How Benedict Cumberbatch is putting sexy into the world of classic literature


Published on 29 August, 2015 in Scroll.in

Photo Credit: GabboT / Creative Commons
Photo Credit: GabboT / Creative Commons

He became the 21st-century Sherlock. He terrified the audience by lending his voice to Smaug and the Necromancer in The Hobbit series. He was also sensational as the Creature in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein. And just the other day, he was Prince Hamlet at the Barbican in London.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s success can be attributed to a multitude of roles, but his portrayal of literary characters deserves special attention. One of the finest performers around today, Cumberbatch made his debut in acting with Shakespeare’s comic play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He played Titania, the queen of fairies who is made to fall in love with a weaver with a donkey’s head. It’s interesting to note that cross-dressing was a significant feature of Shakespearean plays on the Renaissance stage, where men dressed up as women and vice-versa.

Shakespearean highs

Cumberbatch, of course, may or may not have done it with the same intention. He was 12 and not getting to play the lead role must have been the least of his worries at the time. It was his enthusiasm for Shakespearean plays that landed him roles in several school productions as a student and later, as a professional actor.

He played the ideal lover in two of Shakespeare’s iconic comedies – Demetrius and Orlando in Open Air Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2001) and As You Like It (2002), respectively. He reproduced the obsessed and timorous love and moral cowardice of Hedda’s second-rate academic of a husband in Henrik Ibsen’s magnificent play Hedda Gabler (2005). He also explored the absurd way of life as the drunkard Berenger in Royal Court Theatre’s rendition of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (2007).

Essentially, Cumberbatch had literature all covered before he took off as the modern Sherlock Holmes in 2010.

Expectations soared – and rightly so – when it was announced that he was to enthral viewers with his portrayal of Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s tragic hero in a brand new production scheduled to open at London’s Barbican. The show was set to open on August 5, but with Cumberbatch playing the confused prince, it wasn’t surprising that every single ticket of the performance sold out almost a year ago.

Fans waited with bated breath to see him enact the waves of emotions that Hamlet endures. They expected him to match the magnitude of Hamlet’s numerous outbursts of indecision, anger and audacity. And entertain he did, even though the somewhat lacklustre production struggled to wholly please the critics. The Daily Mail praised him with:

“For his Hamlet in a hoodie was electrifying, a performance that veered from moments of genuinely hilarious comedy to plunge down to the very depths of throat scalding tragedy,”

But The Guardian was clearly not thrilled:

“Cumberbatch, in short, suggests Hamlet’s essential decency. But he might have given us infinitely more, if he were not imprisoned by a dismal production that elevates visual effects above narrative coherence and exploration of character.”

It’s a known fact that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is by far one of the most difficult roles to pull off in the history of stage performances. The melange of drastic emotions paired with as many as 1,480 spoken lines is not child’s play. So it’s a relief that Cumberbatch’s acting prowess is incontestable.

The new-age Sherlock

It goes without saying that his version of Sherlock Holmes for the BBC One series turned the spotlights on him. His career took a mammoth leap of success right after he started solving cases with a panache that was missing in the Sherlock Holmes we know from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books.

In our minds, we’ve imagined Holmes as a brilliant if somewhat eccentric Victorian figure, but Cumberbatch’s revitalised avatar adds fresh and contemporary features, mannerisms, behaviour and responses to the character, which is not a bad thing at all. He brings a style, a bit of spunk, and a whole lot of sexy to the role.

Let’s face it – the detective whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created has survived mostly unchanged in books, films and on television, but the irresistible edge that Cumberbatch lends to the character is something else. Not to mention the fact that his chemistry with Martin Freeman, who plays Dr John Watson, is almost sizzling.

The reimagination of his adventures in the 21st century with heightened action, comedy and drama makes it all the more interesting. There are some glaring dissimilarities between Doyle’s Sherlock and Cumberbatch’s – the eccentricity is much higher in the latter, for instance – which may have contributed to this version of Holmes becoming a global phenomenon.

Voicing Kafka

Benedict Cumberbatch is a man of many talents. From making Smaug and the Necromancer sound terrifyingly real in The Hobbit series, to narrating Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis for the BBC Radio 4 Extra in all its seriousness, he seems fittingly suited to lend his voice to literary characters and texts as well. His stint with the audio narration for BBC took place a few years ago, but the series was broadcast only recently, in May 2015.

Kafka’s 1915 novella is revered across the literary world – many consider it the beginning of modern fiction. It is the story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge monstrous vermin. The text is a third person narrative, and Cumberbatch is compelling as he conveys the absurdities of Kafka’s cynical, awkward world.

But if you’re beginning to think that his association with literature is limited to only privileged, grand roles and texts such as these, you’re mistaken. From playing Querry in Graham Green’s A Burnt-Out Case, to Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster and Charles Kinbote in Vladimir Nabakov’s Pale Fire – among many others – Cumberbatch has brought more books, high and low, to life, than most individuals do. And he’s nowhere near done.

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