The hottest ticket in London next summer is not One Direction, Miley Cyrus, or Beyoncé. It is Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet at the Barbican theater. Some 100,000 tickets for the 12-week run went on sale a few days before I was due to meet Cumberbatch — coincidentally at the Barbican — and sold out in minutes. Even by the robust standards of London theater (more than 22 million people attended shows in the 2012–2013 season), that’s some record.
For Cumberbatch, taking on theater’s most ambitious role — “a hoop through which every eminent actor must jump,” as the essayist Max Beerbohm once put it — may be a rite of passage, but it’s also a test of whether popular culture can open the gates to high culture. Can the pop idol Sherlock attract his screaming fans to the Bard? “I hope it sort of goes into the places that television sometimes can,” Cumberbatch says, “to draw people to see me live who haven’t seen Shakespeare before. We want the people who’ve never been in a theater, but we’re not into social engineering, so we can’t say to another cross-section of society, ‘Oh, sorry — you’ve got a library card. Fuck off.’ ”
Of course, the kind of fame that can sell out a three-month run in minutes also has its drawbacks. We’ve barely sat down at our banquette at Gin Joint — a fancy-pants brasserie at the Barbican Centre — when Cumberbatch curses gently under his breath: “Oh lord, here we go, here we go.” He indicates two middle-aged women in flowery dresses sitting at a table across the room. “The florals over there,” he says, eyes averted. “They’re giving a bit of a head-turning — it’s begun.”