Sunday, October 26, 2014

In Praise of Alan Turing: Benedict Cumberbatch on CBS Sunday Morning

On CBS Sunday Morning today (October 26), Alan Turing, not Benedict Cumberbatch, took center stage. Nevertheless, the actor’s comments went a long way not only toward helping viewers understand Turing, but to anticipate The Imitation Game and Cumberbatch’s stellar performance.

In the five-minute segment, Cumberbatch was one of a half-dozen specialists (including a historian, an engineer, a professor who teaches a course about Turing, and Turing’s nephew) celebrating the genius mathematician’s contributions to the war effort. It was a different kind of interview for popular actor Cumberbatch. He was the focus of promos throughout the show to encourage viewers to keep watching at least through the Turing segment, which was broadcast in the final third of the program, but his interview was only a small part of the program's larger emphasis on Turing.

So what did Cumberbatch the actor get from this exposure?

For one, CBS Sunday Morning’s primary audience is 25- to 54-year-olds, who are a prime market for The Imitation Game. [The film opens in the U.S. on November 21, after being screened at 27 U.S. film festivals held between August 20 (Telluride) and November 15 (Key West).] Although the film has been heavily promoted at film festivals this autumn, the Sunday Morning audience likely hasn’t been able to see The Imitation Game yet. The segment about Turing not only was designed to pique their interest, but to portray Turing as an unsung war hero, a genius deserving of our respect and honor, and a persecuted homosexual—the latter point underscoring a sympathetic portrayal on screen.

The Imitation Game was significantly featured during the Sunday Morning segment. If audiences didn’t have the chance to get to know Cumberbatch very well, they at least saw his own brilliance as an actor through clips from the movie’s pivotal scenes. Whereas American audiences falling into CBS Sunday Morning's “typical” demographic may not be as familiar with Cumberbatch’s roles as Khan or Smaug, for example, they are more likely to be PBS viewers who may have seen Sherlock. As shown in the Imitation Game clips, Cumberbatch is again playing a highly intelligent character, and Sherlock fans watching the segment could easily make that connection—despite the fact that the CBS show never mentioned any of Cumberbatch’s other roles. The segment, after all, was focused on Turing, not Cumberbatch. What is more important, however, is that audiences who may primarily associate Cumberbatch with a clever consulting detective got to see moments of the actor’s performance as Turing—one that is very different from his depiction of Sherlock Holmes.

Finally, the actor took his place among the other specialists discussing Turing to briefly contribute his knowledge of the mathematician. When interviewer Anthony Mason asked whether it was intimidating to play Turing and portray that level of intelligence on screen, Cumberbatch smiled self-deprecatingly. “Hell, yeah, it is.” He and Mason toured the Imperial War Museum in London to view the Enigma machine. In a later interview clip, Cumberbatch explained Turing’s approach to defeating Enigma. Turing understood that “to beat a machine, you had to use a machine, rather than humans.”

One of the many film clips showed Turing’s machine at the moment it works and the Bletchley Park team realizes that they can defeat Enigma. “That moment in the film actually gave me goose bumps,” Cumberbatch enthused. “The hairs literally stood on the back of my neck, as it must have for them. That is a Eureka moment.”

Near the segment's conclusion, after mention of Turing’s posthumously received pardon, Cumberbatch commented that Turing had “a too-short epic life . . . . We owed him at least double that, I’d say.”

Segments like this one on CBS Sunday Morning are one way to repay Turing’s legacy by making audiences aware of the man, as well as the mathematical genius and war hero. For Benedict Cumberbatch to be highlighted in this segment pragmatically promotes him as an intelligent actor in an important forthcoming film and makes at least part of that film’s target audience in the U.S. aware of The Imitation Game and Cumberbatch’s range as an actor. However, it also illustrates his sincere mission to make moviegoers more aware of Alan Turing. In this interview, Cumberbatch received earnest attention because of his knowledge of Turing, rather than for being a sex symbol or a rising star, which are often the focus of fawning interviews by entertainment reporters.

Was this a good, if brief, exposure for Benedict Cumberbatch on U.S. television? Did he come across as sincere, intelligent, and concerned with Turing rather than with receiving accolades for his performance or promoting his latest film? and Was CBS Sunday Morning worth watching for this segment alone? Hell, yeah.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TIFF 2014: Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed

Benedict Cumberbatch’s fans began lining King Street hours before The Imitation Game’s first screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The women who graciously let me stand behind them had arrived about 9 a.m. I arrived far later, after a delayed flight from Orlando, but by about 3 on a warm Tuesday afternoon I, too, waited for the stars to arrive. My new friends had secured a prime spot slightly diagonal from the press area at the Princess of Wales theatre. Before long, and well in advance of the stars’ arrivals, both sides of King for a block either side of the theatre were at least six people deep.

Some fans brought signs (which the crowds behind them repeatedly urged to be lowered so more people could glimpse Cumberbatch the moment he arrived). Other fans held copies of the Entertainment Weekly cover of Cumberbatch as Sherlock, Sherlock posters, or postcards for Cumberbatch to sign. Some simply wanted a photo. During the long wait for the black cars to drive up, fans bonded over stories of meeting other actors or standing beside other red carpets. “We should ask him to guess our passwords,” one young woman suggested. “And they’ll all be the same word,” smirked another. Students in a film studies course suggested that they say they someday would be working with him.

Shannon, the TIFF coordinator, said she would signal who was arriving—if the crowds behaved. However, when Cumberbatch turned out to be in one of the first cars, all sense of organization (and in a few cases, all sense) was abandoned. Cumberbatch sprinted from the car and started posing and signing far down the line from where I was standing. The crowd across from the theatre surged forward to the point that security pleaded with everyone to step back so that the first row would not be squished against the barricade. When the actor was only a few yards away from me, a photographer peeled off from the press section to urge him and a section of faithful followers to pose for a few shots—the ones that made all the newspapers the next morning, in Toronto and around the world, alongside news of the film.

