Celebrity casting in theatre: not always all it’s cracked up to be

Benedict Cumberbtach (Gage Skidmore)

Benedict Cumberbatch speaking at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con International, for “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies”.

By Simon Fearn

So, after some last minute soliloquy-shifting, the first (legitimate) reviews for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet are in. The verdict? Cumberbatch is “unquestionably victorious” says The Telegraph; the production is “gaudy and commercial” laments The Times; “a bloody good Hamlet” concludes Cumberbatch’s mother. Personally, I think at 39, Cumberbatch is stretching credibility as a sulky student, but having not been on the ball a year ago and nabbed some tickets before they sold out, I suppose I’ll never know if he’s any good. But as hordes of Cumberbatch’s adoring fans queue at ungodly hours to secure a limited number of £10 tickets still available, I couldn’t help wondering if ‘celebrities’ in theatre are all they’ve cracked up to be.

To be perfectly honest, I too am not immune to the hype surrounding film and television stars on the stage. I was unbelievably excited to see David Tennant and his luscious hair extensions take on the role of Richard II, I was glued to a live stream of Hollywood heart-throb Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus, and I am also proud to say that Mark Rylance nearly stamped on my hand, starring as Richard III at The Globe before his acclaimed performance in the BBC’s Wolf Hall. All of these were quality productions, both critically and commercially successful. So celebrity casting is a win-win situation, right?

Unfortunately, the West End is being graced by many performers of a lesser calibre.

Well, not entirely. Shakespeare enthusiasts eager to see RSC artistic director Gregory Doran’s take on Richard II or Josie Rourke’s Coriolanus were likely to be thwarted by Doctor Who and Avengers fans. But, you may say, isn’t introducing unlikely theatre goers to the glories of Shakespeare a resoundingly positive thing? Again, not quite. Take this audience member’s reaction to Coriolanus in the Evening Standard for example: “I don’t much care for Coriolanus as a play, so I spent my time admiring the curve of Tom Hiddleston’s arse.” Is there a better way to spend one’s evening?

Not only were tickets denied to those who would probably appreciate the Bard’s exploration of politics and duty rather than just admiring Loki’s derrière, but a night at the theatre can be ruined by particularly eager fans flouting audience etiquette. When Cumberbatch spied the red light of a video camera during a pivotal moment in Hamlet, he was so put off that he had to start the scene again. He later implored fans not to video performances, although this probably won’t stop some cheeky recordings.

Cumberbatch is a quality actor, with his performance in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game deservedly earning him an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, the West End is being graced by many performers of a lesser calibre. Two uninspiring former X Factor contestants are currently treading the boards in major musicals: Matt Cardle in Memphis and Amelia Lily in American Idiot. Maybe I’m being a bit of a snob – Cardle is actually meant to be quite good as a flamboyant DJ, but you can’t help but think that some struggling actor has been denied a major role in favour of an X Factor winner known for a questionable interpretation of a Biffy Clyro song.

As long as celebrity casting keeps the money coming in, theatre companies are unlikely to complain.

New Tricks star Amanda Redman lamented: “Sometimes kids who spend years learning a craft find they’re up against people who have done no training at all, but will get parts because they’ve been in a reality show.” Although inviting new blood into the West End is undoubtedly positive, it seems unfair that it has to come at the expense of aspiring actors with years of training behind them. But, as long as celebrity casting keeps the money coming in, theatre companies are unlikely to complain.

Whilst unknown actors are undoubtedly losing out, stars like Cumberbatch have never had it so good. In past years, it would be unthinkable that an actor who has previously played a dragon in The Hobbit trilogy and an intergalactic supervillain in the Star Trek franchise should also be so successful in taking on one of theatre’s most coveted roles. Stars from a previous generation, such as Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, were considered to have forfeited their reputations as serious actors by ‘selling out’ to Hollywood, according to a recent Guardian article by Sarah Crompton. It’s certainly refreshing that actors can now cave in to the financial rewards of major blockbusters, whilst satisfying their artier side with projects in theatre.

That’s not to say that there aren’t ways in which Cumberbatch could have made a larger contribution to theatre, rather than starring in what seems for some reviewers to be a fairly half-baked interpretation of Hamlet. Hiddleston’s involvement in Coriolanus introduced huge numbers to Shakespeare’s historically overlooked tragedy, and there was something curiously fitting about a Hollywood darling playing Rome’s latest celebrity war hero. Silk star Maxine Peake not only starred as a dangerous and angst-ridden Hamlet, but her next role was as a shape-shifting faerie in lesser-known experimental work The Skriker. What’s more, she works extensively in the North (both Hamlet and The Skriker premiered at Manchester’s Royal Exchange), an area persistently deprived of quality theatre.

There will always be winners and losers with famous faces in theatres. Theatre companies will continue to see it as a sure-fire way to get tickets sold, Hollywood stars will continue to take to the stage in an attempt to achieve artistic fulfilment, and aspiring actors will continue to lose out to X Factor rejects. Such is the sad state of affairs, but when you’re sitting through an electrifying performance from Peake, Tennant or Hiddleston, it’s difficult to care that much. Seeing our idols in the flesh is bound to get us flocking to the theatre, and if they star in intelligently directed and exciting pieces, all the better.

Photograph: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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