It’s been a tough week for actor, Benedict Cumberbatch. After a recent performance of Hamlet at London’s Barbican Theatre, star Cumberbatch made an eloquent plea to fans to put away their electronic devices and watch the play. Simple enough? Well, in the days that followed, he found himself in the middle of a fat storm cloud of controversy, one my family followed with keen interest.
You see, at the time we were in London on holiday. In fact, we had in our possession four of the hottest tickets of the summer – Hamlet at the Barbican was the fastest sell out Britain had ever seen – and we had tickets for the August 20th performance. A flurry of newspaper articles that week addressed Cumberbatch’s request and the actions the theatre was taking to ensure a tech-free experience for the actors and audience. They were posting reminders on signs outside the Barbican, flashing a reminder gobo on the curtain inside, stationing vigilant ushers throughout and threatening to use tech-jamming devices as a final resort. The mainstream media made it seem like Cumberbatch was quirky and controlling in their stories, and my family joked about purchasing Google goggles to skirt the rules.
Finally the big night arrived. We dressed in our Sunday best and took a cab to the Barbican. The box office was surrounded by hopefuls, people that had camped out for over twelve hours in hopes of purchasing a returned ticket. We snapped pictures of the anti-tech signage that littered the lobby and then made our way to our seats. We were seven rows back from the stage, smack dab in the middle of the row. We watched the audience clamor and settle, most turning off their mobile devices immediately, a few taking quick pictures of the curtain with its glowing reminder and two bold people that only tucked their phones away after being prompted by ushers a handful of times.
To the sounds of a haunting Nat King Cole song, the curtain rose. A single light illuminated a seated Cumberbatch/Hamlet. The old record spun on a gold record player.
For the next three hours we sat mesmerized. The sets were lush, the acting perfect and Cumberbatch more than delivered in the starring role. The entire ensemble was fantastic. Ophelia, played by Sian Brooke, brought me to tears. As her heart broke, the audience sniffed into their tissues. Ciaran Hinds as Claudius was pure brilliance and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Laertes was fantastic. We didn’t need cell phones or cameras, this night would stay in our memories forever.
In Act Two, Cumberbatch’s blue eyes sparkled as though he was withholding a secret as he spoke the line, “The play’s the thing.” Goosebumps erupted down my neck and arms as I realized I was in on the secret. I was witness to Cumberbatch’s four word press conference as he addressed the technology controversy. Using Shakespeare’s own words, Cumberbatch delivered his argument. Together, the actors, crew and audience, we created a space where it was safe to dwell in imagination. For three hours we agreed to suspend real life and explore a story, feel the pain of the characters and as a result, bear witness to something greater than the sum of its parts. The play’s the thing, indeed.
Better than any post or tweet, the memories I have of this special night will never fade. Afterward, as we noshed on snacks in a bistro across the street from the Barbican, I listened to my twelve-year old discuss mortality and revenge and love, and it hit me that she had herself fallen in love. No, the object of her adoration wasn’t Mr. Cumberbatch, but with Shakespeare’s words, his play. Four hundred and sixteen years after he wrote Hamlet, he’d made a fan. What tweet could ever capture the enormity of that life event?
In closing, this special run of Hamlet more than lives up to the hype. But, fret not. If you haven’t the chance to see the play live, it will be broadcast in movie theaters throughout the world in October 2015. If you go, just remember to turn off your phone and experience it fully.