Cumberbatch was friendly but not chatty as he interacted with the people around me. He signed my Sherlock card—even returning to sign it because my pen (likely overwhelmed to be in the actor’s presence) failed to work at the crucial moment. He posed for a selfie with a woman a few feet away. He rushed down and up both sides of the street to greet as many fans as possible. When he finally turned toward the media photographers about 20 minutes after arriving, he kept waving at fans as he walked to the press area.

This Benedict Cumberbatch looked very different from the man I watched interact with the crowd and his colleagues at the 2011 BFI screening of “A Scandal in Belgravia.” He was physically larger then (while filming Parade’s End), more casually dressed, and a bit wary of the audience. The fans rushing after Cumberbatch were fewer in number, and security did not need to hover nearby as he signed and posed for fans. The man who walked the TIFF gauntlet of highly enthusiastic fans has grown more accustomed to crowds shouting his name. He was styled handsomely for this event, but he somehow looked slighter when he stood in front of me. Perhaps his stature in the entertainment industry this year made him seem impossibly taller and broader in my memory. At TIFF, the man in the blue suit, with perfectly coiffed hair, large dark glasses, and a sincere demeanor was not larger than life. He was not a slick movie star but a very popular actor starring in the film about to be screened at a major film festival. And that is why I enjoy writing about and following the career of Benedict Cumberbatch.

He may not seek the attention, but he knows how to handle it well at a public event and seems to increasingly enjoy interacting with fans. He pleased even those who didn’t get an autograph or a selfie because he went first to the fans, kept moving up and down the street to greet as many people as possible, and spent a long time by red carpet standards with fans. Then he turned to the media.

“He really cares about his fans” is a line I heard quite a few times as I walked back toward my hotel. If Cumberbatch aimed to please, he scored a bullseye.

A few hours later, as I left a theatre district restaurant, I saw people running against the light—much to the chagrin of a traffic officer, who was trying to keep irate taxi drivers from slaughtering pedestrians. “It’s a red light!” he shouted, but people only scooted across the street faster to get near the back door of the Princess of Wales theatre. I could hear cheers and screams from more than a block away. “That must be a huge star,” the guy next to me said. His friend agreed, and when we managed to stand on the edge of the curb to watch who was leaving the theatre, we could see Benedict Cumberbatch, standing on the door frame of his car to address the hundreds who had been waiting for him. My paparazzi-style grainy photo shows him smiling as he slipped into the car. He rolled down the window and waved as he headed for the airport.

When I first started writing a performance biography about Benedict Cumberbatch a few years ago, my agent and I had trouble convincing publishers that anyone would want to read about this actor. The argument went that if you asked people what they thought of Sherlock, they would say that they like the series, and then if you explained that Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes, they would say they like him in the role. However, ask the question about Cumberbatch first, and no one would know who he is. I grinned at that memory when I was asked to write a second book about Cumberbatch.

Similarly, even at last year’s TIFF, when Cumberbatch starred in the gala opening film, The Fifth Estate, and fans screamed for him, the argument against Cumberbatch being a true film star began with the statement that his fandom is principally Internet based—he doesn't have instant name recognition among mainstream movie or TV audiences (no many how many writers and chat/talk show hosts joke about its sound or spelling). When Cumberbatch showed up on the TIFF red carpet at the 12 Years a Slave premiere, the cynics who noted the crowds chanting his name commented that the majority of people were there to see producer/star Brad Pitt, and Cumberbatch was merely a bonus. These comments vied for attention with the media touting Cumberbatch as TIFF's "It" man.

A year, especially one in the life of such a busy actor (with high-profile projects on television, radio, film, and stage), makes a big difference in perception. Like last year, Cumberbatch could only stay in Toronto a few days again this year, but they were filled with interviews and red carpet appearances before he flew back across the Atlantic to work. Last year’s post-TIFF job was The Imitation Game, the film that would bring him back to Toronto in 2014. This year The Hollow Crown called him home for an immediate script reading and filming within days of his return. Despite winning numerous awards (including an Emmy) for Sherlock, gaining a phenomenal amount of attention for numerous film roles in 2013, being named the Britannia Awards’ British Artist of the Year, and now being critically acclaimed for his performance as Alan Turing—all indicators of stardom—Cumberbatch is still very much a working actor. He has numerous projects in progress. Even though he coyly feeds the rumor mill with non-statements about possible roles as part of the industry’s game playing, he most often emphasizes his work instead of his celebrity. At TIFF, he transitioned from one fan’s focus on him (as a "delicious"ly sexy man) back to his screen role and his desire to see Turing’s story told. In some important ways this prolific actor’s public persona has not changed with his increasing fame.

When MX Publishing suggested that I write a second book about Benedict Cumberbatch, because the first performance biography was submitted just before Star Trek: Into Darkness went into wide release and so much has happened since, I wondered how I could write an entire book about one year. Silly me. I was writing about Benedict Cumberbatch, which meant I wrote chapters about Star Trek, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, The Hobbit, the most recent series of Sherlock, Cabin Pressure, Little Favour, lots of awards and honors, and ticket sales for Hamlet—among others. I both loved (because Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Steven Moffat were winners) and loathed (because I had to revise a section of the just-submitted manuscript) the Emmys—that award became my stopping point for this book. I’ve already posted in my blog my review of The Imitation Game, and I suspect I am far from finished about writing about Benedict Cumberbatch’s incredible career.

