Monday 23 May 2016

Discovering Benedict Cumberbatch

He's as famous today as any British actor can be, thanks to the BBC's clever update of Sherlock Holmes and a number of high profile film appearances, not to mention a hugely popular Hamlet.

I first became aware of Benedict Cumberbatch at a turning point in his career. He was appearing in Terence Rattigan's After the Dance in the National's Lyttelton theatre. Cumberbatch is an Old Harrovian, as was Rattigan. The Rattigan Society is Harrow School's main club for the dramatic arts, Cumberbatch was a member, so his professional trajectory was set early on.

Thea Sharrock directed the revival of After the Dance, which opened in June 2010, with Cumbernatch was cast as the aristocratic historian David Scott-Fowler. He was superb: he knew how to steer a three-piece suit (no small thing) and his self-contained stillness and coldness were compelling. The production was to date the best thing I've ever seen at the National - a brilliant cast, a scrupulously thoughtful and intelligent production, a thoughtfully detailed set (a Mayfair drawing room with a fatal balcony). Adrian Scarborough was a pitch-perfect patasitical lodger and Scott-Fowler's wife was played with devastating emotional clarity by Nancy Carroll ("magnificent" said The Guardian; "almost unbearably moving" said The Telegraph). Her breakdown - a wailing, snotty and eviscerating collapse - was both epic and intimate.

Duringt he Rattigan run Cumberbacth became tremendously famous and popular thanks to his starring tole in the BBC's Sherlock, a clever updating of the Conan Doyle stores. The first of these was aired on 25 July and I remember being startled by the long queue the following morning, the third time I turned up early to buy day seats. These cost ten quid each and gave you a place in the front row. This was a bit too close for comfort on occasion - but as there was nothing between the performers and us it was like being at a private performance, an immersive experience.

I eventually caught up with the telly Sherlock and enjoyed what I saw - ingenious, and with two fine perfomamces from Cumberbatch as the consulting detective and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. My son is a huge fan of both the original, canonical stories and these later re-boots. Cumberbatch has since gone on to specialise in odd, brilliant characters - Dr Frankenstein (again at the National) and  Alan Turing, for instance. I know nothing at all about him beyond the performances, which is no small thing in itself.

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