It’s not every day I can lay claim to having actual Hamlet news, but this is a special occasion. The most anticipated production of any Shakespeare play this year is the Barbican’s production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Star Trek Into Darkness, some Hobbit film or other). I enjoy Cumberbatch whenever I see him on screen, and while I don’t think I have the status of “Cumberbitch” (which is either what the superfans call themselves, or what they get called by the press when the press wants to sound snarky and clever), I would cheerfully pay an exorbitant price for a black-market ticket to watch him play the Dane. And I would have said that even before this controversy sprang up, but now I really wish I could be there.
Hamlet is now in previews, and a few critics snuck in and reviewed the show, despite an unwritten rule that previews are sacrosanct. I’ve never worked in a theatre community that made a big deal out of previews, but I could see how this could be a snub — and how an early review, just like a leaked screener of a film, can influence reception for the show. The difference is, plays can still be changed, and that’s apparently the case with Hamlet — and that’s a damn shame.
Apparently, in a move which Times critic Kate Malby called “indefensible…theatrical self-indulgence,” director Lyndsey Turner placed “To be or not to be” at the start of the play, instead of keeping it in Act 3, Scene 1 where it appears in Q2 and F. “You’re bringing out your big showbiz number at the beginning and it’s hard to take seriously after that,” adds Malby. Subsequent reviews and tweets of the Hamlet previews suggest that the production has bowed to critical pressure and moved the speech back to Act 3.
I couldn’t disagree more with Malby. I object to calling the choice “indefensible” before any artist involved has had a chance to explain (or defend) it. I also think “self-indulgent” is an absurd accusation to make of any particular production of a four-and-a-half hour, 400-year-old tragedy. And how can we trust her to take Shakespeare seriously when she compares it to a Broadway musical — never mind the fact that plenty of musicals DO put their showstoppers early.
The implication is that Hamlet is perfect, and those who would edit or revise its script just don’t get it. I doubt they would be so offended if the actor playing Hamlet weren’t a screen celebrity, or if he were a more “distinguished” (ie. older) Shakespearean performer. (Cumberbatch has been performing Shakespeare for at least 14 years, since he was 25 years old.) But they can’t snark directly at Cumberbatch for fear of seeming petty, so they fixate on the most obvious directorial imposition on the play.
Guess what? Hamlet is not perfect. It’s not even a single script; in the First Quarto, “To be or not to be” happens much earlier, in what would normally be called Act 2. Mashing all three scripts together results in a five-hour monstrosity, so directors have to make decisions about what to include, and where.
Placing “to be or not to be” at the start of the play makes sense, or at least it can. In his soliloquy in 1.2 — normally the first time we’ve ever heard him alone — Hamlet says, “Or that the everlasting had not fixed his canon / ‘Gainst self-slaughter” — a line which most scholars interpret as suicidal. That means that “to be or not to be” doesn’t need to be earned after two acts of ghost-chasing and antic-dispositioning. It can just as reasonably be the state in which we meet the Dane.
And that’s all assuming that “to be or not to be” is fundamentally about suicide, which is wide open to debate. If the speech is about broader questions of action or identity, then it almost makes sense to put it anywhere. Although it’s called a “set speech,” this kind of soliloquy isn’t “set” into the scene’s immediate context. The rest of the scene where it occurs has nothing to do with it.
In my production, I’m moving it to a point roughly analogous to 4.5, when Hamlet normally delivers “How all occasions do inform against me.” Pushing it back instead of moving it up would be equally blasphemous to Malby, I expect, despite the fact that I’m putting the “big showbiz number” closer to the end, where she seems to think it belongs. But I’m hoping that my audiences will find it pleasantly surprising — first to encounter a puzzle in Act 3, when Hamlet fails to deliver the most famous soliloquy in history, and then to find it resolved just when it’s least expected. Moreover, I hope that moving the speech will cause the audience to think about its meanings in new ways — which is, I’m positive, the “defense” that Turner and Cumberbatch would have offered, if they’d been given the chance.
Theatre is not a democracy, or else I’d cast my vote to restore “to be or not to be” to the opening. The Cumberbitches and I have your back, Benedict, and we’ll protect you from the Shakesbrats who think they get to choose what is and isn’t authentic Shakespeare.