The new book illustrates how this actor’s transition to star has been completed in the past year—and how celebrity is having an impact on his career and public perceptions of the actor. More than the first book, this second one includes greater analysis of the way Cumberbatch’s celebrity image continues to change and what that means for his career and his place within popular culture. I think the book lives up to its name: Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed: Films, Fans, Fame.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

No Imitation--The Imitation Game Proves why Benedict Cumberbatch is the Real Deal

A low-key, yet symbolically striking scene occurs late in The Imitation Game, when mathematician and Enigma code breaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) finishes a solo run and rests on his knees in a field. While catching his breath, he calmly watches a glorious sunset. By this point in the film, Turing indeed has run the most important race of his professional career—assisting MI6 during World War II by successfully building a machine to break the Nazis’ daily-changing communication code. As he has been for most of his life, however, Turing in this scene is alone. He faces a return to “normal” society after being ensconced at Bletchley Park with co-workers who gradually became friends. In many ways, his personal triumph at breaking Enigma and gaining some measure of social acceptance is the high point of his life. As the sun slowly sets in heartbreaking beauty, Turing—as well as the audience—wonders what will come next.

Wartime encourages and fuels secrets, and Turing not only has to keep quiet about his government work but the secrets he uncovers about his colleagues—and the ones they learn about him. Turing is a man who often must hide who he is, what he feels, or what he has done, either professionally or personally. As depicted in this film, gaining knowledge is only part of surviving a war. Knowing when to share information, and how much, and with whom, is the key to winning. Turing and his team of brilliant analysts learn this truth at devastating personal costs.

The Imitation Game, on the surface, is a biopic determined to make 21st century audiences aware of Alan Turing’s brilliance and his significant contributions not only in helping the Allies win the war but in leading to our computer-reliant society. It also is an apology to the man who, in 1954, died at the far-too-young age of 41, as a result of Britain’s criminalization of homosexuality. (Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned Turing last year for his 1952 conviction for homosexuality.) Such themes might seem too serious or tragic for a film hoping to become Oscar’s Best Picture, but the performances by Benedict Cumberbatch in particular, Keira Knightley (as Joan Clarke), and Mark Strong (as Stewart Menzies) make the film more personal and empowering.

This is Cumberbatch’s star turn. Critics who compare his role as Turing with those as Sherlock Holmes or Stephen Hawking miss the point. Yes, Turing is a genius with some serious socialization issues, but audiences will not see Sherlock or Hawking in this performance. When Turing is out of his element in conversation, his expression washes out and his eyes dim. When he is presented with a new puzzle, his eyes come alive, as if the man dully trying to navigate the banalities of common conversation suddenly awakens and knows just what to say. Cumberbatch’s portrayal is surprisingly intimate; emotion leaks from Turing’s eyes, and the stiff upper lip developed as a child’s defense mechanism wobbles. The actor physically inhabits the role, with Turing’s slightly hunched gait and downward gaze, runner’s speed and measured breath, or tremored hand in the scene that surely will gain Cumberbatch many acting nominations in the coming months.

Turing is a difficult man to understand, much less like. He prefers to work alone and looks with disdain at his colleagues [mostly depicted as “types,” such as the dashing Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode)]. For all the drama, the film is surprisingly funny because of Turing’s social faux pas. When his colleagues tell him they are going to lunch, Turing fails to acknowledge the group’s spokesman. After telling Turing for the third time they are leaving, he finally realizes that Turing does not understand he is being asked to go along. Later, when Turing follows Joan Clarke’s suggestion that he try to make friends with his co-workers, he proves he is the world’s worst joke teller. Cumberbatch plays Turing appropriately straight faced, but his performance explains, never mocks, Turing’s social unease.

Knightley and Strong assist greatly with the film’s lighter moments. Both have a deft comedic touch. Knightley is particularly good at showing that Clarke, like Turing, is an outsider, but one who knows how to play the game to succeed as much as a middle-class woman in the 1940s was allowed. This performance is one of Knightley’s strongest in quite a while, and she and Cumberbatch work well together. Clarke and Turing have what Knightley termed a “meeting of the minds”—they understand each other, and Clarke tutors Turing on how to understand or be understood by everyone else. Strong, as Turing’s MI6 “handler,” does not even need dialogue. He can convey wry humor by lifting an eyebrow, and his character slyly manipulates the intelligentsia at Bletchley Park, sometimes, it seems, for his own amusement.

Biographer Andrew Hodges expressed dismay during filming that he feared Turing’s and Clarke’s relationship would become a standard movie love story. Rest assured, it is not. The film does deal with discrimination because of gender or sexual orientation, but its depictions of love do not require sex scenes. I did find details from Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma useful, particularly in the flashbacks—narrated by Cumberbatch—to young Turing’s unhappy school days. Alex Lauther, playing young Alan, does not mimic Cumberbatch’s mannerisms or delivery, but the parallelism between the performances enhances the connection between the flashbacks and the main story. Audiences can believe that Lauther’s bullied public schoolboy grows up to become Cumberbatch’s under-duress stutterer who names his finest mechanical creation for his dearest school-days friend.

“You picked a good one,” TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey assured The Imitation Game’s second-screening audience (who, even with tickets, waited hours outside in a queue wrapping around blocks in order to get a good seat). A few minutes later, director Morten Tyldum described the way the cast had come together as a family to make this film, but he explained that now it is not just his film, or the cast’s—“It is now yours.”

