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Was Cumberbatch right?

First of all, I apologise. 


Heretical as the title sounds, let me assure you I am no apostate from the church of the Cumber(batch). I think Benedict Cumberbatch is a good actor. But I think even he should not be free of scrutiny…


Cumberbatch is currently taking on British theatre’s holy of holies: Hamlet. Outside the stage door following a now much discussed preview, Cumberbatch’s inquisitorial gusto made headlines when he condemned a scourge of social media venerating heathen. Apparently they had committed the sin of filming the production. Mr Cumberbatch explained “It’s mortifying, and there’s nothing less enjoyable as an actor on stage, experiencing that…”  The transgression in question was the forsaking of the proper (indeed self-prescribed) adoration of our blessed Benedict.

This moment of controversy raises two questions. The first is specific to Cumberbatch; does he have a right to tell people how they should experience the theatre they pay for? More specifically, is his outcry a legitimate artistic statement or just another case of petulant celebrity narcissism?

Obviously the above is an uninteresting question with an obvious answer. For how could any true believer deny Benedict’s right to dictate the reception of his art or indeed the integrity of this art…? Elementary, oh ye of little faith.

But a second more general question remains; is it true that it is better to watch theatre in the flesh than through a lens? An exegesis from Cumberbatch’s revelation gives us the following reason for preferring the flesh: “I can’t give you what I want to give you, which is a live performance that you’ll remember, hopefully in your minds and brains whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, rather than on your phones.” 

Mr Cumberbatch thinks that if his performance is mediated by a smartphone, then the audience will not properly appreciate his vision for the part. But it would seem this state of grace does not extend far beyond Benedict. After all, Mr. Cumberbatch has no qualms about backing a production that disregards Shakespeare’s own vision by placing ‘to be or not to be’ at the start of the play. Seemingly only the elect receive the salvation that safeguards their artisitic vision. Shakespeare is good, but evidently, he’s no Benedict Cumberbatch.

Aside from this hypocrisy, Cumberbatch makes the more fundamental mistake of believing that what he thinks he communicates to an audience, is what they receive. The notion that the conveyance of his art may be jeopardised by mediation, assumes that the artist can and should have ownership of the public’s experience. On this logic, there can be a correct or proper reception of a work defined by its semblance to the intention of the author. Given that ideas of a ‘correct’ reception of a work of art are hazy at best and reactionary at worst, I don’t think we can dismiss the smartphone experience as a perversion to what is already an intrinsically imperiled concept: total artistic control. Indeed Cumberbatch’s fury at the lens of the camera is shortsighted: ultimately the material lens is a stand in for the fundamental lens that is the distorting influence of each and every audience members’ subjectivity. Perhaps those condemned filmers should have responded with #CumberBarth.

So what other cause might Benedict have to complain? It might be said that regardless of how we receive the play, we receive it better in the flesh than through the screen. This live experience is therefore superior as it would be “one that you’ll remember, hopefully in your minds and brains”. A purely live performance is therefore ‘better’ because our response to the play would be stronger or more intense. Presumably this is why it would be remembered not only in the mind but also in the brain.

If we say materiality (seeing the actor before you instead of on screen) is tantamount to intensity, then Cumberbatch is right. Like many, I would rather watch him live than watch him on a recording. But that was not the situation when he addressed the fans. The fans were not watching Benedict on the screen after, but watching Benedict through the screen during. This is important.

Now before you accuse me of iconoclasm, bear with me. The live smartphone image is not an unholy derivative of the divine original. So far as we mortals are concerned, the godlike Benedict is a god… on screen. The important point to draw is that the divine original is confined strictly to the screen. As much as it pains me to say it, he is just a good-looking, self-important actor lucky enough to have his pretensions made credible by association with the intelligence of the characters he plays. In short, the flesh and blood Benedict is nothing compared to the one on screen.

Ironically because this Benedict is human – all too human – the audience probably won’t actually remember much of the performance in their minds or brains. They came to see Sherlock, they got Benedict. In a stroke of genius however, this audience hit upon salvation. By watching through their smartphones, they got what they paid for; Sherlock in all his resplendent glory.

Neither does this mean audiences were conned into buying a DIY version of a night-in with the Sherlock boxset. For at a certain level Benedict is right, the live experience is better, it does give you something the screen can’t. What the screen can give you is a distance between the image and the thing. This space between reality and its representation is filled with the fantasies and desires that elevate the image to a beatific height far in excess of the thing. It is for this reason that Benedict the man could never hope to reach the intensity of reaction that the presence of Sherlock the character would. And yet this is what the punters ultimately wanted to see. 

There is however one drawback with the screen; ultimately you can dismiss it as fiction and turn off the TV. In theatre this disavowal is far more difficult once the story has you in its clutches. This is what you pay for.

And this is why Benedict’s Hamlet may offer a borderline religious experience to the camera-totting pilgrim. This production is an opportunity to mediate the material Benedict through the restraining lens that allows us to project our fantasies. But crucially, unlike television, there is something behind the screen whose presence we cannot dismiss. Put your hands together and raise your smartphone up to the (foot)light….

The trick is to remember that the real Benedict you know and love is not the man, but the image. Now for the first time you can believe, unconditionally, that there is a reality to this illusion. In an age where every day we seek to consolidate reality and its representation, it would seem that the scourge of filmers realised the ideal of our age. The theologians have a word for this, substance: the reality behind the appearance. Perhaps the real question is therefore not whether the filmers missed out on the substance of the play, but whether there was ever any substance to have missed out on. In this regard the fault is certainly not on the side of those behind the screen. Get over it Benedict; it might actually be nobler in the mind (and brain) to put up with those likes and shares that will make you an outrageous fortune. 

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