Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Benedict Cumberbatch is a serious actor. The selfie generation’s hysteria about his long, ascetic face, milky voice and air of slightly foxed aristocracy tends to swamp what it is he actually does – which is perhaps why, in May, he missed out on a BAFTA for the fifth time. If his industry peers don’t find all the adulation endearing, they should look again.
The first clue came in Cumberbatch’s performance as Edmund FitzHenry Talbot in “To the Ends of the Earth” (2005), a BBC adaptation of the trilogy of sea-going novels by William Golding. Talbot is one of literature’s tricksiest characters. Warm-hearted, cold-hearted, ambitious but under-confident, an appalling snob who turns into a social agitator, he is also an endearing, forgivable young man who learns a whole curriculum of humiliating lessons during his ship-borne rite of passage. It’s an unwieldy package for one actor to wrap up, but Cumberbatch managed it, with no apparent effort.
The past few years have seen him locked to a series of on-screen stiff upper lips – Sherlock, Ford Madox Ford’s Christopher Tietjens, Alan Turing – the best of which are included in a mini season at the Barbican’s cinema in London this August. Meanwhile, in its theatre, he will be on stage as Hamlet, another, greater, chance to weave a tangle of character contradictions into a believable whole. The Barbican is a big space, but all the signals so far are that this is a production aiming for accessibility and intimacy. The set, designed by Es Devlin (our cover star, July/Aug 14) promises to turn the whole theatre into the inside of Hamlet’s head. And though the main tranche of tickets is long sold out, batches of 100 for each performance, priced at a fan-friendly £10, are still to be released. No doubt, then, there will be surges of excitability from the cheap seats when Cumberbatch first steps on stage, but you can be pretty sure he’ll ride the wave somewhere interesting. ~ ISABEL LLOYD
Hamlet Barbican, London, Aug 5th to Oct 31st
Theatre at a glance
wonder.land (National, London, Nov 27th to Jan 31st). Alex Poots’s final Manchester International Festival opens with a new musical from one of his regulars, Damon Albarn: a virtual world re-thinking of Lewis Carroll’s skew-whiff stories, directed by Rufus Norris of the National, with a book by Moira Buffini, who wrote “Handbagged”. See Notes on a Voice, in Culture.
Our Country’s Good (Olivier, London, Aug 19th to Oct 17th). No cast as we go to press, but Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play within a play, set in a convict camp in 18th-century Australia, is so strong that all it needs is a group of actors who can walk and talk at the same time.
A Number (Young Vic, London, July 4th to Aug 15th). A real-life father and son – John and Lex Shrapnel – play father, son and clones of son, in Caryl Churchill’s lab-like exploration of identity and the wilder shores of science.
Cymbeline (Central Park, New York, Jul 23rd to Aug 23rd). Shakespeare’s convoluted, self-parodying almost-tragedy is the second of this year’s park freebies. The big draw is Lily Rabe, a wily and witty regular here since her Tony-nominated Portia in 2010.
The Present (Roslyn Packer, Sydney, Aug 4th to Sept 19th). Cate Blanchett’s final bow as joint artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company is an adaptation of Chekhov’s first, sprawling but seminal play, “Platonov”. John Crowley, who did a great job with “The Pillowman” for the National in 2003, directs.
Mrs Henderson Presents (Theatre Royal, Bath, Aug 15th to Sept 5th). Janie Dee, a luminous comedienne with a lovely, light touch, stars in a new musical from Don Black and Terry Johnson about a London widow who launched nude revues in wartime Soho. ~ IL