The Imitation Game
is a fine gift but not a perfect film. It successfully introduces more people to the amazing, and victimized, Alan Turing. It is an intriguing history that intercuts wartime newsreel footage with the actors’ scenes. One critic dubbed it “your grandpa’s new favorite movie,” and many filmgoers may not immediately gravitate to a story about World War II code breakers. It has an uplifting theme, even if the tagline, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine,” is cumbersome and underscored once or twice too often; the audience gets the point the first time. However—The Imitation Game presents Benedict Cumberbatch in, if not his strongest work to date, at least one of his most enlightening, moving performances. Whereas the film sometimes is heavy handed in manipulating audience emotions, Cumberbatch’s portrayal is not. And Turing's story needs to be told again now.

“Are you paying attention?” Turing asks in an early scene. “Good . . . . You will miss things, important things. I am in control because I know things that you do not know.” Turing’s words could be Cumberbatch’s instructions for those who already expect a great deal from his acting but might overlook details in his emotionally layered, well-researched portrayal. Certainly, Cumberbatch incorporates Turing’s expressions or speech patterns into his acting, but he goes far deeper. When, for example, Turing’s work is threatened, Cumberbatch-as-Turing frantically attempts to protect his machine, revealing the boy’s desperation within the genius’ zeal to save “Christopher” from bureaucrats who do not understand.

“You will not judge until I am finished,” Turing commands. The judging process on the way to Oscar and Bafta is long and riddled with campaign anxiety, as well as potentially fickle voters. Yet the film festivals’ audience reaction has been positive. The Princess of Wales TIFF audience, clearly moved by the film, applauded loudly and eagerly discussed it on the way out. A crowd gathered to drop their tickets into the bin to vote for The Imitation Game as fan favorite. The previous evening’s screening, attended by director and cast, received a standing ovation. A few days earlier, the Telluride Film Festival applauded the film, especially Cumberbatch’s performance. In a few days more, the film will make its European debut at the BFI London Film Festival, where Cumberbatch’s hometown crowd surely will embrace his work.

I won’t say that The Imitation Game is the high point of Cumberbatch’s career, even if it eventually earns him an Oscar. I still expect a great deal of him and look forward to his future work, and, if he is the actor I believe he is, the roles and opportunities are more gratifying even than the many awards he continues to receive. I respect, admire, and enjoy this performance because Cumberbatch makes Turing human—not machine like—and accessible and memorable. The Imitation Game is good, but Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Bibliography for Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed: Films, Fame, Fans

Bibliography for
Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed: Films, Fame, Fans
MX Publishing, London, November 2014

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Another Perspective on Richard III

Last week I had the good fortune to see the first and second nights’ performances of Richard III at Trafalgar Studios in London. Although I had intended to write a review upon my return home, today’s articles about the play and fans in the Daily Mail, Times, and Telegraph, plus comments I heard from fans during and after the play, prompted me to put aside my jet lag and present another perspective on this production’s very early days and my experience as an audience member. I admit that I am a fan of theater, Shakespeare, and Martin Freeman, and undoubtedly those “fandoms” color my experience of the play. I’m also a critic, an author, and a humanities professor, and those roles also have a bearing on my comments in light of what seems to be a continuing media and public-forum discussion about the nature of “fans” and the essence of “theater”.

Please be aware that, although I do not think I have included spoilers for those who will see the play, I do comment on aspects of performance and staging. I may assume that you have read or seen the play and are familiar with the material. Just to be clear, IF YOU DO NOT WANT DETAILS ABOUT JAMIE LLOYD’S CURRENT PRODUCTION OF RICHARD III OR MARTIN FREEMAN’S PERFORMANCE, PLEASE DO NOT READ FURTHER. YOUR DEFINITION OF “SPOILER” MAY DIFFER FROM MINE, AND I DO NOT WANT TO UNDERMINE THE THEATERGOING EXPERIENCE OF ANYONE WHO MAY SEE THE PLAY.

Now, about the performances on Tuesday, July 1, and Wednesday, July 2 . . . .

The Play and the Lead

Jamie Lloyd has successfully pared what would have been about a four-hour play into a powerful two-and-a-half-hour (roughly, with interval) theatergoing experience. The official opening takes place in a few days (July 8) with press night and the subsequent reviews. I have seen two performances very early in the run, and previews may differ significantly from what becomes the “standard” version (although one reason I enjoy theater so much is that every night’s performance is unique because it is live). The version I watched on Tuesday night had been changed by Wednesday night. I noticed differences in blocking, the amount of blood on stage, the increase in humor, and dialogue in the final scene before the interval. Although I enjoyed both performances immensely, I found the emotional build-up stronger during the second night’s performance. I only wish I could watch the play again and again to learn how this production evolves (but that would be immensely greedy, and I hope as many people as possible can see this production. Trafalgar Studios is an intimate venue, which is another reason why I enjoy seeing plays there so much.)

This production differs from the interpretation of Richard III, as a play or a character, that many Shakespeare lovers may expect. The setting, for example, is England only a few decades ago--and I encourage patrons to read the program for an excellent explanation of the shift in time period. Modernization does not detract from the play, and if some in the audience don’t understand the hazy black-and-white television images at the beginning of the play, that’s OK. The actors’ dialogue (which has not been modernized) and actions clearly illustrate the political chaos. The only awkward line for me as a result of the modernization is Richard’s cry for “A horse! A horse!” but what would Richard III be without that line?

This production is vibrant, violent, engrossing, and sometimes just gross (depending on how much you like to see blood). It is more dynamic and physical than I had expected, but, since seeing Lloyd’s Macbeth last season, I should have anticipated more action for the lead actor. This production invigorates the characters and, to use a cliché, makes them relevant.

