12/08/2015 15:41 BST | Updated 12/08/2016 06:59 BST

'Ay, There's The Rub' Benedict Cumberbatch: When Theatre Makes the Headlines

Did you know that British actor Benedict Cumberbatch is in a play at the moment? Hamlet, you say, why yes you're right. What about Stephen Merchant's play? No? Not really into theatre, you say? Oh well he's in The Mentalists, a comedy by Richard Bean. It's received quite a lot of coverage really, for a play, but it's barely comparable to the explosion of publicity surrounding Hamlet at the Barbican.

A play written over 400 years ago has been front page news for the past week.

And the reason? The strangely famous Benedict Cumberbatch is Hamlet. I'm not going to attempt to dissect the reasons why Cumberbatch is such delicious fodder for newspaper editors. For whatever reason, he is, occupying a position previously, or simultaneously, occupied by such grandees of the media spotlight Jade Goody, Princess Diana, Sienna Miller and the Kardashians.

Cumberbatch's name is all over the papers and the play doesn't officially open for another two weeks. Many of the newspapers sent reviewers to the first night. In the theatre world, this is very bad form, like turning up to a dinner party four hours early then slagging it off because the food was undercooked and the table wasn't set. But reviewers were just following the orders of their editors. Newspaper editors don't care about the trivialities of theatre protocol, Benedict Cumberbatch was on stage and they wanted to tell their readers what he was like. Cumberbatch stories get clicks.

The last play to receive such widespread attention was a play that I wrote: An Evening with Lucian Freud. Cressida Bonas, the up and coming actress, Mulberry model and former girlfriend of Prince Harry starred in the play. It was that last CV point which lit the fire beneath the cauldron of Benedict-esque publicity. As soon as casting was announced the diary pieces began appearing and publicity photos for the play were published in news sections. As it was a new play and the subject was a well known lothario, rumours swirled about the content of the play. Conjecture soon became newspaper fact: the play "features explicit sex scenes" stated the Evening Standard (it really didn't!)


And then it opened. It was everywhere. Front page of the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard, all over all the newspapers, even the Daily Star, daily stories in the Evening Standard, and the magazines: Hello, OK, Grazia and more and more. I stopped collecting the papers after the first week. What was the point? The play was now famous. I didn't need further proof.

It was incredible and intoxicating but it was surreal. Press Night aside, theatre is rarely glitzy. It's hard work. Things go wrong, trap doors don't open ("Benedict shocks fans by 'using the f word'" read the Daily Mail headline), audiences don't behave as they should and the dressing rooms are grotty. The story in the papers is a universe away from the truth we live in the theatre.


But what true lover of theatre can condemn the newspapers? How thrilling and marvellous that theatre can make headlines! A 400-year-old play and a piece of new writing both received attention out of proportion to their newsworthyness. People who don't normally go to the theatre heard about both plays. It entered their conscious, became part of their daily life and infiltrated their vocabulary. As a theatre maker, that's what I dream of. And, by whatever means, that happened. As Hamlet says, 'Ay there's the rub', but I'm thankful that through clever casting and abetted by a hungry media, the makers of my play and of the Barbican's Hamlet, made theatre part of peoples everyday lives.

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