ON 6 AUGUST, almost three weeks before its official press night, the Mail reviewed Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. Geysers erupting through Icelandic lava fields have rarely been as gushing. Cumberbatch was “electrifying, a performance that veered from moments of genuinely hilarious comedy to plunge down to the very depths of throat-scalding tragedy”.
This ecstatic verdict came from Mail columnist Jan Moir. Although she isn’t a regular theatre critic, and so not bound by the same conventions, it still seemed to break the gentleman’s agreement that while newspapers can run features and puff-pieces about a new production during previews, they shouldn’t pass judgement until the trial run is over. But then she did give it five stars. There was no complaint from the Barbican.
‘Hamlet for kids’
The same tolerance did not extend to the Times’s Kate Maltby, a proper critic rather than a Glenda Slagg, whose review appeared on the same day as Moir’s. This was “Hamlet for kids raised on Moulin Rouge”, Maltby thundered. She hammered director Lyndsey Turner’s decision to update fuddy-duddy old Shakespeare and put Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy at the start of the play. It should be where Shakespeare meant it to be, when Hamlet is at his despairing lowest, she said. Instead, this was like a “production of Turandot that moved the climactic Nessun Dorma to the opening number just because, post-Pavarotti, football fans can sing along”.
Cumberbatch’s army of fans went wild on Twitter. Maltby received death threats. Lez Brotherston, director and choreographer Matthew Bourne’s long-term designer, did not go that far but tweeted that he hoped to meet Maltby so he could “slap” her. Meanwhile, eminent thesp Samuel West cried: "Really shoddy journalism for the Times to review the first preview of Hamlet. Breaks all boundaries of protocol, taste and art.” Maybe; but is it any more shoddy than charging a whopping £69 for seats while maintaining that the preview is essentially a glorified dress rehearsal, not yet fit for critical assessment?
‘Some kind of deal’
Lawyers for Sonia Friedman Productions complained to the Times about the Maltby review and an unauthorised picture which accompanied it. The Times took down the picture but stood by Maltby’s journalism.
Maltby herself went on Radio 4’s Today programme and explained that the Times had broken the embargo because “we were made aware that a rival paper had cut some kind of deal and would be producing very favourable coverage for some really good access”. Her allegation was met with outraged denials, which must, of course, be true.
The fact that no one has threatened to kill Jan Moir (on this occasion), or slap her, or complained to her editor, or resorted to lawyers, or accused her of breaking “all boundaries of protocol, taste and art”, even though she ignored the embargo as flagrantly as Maltby did, is just one of those supernatural coincidences which only go to prove the truth of Hamlet’s assertion: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And here’s another coincidence: last week the Barbican did a sudden U-turn and shifted Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech back to Act III.