Richard is surprisingly witty and humorous. For those who read this comment and automatically assume that Martin Freeman is playing Richard as a variation of The Office’s Tim, let me assure you that Freeman’s repertoire includes many shades of “humor,” just like he has the ability to make every character he plays surprising and different. He doesn’t rehash aspects of other characters he has made recently famous. His Richard understands the power of words and ably twists them. His humor lures followers and then entraps them. Because Freeman’s gesture, expression, or line delivery can make the audience laugh, they--like Richard’s inner circle--may want to like this man because he has a keen wit and sharp sense of humor. Richard, however, is not a likeable man, and the use of humor makes his callous cruelty all the more horrific. Yet Richard is not like one of Freeman’s most recent successes, Fargo’s increasingly violent and immoral Lester Nygard, either. From the beginning of the play, the audience knows exactly who Richard is--a villain. He does not change from good to bad or seek redemption. Still, Freeman does not play a one-note baddie. He lures the audience, too, with softly spoken dialogue, only to shout later. Richard may have that famous hump, as well as a slight limp and a useless arm, but he can be lethally spry when necessary. Both Richard and Freeman are compelling because they can still surprise the audience, even those familiar with the play.

On Tuesday night, I sat at the back of the stage, which, for that performance, had cons as well as pros. I chose that location because I enjoyed sitting there during Macbeth (even if a wayward branch got a wee bit too close as the forest marched on stage). I like watching the larger part of the audience seated in front of the stage, because that the actors' view while they perform, and I also enjoy seeing the actors entering and exiting stage right next to me. At times an actor makes eye contact (that happened twice on Tuesday night), and I feel much more part of the performance when I’m seated only a few feet away from the action and alongside a main entry/exit.

Those positive aspects of being seated up stage made my experience of Richard III special, but my location also meant that I had a little more trouble seeing everything that was going on. The set, while minimalist, still obstructed my view a few times when the action was down stage. When eerie smoke arose, it became so thick that the people around me started fanning their programs. There were a few mishaps and mistakes, and my vantage point made them seem more obvious than they likely were to those seated farther back, but those kinds of problems are expected at this stage of a production and likely will be worked out.

On Wednesday night, I sat four rows from the front of the stage. I had a much clearer view of the entire set, which made the special effects more understandable because I had a complete visual context for their use. On a second viewing, I also had a better idea of what to expect from the actors. The second night’s performance included more humor—or, rather, lines were punched up a bit more, and the play just seemed to work better.

Lloyd’s productions of Macbeth or Richard III may not be for everyone, but I find them exhilarating and provocative. Of course, I still enjoy a more “traditional” approach to the Bard, but I am challenged by Lloyd’s productions--I go home thinking about the characters and the actors’ performances. I want to come back and see more. To me, that is what good theater is about.

Fan Behavior and Theatre Etiquette

I hope the focus of reviews after previews returns to the production and performances, instead of fans and fan behavior. The Daily Mail, The Times, and The Telegraph (providing a summary of the complaints presented in the other two articles) today have blamed Hobbit fans for ruining the play for other audience members. The thrust of the argument seems to be that young fans of an actor maybe could contain their enthusiasm or express it more appropriately, but they don’t. They may not understand theater etiquette because they either do not know how to behave during a performance or don’t care. In particular, a venue like Trafalgar Studios, because of the theater’s size and the configuration of seats for Richard III, brings fans closer to the actors. The setting is more intimate and, because of seating on two sides of the stage, automatically involves the audience in the performance, which could lead to inappropriate behavior. Also, to encourage more people who typically don’t attend theater to come to plays at Trafalgar Studios, the producers have marketed plays to and made some tickets more affordable for a younger audience to come see what theater is all about.

These are purely my opinions shared in reaction to these articles:

Theater should be for everyone, not just those who can afford a high-priced ticket, and I like the way that Trafalgar Studios is helping to make theater more accessible to more people. I increasingly have problems with the “haves” and “have nots” division between those who are fortunate enough to attend a play, concert, or another type of live performance, especially those events starring a celebrity, and those that cannot get in. That “good fortune” may be the result of a lottery, fastest Internet connection to the box office, or ability to pay membership fees or the highest prices to get a ticket. Of course, the entertainment industry is a business--and popular, high-profile actors attract publicity and audiences. In recent years, the number of plays featuring a film or television star has increased. People like to see stars on stage, and fans of a popular actor may be very determined both to get a ticket and to interact with that actor. In a celebrity-driven popular culture, there will increasingly be a clash between people who want to attend the theater, for example, to see a television or film star in person and those who want specifically to see the play, no matter who plays the lead. The problems stem from individuals who do anything to ensure their own enjoyment at the expense of the experience for others, whether actors or audience members.

Not everyone who sees Richard III may be well versed in theater etiquette, which seems to be the focus of complaints about fan behavior. My experience may have differed from that of people who watched performances later in the week, but here are my observations of the audience and stage-door fans.

During the two performances of Richard III that I saw, I heard the audience laugh and applaud at appropriate times. I didn’t see or hear anyone around me applaud or cheer when Martin Freeman began his first speech; if Richard’s famous opening lines had been drowned out, I would have been annoyed, because I wanted to hear Freeman say those lines, even though I already know them. On the second night, as I previously mentioned, the audience laughed more often, and more people smiled or laughed at (in particular) Richard’s or Buckingham’s lines. The audience was involved with the performance, but no one that I saw or heard disrupted the flow of the play or made the dialogue impossible to hear.

