Stars in our eyes

As we approach the first preview of the Barbican’s new production of Hamlet, starring (as if you didn’t know) Benedict Cumberbatch, I’ve got to thinking about the effect of ‘celebrities’ in theatre. Is it a good thing? Or are we in danger of losing sight of what it’s really about?

Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet rehearsals Photo credit: Johan Persson
Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet rehearsals
Photo credit: Johan Persson

For months this production was solely about Cumberbatch; he was the only confirmed cast member when tickets first went on sale a year ago. Only in early 2015 were further members of the company announced! And still it remains a Cumberbatch-centric event. if any of you managed to get a ticket, you will have received some form of communication recently with instructions for the day of the performance…

We have to show photo ID and the card we used to book the tickets (whether we’re collecting tickets or not) – and arrive at least half an hour before the play starts. The latter is something I do anyway, but I don’t normally have to queue up with over 1,000 other people to get my ID checked… It’s generally about enough time to go to the ladies’, get to your seat & have a quick peruse of the programme. So I dread to think how early I’ll realistically need to arrive! It also amused me that we are told that Mr Cumberbatch won’t be appearing at stage door (surely the Barbican would need to be cordoned off every day if that happened!) – and that deliveries won’t be accepted at the theatre.

As a now regular theatregoer, I can tell you I’m really not used to this kind of ‘preparation’. It’s not what going to a show is all about! This feels more like getting ready to board a plane, or cross an international border… Completely over the top – and all to try & prevent tickets from getting re-sold at astronomic prices, just because of the name! Considering I’m used to just showing my ticket (& maybe having my bag checked)…

The email I received also contained some brief hints at theatre etiquette, which is a bit annoying to me (I know this stuff, and I always feel that it’s something that should be quite instinctive to people) – but… If it helps newcomers, then I can live with it! If anything, they could’ve mentioned more than ‘no photos or filming’; there’s more to this than protecting copyright, surely?

But this isn’t a Hamlet rant, after all…

Shaftesbury Avenue

Having a celebrity on board no doubt works wonders for a box office. This is obviously important, to a certain extent, as theatres & production companies need money to keep running & putting on shows. But I do hate people selling out! (And I don’t mean there being no seats left – though think of the money…) There’s a fine line that needs to be walked with care, a balance between integrity & survival.

The big thing about employing a star is that they have a fanbase, who will follow them through their career. This means, if they make the move [back] into theatre, there will be newbies in auditoria everywhere. As with anything, this has its good & bad points.

I actually got into theatre (by accident) because I wanted to see actors I recognised from TV & film – the very first being Damien Molony in Travelling Light at the National in 2012. I had been to the odd show before, but this was pretty much exclusively as school trips or for educational benefit. So most of my early London trips were to see personalities; my stage door photos multiplied, my confidence improved – and, by osmosis, my love of theatre grew. As far as theatre etiquette goes, for me it was a natural thing: it’s bad manners to make noise or other distractions in the middle of something, so just don’t do it! Unfortunately other people seem to need this spelling out for them – and I’d imagine it’s generally non-regular theatregoers that are the culprits, as they’re not used to it.

London for Travelling Light 017

If people are going to see shows because a certain person is in it, are they going to appreciate the thing as a whole? Or could those tickets have gone to people who really want to see the production? Often these runs can be limited (exclusivity, actors’ schedules, etc.), which increases the competition between both ‘factions’. There’s room for all in theory, but it’s harder to manage in practice. You can have limits on the amount of tickets customers can buy, or the amount of shows they can book for, but there are ways of getting around that if there are enough of you booking together!

And what about the actors? Yes, it’s their job, but the pressure must be there at the back of their minds (at the very least). To stay fit & well in order to complete the run – and to not crumble under the weight of expectation. Whether it’s a new production or a classic, they’ll still be expected to put in a star performance. Obviously there’s still pressure on non-household names, but the emphasis is more on the show being the star – which is how it should be! A fine example, predictably, is Sunny Afternoon. The company is not full of complete unknowns, but they’re also not household names. And that’s what helps to make it so special. The music (& the show as a whole) is the focus – and the cast’s star power blooms from this.

Ray Davies joins the cast of Sunny Afternoon on stage to celebrate the show winning 4 Olivier awards, at the Harold Pinter Theatre - London Photo credit: David Jenson
Ray Davies joins the cast of Sunny Afternoon on stage to celebrate the show winning 4 Olivier awards, at the Harold Pinter Theatre – London
Photo credit: David Jenson

So my verdict? It’s a tough one. If you could rely on people not going crazy about tickets, or re-selling them for a massive markup… Then there would be more harmony. But that’s never going to happen! These kinds of productions can be very good, for want of a better phrase, ‘entry-level’ theatre. Not necessarily the shows themselves, but a way to broaden the theatre audience & to foster a love of theatre in newbies. It certainly worked for me!

What we don’t need is the West End to be filled with ‘celebrity’-led productions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them.

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