audiences losing out as well?


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  • Great commentary as always. Here are a few thoughts: first, I’ve always thought the idea that a “preview” isn’t a full show is a polite fiction we all entertain. In reality, as stage manager, I have to treat a preview as opening night. There might be a few tweaks here and there, but the show at that point is basically there (no one’s going to have the budget or time to strike a big set piece or add a new one).

    Second: while I understand the fear that professional criticism may have a chilling effect on the artistic process (and it does anyway, even if the critics politely keep their knives on the table until a certain point in the meal), general public reaction to a preview is to be expected, whether the star is famous or not. The buzz around certain shows is always going to be stronger than others, but I’d say moving such a famous speech around would get a reaction regardless of who said it. If you don’t want to get that kind of public (in the present day, read: online) reaction, there’s a simple option: don’t let the general public in.

    Theatre has to learn to adjust to the new normal of online activity. Film companies are struggling to keep their “domes of silence” over the process until opening day (and failing miserably). Theatre, at least, as the medium that prides itself on being a different animal than its static cousin, should lead the way in knowing how to keep a vision alive regardless of how the chips fall in the weird hybrid social/print landscape we entertain today.

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