The applause during those two performances took place right before the interval and during curtain calls. On Tuesday, during the first round of curtain calls, the entire cast was loudly applauded, and some people hooted and cheered. When Martin Freeman came out alone for his call, the audience began to stand, but I don’t think everyone gave him, or the cast joining him for the final bow, a standing ovation. Many people did, but a standing ovation is not unique to Richard III, even after the first performance, which probably was not as polished as it will become throughout the run. Within the same week, I saw Skylight (standing ovation), The Crucible (standing ovation), and the opening night/press night of Great Britain (partial ovation--a lot of people remained seated at the back of the Olivier, where I was, although their applause was just as enthusiastic as that of the people closer to the stage who gave an ovation).

It seems that most audiences nowadays will give a star a standing ovation. Regarding the plays and performances I saw last week, the response seemed justified. Perhaps there are so many standing ovations these days that the concept has become meaningless; an ovation has become an expectation rather than a true response to quality. That should be a separate issue from the problems of inappropriate fan behavior mentioned in the press today. The people who stood and applauded the entire cast of Richard III genuinely seemed thrilled by their theatergoing experience and appreciative of the performances. Those standing and cheering were not all Hobbit fans, or Sherlock or Fargo fans, or Martin Freeman fans. They were people who had a great evening at the theater.

I did see some examples of lack of theater etiquette that the staff tried to stop more than once. Some people walked across the set during the interval to visit friends or family seated in the opposite block. Walking across the stage if you’re not an actor in the production should seem like an obvious no-no, but in a small venue with seats on two sides of the stage, some people opted to take the shortest route to the other side. The staff courteously explained why that was not a good idea. Similarly, most theaters have a rule that photographs or recordings of any type are not allowed. A few people around me needed to be told, some more than once, that taking photographs of the set or trying to get a close-up of an actor is not allowed. That was about it as far as inappropriate behavior, and I have no idea whether the people who were asked to stop doing something against the rules are fans of a particular film, TV series, or actor.

During performances of other plays last week, I was annoyed by people around me who talked through the show, checked social media several times (not during the interval), sighed loudly enough that people two rows away turned around to glare, or opened cello-wrapped food and noisily ate during quiet scenes. That behavior is disruptive, self-indulgent, and inappropriate. I see it not only in the theater but at other live performances or during movies. Audience etiquette, not just theater-audience etiquette, needs to be taught and enforced so that the entire audience can enjoy the performance they paid to see. By the way, the people who annoyed me weren’t fans of any particular actor, nor were they part of a specific age group.

I seldom try to do stage door because I am afraid of being trampled or pushed, as I have been at red carpet events. I’ve heard the stories about actors being chased down the street or long queues braying for an actor to come out, then becoming unruly if he chooses not to do so. I’ve talked with theater staff who have worried about fans not understanding why they have to do something (like queue or wait patiently) or not to do something (like record a performance or grope an actor entering or exiting next to the audience) and disregarding staff or security members’ instructions. I was relieved that the fans awaiting Martin Freeman were well behaved; a few even said that they realized their behavior could affect whether actors continue talking with fans at all after a performance.

On Tuesday night, the cast had a party after the first performance. Martin Freeman sent word that it would be a very long time before he would be outside. The group standing outside the stage door wasn’t huge, and it was respectful. Sure, there were some louder conversations about fandom (or Sherlock, or Benedict Cumberbatch), but most people were fairly quiet, more so as nearly two hours passed. Some people left, and some pros wanting autographs to sell joined the crowd.

When Martin Freeman came out, he looked tired. It was nearly midnight by then, after he gave an intense performance and attended to other responsibilities after the play. Nevertheless, he signed for many people. (I don’t know if he signed for everyone who waited, because I left before he did.) He warned off one pro by saying that he would only sign for people who had seen the play. He posed for a few selfies, and he said thank you many times for fans’ kind words. It seemed that most people brought Richard III posters or programs to sign, but a few had Sherlock books or DVDs.

On Wednesday night, Martin Freeman came out much more quickly but did not stay very long. He was cordial and signed quickly for many people. He patiently waited while a starstruck young woman in front of me asked him to personalize a book and painstakingly spelled the name. He was more outgoing than he had been the previous night and kept thanking everyone for coming to see the play. Before he had come outside, the crowd received word that he would not pose for photos but would sign, and he stuck to that rule. Before he hopped into the car waiting to drive him away, he wished everyone a good evening.

At both times I was at the stage door last week, the crowd was friendly and respectful. I only hope that the fans who wait at a stage door remain that way and understand that meeting an actor is not an expectation or a guarantee that comes with a theater ticket.

Before I conclude my long ramble in response to today’s media reports, I want to mention one other aspect of theatergoing and fandom that troubles me, because it reflects that schism between people who primarily go to theater only to see/meet an actor and those who primarily go to see the play--and I realize that many people (me included) often go for both reasons equally. When I said, online or in person, that I was excited about seeing Richard III’s first two performances, the response I sometimes received surprised me: Why would I go on a first night, when famous people are more likely to attend the press night/opening night or final show? The gist is that I was not terribly bright to buy a ticket to these two previews because they would only be attended by fans. (Personally, I was ecstatic to even get a ticket, much less two, on dates when I would be in London for other reasons.) I dislike the idea that a performance is only or especially worthwhile to attend if a) a famous actor is in the play and b) the famous actor’s equally famous family and friends might be in the audience. I enjoy meeting actors, and I was thrilled to tell Martin Freeman that his performance was fantastic. But that’s not the reason I go to theater. If I don’t see anyone famous on stage or off, my experience of going to the theater, 90 percent of the time, is positive. Even when I don’t like a play or a performance, I generally have learned something or been given interesting ideas to think about. In the long run, that result is more satisfying than an encounter with someone famous, no matter how exciting that can be.

The short version of this review/cultural critique is that Richard III, currently playing at Trafalgar Studios, is an exciting adaptation of Shakespeare’s text. The cast is very good, and their interpretations should give audiences a new appreciation for the play and individual characters.

