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Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet: How screen stars affect the stage

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Johan Persson/Reuters

(Read caption) Benedict Cumberbatch stars in a stage production of 'Hamlet' at the Barbican in London, seen here August 4, 2015.

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The new production of “Hamlet,” starring “The Imitation Game” and "Sherlock" star Benedict Cumberbatch, has opened in London – to lackluster reviews.

The play, which had its opening night on Aug. 25, also stars “Game of Thrones” actor Ciarán Hinds as Claudius, Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, and Siân Brooke as Ophelia.

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Mr. Cumberbatch received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor last year for his role as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” He also stars on the BBC TV show “Sherlock” in the title role and has appeared in such films as the “Hobbit” movie series, “August: Osage County,” and “The Fifth Estate.” He is set to star in the anticipated James “Whitey” Bulger film “Black Mass” with Johnny Depp.

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The actor’s previous theater experience includes a 2005 London production of “Hedda Gabler,” for which he earned an Olivier Award nomination, and a 2011 production of “Frankenstein” in which he and actor Jonny Lee Miller switched off playing Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. Cumberbatch and Mr. Miller won the Best Actor Olivier Award for the show as well as other prizes. 

The new “Hamlet” production has so far gotten a mixed reception from critics, but most seem to object to staging decisions, not Cumberbatch's performance. For that, reviewers are writing that Cumberbatch is “a good, personable Hamlet ... trapped inside an intellectual ragbag of a production,” "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," “good enough as Hamlet to make me wish he were even better,” and “as powerful a presence as ever … thrillingly charismatic, if short on … humility.”

The production with Cumberbatch is reportedly the fastest-selling in the history of London theater. In America, the topic of A-list Hollywood actors appearing in Broadway productions has been controversial in recent years. Almost everyone acknowledges that having a household name in a production can draw in theatergoers who may not have heard of theater veterans Sutton Foster or Audra McDonald, and actors have, of course, been going back and forth between stage and screen since the movies caught on.

But in 2010, some stage actors became especially incensed by the big presence of Hollywood A-listers on the list of Tony nominees. (Actors such as Scarlett Johansson, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Catherine Zeta-Jones captured some of the major acting prizes.) Wins for a couple of those actors left some stage veterans "not best pleased," and stage actor Hunter Foster created a Facebook group called "Give the Tonys Back to Broadway."

However, some in the theater community have now accepted that Hollywood actors hogging the spotlight – both literally and in nominations – has gone on for years and will probably continue in the future as well. When the most recent Tony nominations were announced, and Hollywood A-listers actors such as Bradley Cooper and Helen Mirren were nominated, one critic wrote, “Allow us to give a brief reminder: This happens every single year." Another wrote that actors "more familiar for their work in Hollywood than on Broadway ultimately find that, just as everyone else on the Rialto, they’re subject to the same category limitations and the same whims of taste that sway all the nominators’ decisions."

Hollywood colliding with Broadway and the West End probably won’t stop anytime soon.


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