Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Hamlet at the Barbican Center, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This show has been sold out for over a year. People fly in from all over the world just to see this performance because they are huge fans of Benedict Cumberbatch, mostly from his work in Sherlock.
Me? I’m a bigger fan of Hamlet. After all, my degrees are in British Literature with a focus on the Renaissance Era, and Hamlet is my all-time favorite play. I know it inside and out. I’ve seen many adaptations and portrayals by some of the greatest actors of our time.
Before I saw Cumberbatch as Hamlet, I liked his work. I could even say I loved his work. He’s brilliant as the high-functioning, sociopathic, consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. I’ve also seen a few of his films since then, and I have not once been disappointed. I recognized his talent, and I considered him a fine actor among many.
After Hamlet, my respect and admiration for him has grown exponentially.
His impeccable delivery and eloquent execution left me breathless. The emotional depths to which he delved required ardent focus, profound dedication, absolute courage, and extraordinary talent. His heartfelt performance touched my very soul, as he captured the essence of the melancholy Dane like no other I’ve seen. He must’ve been emotionally and physically exhausted after such an exceptional performance. I know I was. Exhilarated and exhausted all at once, humbled at being in such close proximity to creative genius. The remnants of which still heave my heart a week later.
Such passion and intense emotion left me feeling drained, and strangely sad. No, not sad. It’s a feeling I can’t quite describe. Since that night, I’ve been trying to articulate the sensation and label it, but I have yet to do so.
Still, it lingers.
When I can’t find the words to express my experience, I have a tendency to talk and talk and talk, trying out words here and there–rather, trying on words to see what, if anything, defines the emotion, gives voice to the thoughts.
After the show, I watched the hordes of “Cumber-babes,” as they call themselves, crowd around the stage door to wait for him to emerge. Many other actors came out and walked past the hundred-or-so (mostly) women pressing themselves against the crush-barriers, who hardly glimpsed in their direction. I wondered how they felt. Perhaps they felt as invisible as I did, or more so since they just performed in the same play as Cumberbatch, only without acknowledgement of their own talent. Without fans wanting their autograph.
On the other hand, perhaps they were relieved they could get off work and just go home to their privacy and families.
Maybe a little of both.
As I made my way around the edge of the crowd, I saw Leo Bill, the actor who played Horatio leaving. No one even looked at him, but I said, “Well done,” as he passed me. He turned, surprised, and replied, “thank you” with the sound of soft gratitude.
I wish I had talked with him more.
Then another passed. An older actor named Karl Johnson who played King Hamlet and the Gravedigger. Someone I wouldn’t know by name until now, but I certainly recognized him from many films and TV shows throughout the years (Rome, Mr. Turner, among many others). Perhaps not the celebrity of Cumberbatch, but still a well-known, working actor in British theatre, TV, and film.
He passed by everyone without notice and disappeared into the London night. I wanted to talk to him, too; but I didn’t. He was far from me, and I didn’t want to chase after him. Maybe others thought the same.
I had a chance to get Ciarán Hinds autograph and picture, as most everyone had left after Cumberbatch made his appearance, but I didn’t. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would just be bothering him (even though he was signing and posing for others with a genuine smile).
I felt humbled. Inadequate, somehow.
My groupie days died with the cassette tape, but I found myself still in awe of these people. Just people, like you and me. People with drive and focus and talent. I’ve met my share of famous people, having worked in both the literary and film worlds, but there is still something quite intimidating about it for some reason.
I’ve respected Hinds’s work before this (Rome, Game of Thrones, among many others), and his portrayal of Claudius was excellent. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Well done.” I couldn’t speak loudly enough to ask for a picture or autograph. I tried once, but my words were so soft, they dissipated in the misty London air.
When it was all over and I parted from my friends, who had been assertive enough to get autographs and/or pictures with Cumberbatch and/or Hinds, this indescribable feeling really weighed on my heart.
There I was, alone on the tube. It was near midnight in this remarkable city, and I had just seen the best performance of Hamlet in my life. I had just made new friends. I had just been in the presence of profound dedication and talent, and I was humbled. I was invisible. I felt as if my own flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, or perhaps it already had.
This amazing night full of passion and profound depths of emotions quickly became empty, a stale promontory.
A week later, I’m still grasping for meaning, for understanding.
Certainly the proximity to such creative genius, both in the timeless work of Shakespeare and Cumberbatch’s impeccable execution of the melancholy Dane, held up a harsh mirror to my own life and creative failures. Missed opportunities and overall insignificance. Shame and self-loathing.
Yet, I yearned to be in that theatre once more. I longed to capture the swell of emotion as my soul cried and laughed with Hamlet. Instead, I replayed his soliloquies over and again in my mind, trying to hold on to every word, every moment of ecstasy.
I again saw the tears fall on his cheeks, watched his eyes crinkle with laughter, clutched my own heart in his palpable grief. I spoke “To Be or Not To Be,” emphasizing the words as he did, attempting to remember each intonation, each accent, each eloquent syllable.
If only I could bottle such perfect moments and taste their bittersweetness again and again when I’m feeling low. If only I did not have to say goodnight to that sweet prince. If only I could be illuminated by his brilliance. If only some rosemary would bring me remembrance. If only I could for once not merely be in close proximity to greatness, but that I could grasp it, absorb it, become it.
After writing the above, I’ve realized that perhaps it’s none other but the main, facing my mediocre reality after experiencing the emotional depths into which Cumberbatch took me.
It’s merely the decompression of a touched and troubled soul, longing for inspiration once again. The rest is silence.