What's Hot in London: August 27: Cumberbatch's Mother Loves His Hamlet.... But What About the Critics?

News   What's Hot in London: August 27: Cumberbatch's Mother Loves His Hamlet.... But What About the Critics?
Benedict Cumberbatch's parents — both of them also actors, Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton — were first to praise their son after the opening of Hamlet at the Barbican, with Ventham telling the Evening Standard they were "extraordinarily proud" of him, adding, "He was quite lively growing up, but I thought that was phenomenal."

But what about the London critics? Kate Maltby, a critic for The Times who had controversially broken the long-established practice (and respect) of critical embargoes by reviewing the very first public performance of the play, re-visited it — and upped her star rating from two stars to three stars. Referring to the original "indefensible" relocating of Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' speech to the very beginning of the play, that has now been moved to a different later position (though still not the original place in the text itself), she now writes, "Three weeks in, Turner’s moody, over-cinematic production benefits hugely now that it no longer forces its star into a bravado standing start."

She still finds the production star-driven: "This is a production cut to frame its star. Hamlet should be a prince on the fringes of his own birthright: in the original text, we meet ten other characters (including the ghost) before he gets a chance to speak. Cumberbatch not only claims the first line (“Who’s there?”, he shouts, only for Horatio to appear), he still delivers each soliloquy, even asides, to flashes of lightning, while the other characters swirl, slow-mo, around him."

In a two-star notice in The Guardian, Michael Billington applauds the star but not the production: he writes that "Cumberbatch has many of the qualities one looks for in a Hamlet. He has a lean, pensive countenance, a resonant voice, a gift for introspection. He is especially good in the soliloquies." But he finds him "imprisoned by a dismal production", and says, "The pity of it is that Cumberbatch could have been a first-rate Hamlet. He is no mere screen icon, but a real actor with a gift for engaging our sympathy and showing a naturally rational mind disordered by grief, murder and the hollow insufficiency of revenge."

Other critics are more enthusiastic. in a four-star review in the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish (who also reviewed the first preview) writes, "Dear (possibly exhausted) reader I will toy with you no further. Cumberbatch admirers can take heart, his female devotees are entitled to swoon: in this trial of his acting strength, he emerges, unquestionably, victorious."

And heatworld.com, the online version of weekly celebrity magazine Heat, swoons, "Quite simply, it’s one of the best live theatre experiences ever," and then lists five reasons why this is so. Amongst them is, of course, Cumberbatch: "Yes, we’re all expecting him to be brilliant, but Benedict’s performance is also surprising, unpredictable and extraordinary from start to finish." It also loves the design: "Forget your big musicals, this is the most spectacular set we’ve ever seen, using the vast Barbican stage to create a huge palace which in the second part of the show is the subject of the an extraordinary transformation which leaves the audience stunned and amazed." And now perhaps, just perhaps, the press can start focusing on the other theatre shows that are happening this fall.

Fall Highlights
The London transfer of Broadway's Tony-winning Kinky Boots has just begun previews at the West End's Adelphi Theatre, prior to an official opening Sept. 15. The night after also sees the UK premiere of the Harvey Fierstein-penned Casa Valentina at the fringe Southwark Playhouse (Fierstein also wrote the book for Kinky).

Matt Henry
Matt Henry

And the night before Kinky Boots opens also sees the official opening for the return of Nicole Kidman to the London stage for the first time since 1998 when she was famously declared to be "pure theatrical viagra" in The Blue Room that subsequently transferred to Broadway; now she's starring in the UK premiere of Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51 (previewing from Sept. 5 at the Noel Coward Theatre), a play previously seen at off-Broadway's Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2010, that is being given a brand-new production by Michael Grandage, who now runs his own theatre company (and which has just announced this week that it will present Forest Whitaker in Eugene O'Neill's two-hander play Hughie on Broadway early next year, without a London run first).

Grandage isn't the only leading British theatre director who regularly works on Broadway making theatrical waves this fall. Matthew Warchus (currently represented on Broadway by Matilda and previously known for Art, God of Carnage, True West and Life x3) inaugurates his regime at the helm of the Old Vic, which he has taken over from Kevin Spacey, with the premiere of Tamsin Oglesby's Future Conditional (opening September 10), starring Rob Brydon; future attractions in his first year include Ralph Fiennes in Ibsen's The Master Builder and the world premiere of a new musical Groundhog Day, based on the film of the same name, which reunites him with Tim Minchin, the composer of Matilda, and is already announced to be Broadway-bound.

Other highlights in September alone include the world premiere of Martin McDonagh's Hangmen (at the Royal Court on September 18), his first play to be debuted in London for over a decade; and the transfer of Mark Rylance in Farinelli and the King, first seen at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe, to the West End's Duke of York's (opening September 30).

Opening this Week

Amongst the highlights in the week ahead are:

  • McQueen, James Phillips' biographical play about the iconic late fashion designer, transfers to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket (opening Aug. 27) from the James, with John Caird directing Stephen Wight in the title role, joined by a cast that also features Carly Bawden and Tracy-Ann Oberman.
  • Meanwhile, You Won't Succeed on Broadway if You Don't Have Any Jews opens at the St James itself Aug. 27. With a title taken from the number in Monty Python's Spamalot, this is a revue celebrating Jewish composers and writers that was previously seen for one night only at the Garrick.
  • Duncan Macmillan's latest, People, Places and Things, opening at the National's Dorfman on September 1, directed by Jeremy Herrin (Wolf Hall and Roundabout's forthcoming Noises Off. It is about a woman wrestling with alcohol addiction — but when intoxication feels like the only way to survive the modern world, how can she ever sober up?
  • Alexandra Silber — soon to appear in Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof, appears in cabaret at London's Crazy Coqs Sept 1-5, with guests that include composer Howard Goodall, singers Damian Humbley, Julie Atherton, Simon Bailey and Gina Beck.

For more updates
Follow me on Twitter here, @shentonstage, for rolling news updates as they happen! And keep checking the international section of Playbill.com for major stories.

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