The long version is that what constitutes appropriate public behavior, whether in a theater or another venue, is going to be a focal point of media analysis and discussion, and individual fandoms (e.g., Hobbit fans, Sherlock fans, Freeman fans) will be scrutinized. While a discussion of appropriate theater etiquette is important--as is the ongoing discussion about appropriate behavior in lots of public venues, including social media--it should not overshadow the hard work of the cast and crew who diligently and creatively, performance after performance, bring a play to life.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Six Performances, Five Weeks

During October and November, I was privileged to see a range of Benedict Cumberbatch’s stage and screen performances. Of course, because I’m in Florida, I had to see the stage performances as they were shown on screen in Vero Beach or Palm Beach, but the effect was the same—I was mesmerized. I had previously seen some performances, most notably, Frankenstein. However, that did not reduce my joy at seeing a favorite once more. During five weeks, I watched bits, if not all, of six performances: in Frankenstein, The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave, Little Favour, the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebration (broadcast in the U.S. as part of NT Live), and the trailer for August: Osage County. These pivotal roles in his career illustrate that no matter when they were recorded or where they took place, whether they were part of a larger ensemble cast or a starring role, Benedict Cumberbatch is truly one of his generation’s best actors. Even among those who noted, as several movie critics have, that The Fifth Estate did not perform as well as expected, Cumberbatch performed superbly. His performances in recently released films prove that this year’s Britannia award was no fluke, and this autumn’s range of roles appealed to an equally wide range of Cumberbatch fans.

Different Skills for Different Roles

Comparing Frankenstein and The Fifth Estate is truly the apples-and-oranges of comparisons, but think of them as equally important but opposite ends of a scale “measuring” physicality. Although some critics seem to think both productions were “monstrous” (a positive for Frankenstein, not so much for Fifth Estate), they illustrate oppositions in the requirements of a role and Cumberbatch’s performance to meet these requirements. In Frankenstein, as the Creature, Cumberbatch is a miracle of movement. He crawls, bounds, leaps in the air, stretches, and sinuously moves his body around the circular stage. Those who have read Benedict Cumberbatch, in Transition know that the Creature is one of my favorite Cumberbatch roles because of the actor’s physicality and dramatic intensity. Seeing Frankenstein on Halloween was especially key to my enjoyment of the holiday this year. I already knew the performance and the story intimately, at least from an audience perspective, but on the drive home from Vero Beach I thought about the connections among humankind, God, that which we create, and our responsibilities for our acts of creation. That Cumberbatch’s performance still made me think of connections among life, death, eternity, and immortality says a lot about a production that, to date, I have seen more than 20 times.

As WikiLeak’s Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, Cumberbatch’s is an interesting performance for a completely different reason. I see this as a physically confined role, the opposite of the physically demanding, movement-liberating role of the Creature. Although in Hawking, Cumberbatch was often confined to a wheelchair and had to brilliantly convey Hawking’s emotions within a delimited range of motion, in The Fifth Estate, the actor’s movements are instead constrained by the script. In fact, many critics complained that the story became boring because so often the lead characters were shown only typing on a keyboard, looking at a screen, or, like the audience, watching instant messages scroll. The “action” in The Fifth Estate is intellectual, analyzing the conflicts inherent in determining what should be leaked, when, and by whom. The “chase” is often electronic, as WikiLeaks is shut down, pops up on mirror sites, or releases incendiary information. Cumberbatch’s non-computer activity involves walking, public speaking, or staring moodily at the landscape. (Perhaps his character’s most impressive physical quirk is opening a bottle with his teeth.) The actor’s hands often are either stuffed in pockets or speedily keying information onto a laptop. Because the actor had to rely on subtle facial expression and body language instead of dramatic gestures or displays of physical strength, this performance shows how good Cumberbatch can be on film even when the performance relies more heavily on dialogue and minute variations in body language. The character’s smiles, for instance, tell a lot about his mood and thoughts. When not suffering fools well, Cumberbatch-as-Assange’s tight smile is a mask of forced civility, but when he comes on to a beautiful woman, the smile becomes genuinely animated before turning predatory. Cumberbatch always has an expressive face, but in The Fifth Estate, his body language and line interpretation are even more important in getting the audience to understand Assange.

In 12 Years a Slave, Cumberbatch’s role is one of many in a highly anticipated, highly scrutinized drama that many critics have named Best Picture of the Year long before awards season rolls around. In this large ensemble cast, Cumberbatch’s character stands out as a “good man,” even though he is a slave owner who plays a pivotal role in lead character Platt’s future torture. In period garb once more, Cumberbatch and his dialect convincingly portray Southern U.S. plantation owner Ford. The actor makes Ford’s moral contradictions obvious to the audience, which makes the character all the more troubling to watch. As a Christian, Ford feels compelled to read the Bible to his slaves on Sunday and, in a moment of what many slaveholders would call “weakness,” listens to Platt’s engineering advice and praises the slave when he proves his idea is sound. However, for all the “humane” treatment of his slaves, Ford is still a man with debts and must make a profit from his plantation.

Perhaps what is important to his career is not so much this performance, which, as expected, is note (or accent) perfect, but the fact that Cumberbatch is featured in such an important film. His inclusion in this cast indicates his growing importance in the film industry. Although a small role in 12 Years a Slave will not erase Hollywood’s memory about The Fifth Estate’s poor box office, the film flopped commercially, as many critics also pointed out, because of script problems, not Cumberbatch’s performance. As a fan, I am more impressed that Cumberbatch accepts roles that pique his interest and offer him something new or different to play, even if that role ultimately is not a box office hit. It is unfortunate that Cumberbatch’s first lead in a major motion picture, one that kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival, received so much negative press.

It’s Not the Length, but What You Do With It

Two noteworthy performances fit into the “good things come in small packages” category: Wallace in Little Favour and Rosencrantz in an NT Live scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Indie short Little Favor provides another starring role for Cumberbatch. (The amount of his screen time is greater in this 26-minute film than in some full-length features now in theaters.) What is striking about this role is that Wallace is the entry character for the audience. [Often, as in Sherlock, for example, another character (in this case, John Watson) is the “everyman” who provides insights into the plot or other characters. In The Fifth Estate Daniel Berg leads audiences to the first glimpse of Julian Assange. However, in Little Favour, Cumberbatch not only plays a lead role and is onscreen the most time, but he also is the character the audience follows.] Ultimately, the audience’s “fate” is the same as Wallace’s—to the surprise of both. Crowd funders who supported the making of Little Favour are rewarded with a shocking (and shockingly well-made) short film. I expected Cumberbatch to be good in this indie, but what pleases me more is that he still is not only willing to act in one, especially a short film, but to personally back it and use his considerable celebrity to help get the film made. Coming off Star Trek publicity, Cumberbatch immediately filmed and helped promote Little Favour, not a project every rising star would take on, even for good friends wanting to make the movie.

Of the many Cumberbatch roles seen on screen in Florida during October and November, two originally took place on the stage of the National Theatre. During the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala, Cumberbatch tackled a short scene from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The scene allowed Cumberbatch to show off his comedic timing in hitting the right beats to get a laugh from the audience. Although he was only on stage a few minutes during the multi-hour showcase, what was more important to me, as one who documents his performances, was to see him join fellow thespians of his generation on the National Theatre’s stage for the curtain call. Actors from the most recent plays took a bow first, with the progression continuing to actors starring in plays a decade ago, then two decades past, until the audience finally honored those who first performed in the National Theatre 50 years ago. Not only was Cumberbatch applauded for his role during the prestigious anniversary production (and resulting NT Live broadcasts worldwide), but he is being lauded as much for his stage performances as those on television or film. This production/broadcast also reminds audiences and critics that Cumberbatch’s career is not going to be that of the typical “Hollywood” star. Not only have some of his most memorable roles to date been on stage, but he seems eager to return, perhaps as early as next year.

He’s Everywhere This Season

Even when I went to the cinema to see a movie that does not star or include Benedict Cumberbatch in its ensemble cast, I was made aware of yet another of his projects coming to a screen near me in the next few weeks. A longer trailer for August: Osage County played before Philomena during the Thanksgiving holiday. I haven’t decided whether it is fortunate for Cumberbatch’s role as Little Charles Aiken to be shown so fully in a trailer. His total screen time in the movie is far less than that of many A-listers, such as Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts, but his “trailer time” is disproportionately greater. Audiences can hear Little Charles’ noticeable Oklahoma accent, see that this sensitive soul is willing to cry in public, and wish to hug him for that shy, endearing smile.

Moviegoers who heard or read bad reviews about The Fifth Estate or worried about watching the brutality of 12 Years a Slave and stayed home may go see August: Osage County. This may be the first time that many U.S. moviegoers will see Cumberbatch in a key role—and know who he is before they go to the theater. Audiences may have found Cumberbatch’s performance memorable in War Horse, for example, but, unless they were already Sherlock fans, few in the U.S. holiday crowds were likely to know his name back then, much less to go to the movie simply because he was in it. Cumberbatch’s higher media profile—including U.S. interviews on talk shows like Katie (in October) and Jimmy Kimmel Live (in December), as well as his appearance at the recent The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug LA premiere and in all those Hobbit trailers—pretty much guarantees greater recognition among a wider audience by the end of this year. Having two roles in much-hyped holiday films Hobbit (December 13 in the U.S.) and August: Osage County (opening on Christmas Day in the U.S.) will only add to his international fame.

Although it is easy to joke that Benedict Cumberbatch may have provided something for everyone during the latter months of 2013, from the intellectualized The Fifth Estate to the star-powered adaptation of August: Osage County, many of these films (12 Years a Slave, Fifth Estate, August: Osage County) are rated R and theoretically limit the audience to adults, which, granted, is a large portion of his fan base. Under-18 fans who came to Cumberbatch because of Sherlock primarily can look forward to The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (as well as the return of their favorite consulting detective in early 2014). Additionally, because in the U.S. NT Live broadcasts are limited to one-time screenings in a few venues per state, many Cumberbatch fans have to travel miles if they want to see one of the recorded stage performances. I am fortunate to be able to drive 3 to 5 hours to see NT Live broadcasts. If my conversations with audience members before and after Frankenstein and the National Theatre’s anniversary celebration are anything to go by, many new Cumberbatch fans have been made through these broadcasts. (People who attend NT Live screenings may not be film aficionados or may not be aware of PBS’s Sherlock.) If Cumberbatch is not truly providing something for everyone, simply because not everyone can easily view his most recent work, at least he is showing his range of professional interests and skills.

These six performances released in October and November (as well as trailers promoting holiday films and TV series) illustrate that Cumberbatch is an actor who will not limit himself to “either/or” acting challenges: to roles in mainstream films or indies, leads or supporting roles, theatre or film (or television). His is the actor’s quest to stretch himself as a performer, sometimes quite literally, and to take on characters who might not be fashionable or easy to like but are thought-provoking and illuminating. Perhaps that diversity is what Benedict Cumberbatch can uniquely offer the entertainment industry.

Lynnette Porter is the author of Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography, available through MX Publishing, Amazon US and Amazon UK, among other booksellers and book sites.