Is Hamlet the fastest-selling London play in history?

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Frankenstein at the National Theatre in 2011. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Frankenstein at the National Theatre in 2011. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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Tickets finally went on general public sale (after priority booking for Barbican members) on August 12 for a new production of Hamlet that will play at the Barbican a full year away.

By 11.49am (BST) one tweeter reckoned the online queue stretched to over 27,500 hopefuls, while a colleague from the US found himself staring at the back of over 30,000 virtual heads a couple of hours later.

A report in the Evening Standard immediately dubbed it “the fastest-selling ticket in London theatre history with advance seats selling out in minutes almost a year before the curtain rises”. I’m not so sure that claim of selling out “in minutes” stands up if the Barbican still had people in their online queue several hours later - why wasn’t the queue dismissed in that case?

But a more worrying part of the story is the fact that a spokesperson for Viagogo also jumps in on the bandwagon, telling the Standard: "Cumberbatch’s Hamlet has stolen the title of the most in-demand theatre show of all time, with ticket searches going through the roof.”

They reported that these exceeded those for Beyonce and Jay Z’s On the Run tour. And presumably in shorter supply, too: the resale site currently has none available and in any case warns them: “Buyers of tickets for this event will be accompanied into the venue by the seller. Sellers of tickets for this event please note that you will be required to accompany the buyer into the venue.”

That’s because of the protocol put in place by the Barbican to deter resellers: photo IDs of the lead bookers will be checked at the venue. (This should create an interesting front-of-house dilemma to get the show up on time.)

[pullquote]It is of course not Hamlet that has sold out in advance, but Benedict Cumberbatch[/pullquote]

But as much as I’m thrilled by this sudden interest in a live theatre event, and a Shakespeare one at that, it is of course not Hamlet that has sold out in advance, but Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. The rest of the production hasn’t even been cast yet, and is a long way from being rehearsed.

Here is good old-fashioned star power in action. But who knew that Cumberbatch had indeed become such a big star? Pardon my naivety, but having observed him come through the ranks in plays at the Royal Court like The City and Rhinoceros, at the Almeida in The Lady from the Sea and Hedda Gabler, and at the National in After the Dance and Frankenstein (pictured), I’d not realised how high his star has risen beyond the stage.

That’s a common problem for me living in my theatre bubble: I often don’t spot how big people become beyond it. I was a little surprised when I heard that Martin Freeman was headlining Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios – was he a big enough star to warrant it? It took a friend to tell me that he was now one of the biggest stars of television and film.

Read more Mark Shenton columns from The Stage


  1. It was August 11 that tickets I went on sale. I was one of the people waiting in line at the Barbican that day. Was successful though.

  2. I am slightly concerned with this article. As a theatre writer, have you not been following the fact that this production has already been headline news for months and months? The Barbican had a dedicated website set up for it and the national press have been continuously writing about the build up. Surely someone who ‘knows’ theatre therefore would know that this play was due to be the hottest ticket in town, and therefore just how big Mr Cumberbatch has become? My ticket is firmly secured and I count myself among the lucky ones who will get to see what I am sure will be a stunning production headlined by one of the finest actors of his generation. Surely it’s of no surprise that his talent has been recognised for what it is? And yes, Martin Freeman can sell out a west end run too. There’s a reason why both of them are at the front of one of the UK’s most exported TV shows. It’s because they’re rather good, and that in turn has pulled new audiences into the theatre. That’s to be celebrated not surprised at.

  3. I’m also surprised by your lack of knowledge. Even during Frankenstein it was apparent how Cumberbatch’s star power was helping to make the run a huge success. Infact the NT live version of the play is the biggest seller in its history and is being re released again at the end of the year.

  4. Shoddy journalism again from this column. Tickets went on sale on 11 August, not 12 August (also, number before month please – you’re not American).

  5. Viagogo is “the official ticket marketplace of The Evening Standard”, which explains that paper’s keenness to mention the site.

  6. Have you been hiding under a rock for the past 3 years? I find it unbelievable that someone writing for the media about theatre and actors has no idea how popular Benedict Cumberbatch is world wide. By way of example, I live on the bottom of African and even I knew.

  7. But as much as I’m thrilled by this sudden interest in a live theatre event, and a Shakespeare one at that, it is of course not Hamlet that has sold out in advance, but Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role.

    Even if it is Cumberbatch that people are going to see, if even a handful of people who go become interested in theatre and/or Shakespeare, isn’t that a good thing? At a time when the arts funding is suffering, I’m surprised by this comment, even if it somewhat off-hand.

    I’m not familiar with BC all that much, but if I’m not mistaken, didn’t he start out in theatre? What is wrong with someone -who is obviously very talented- who can make movies and garner a fanbase and then bring those fans into the theatre? These fans may develop an appreciation for the excitement and different dynamic of a live performance versus a movie and may go on to support other productions. Seems like a win-win situation for all, to me.

  8. I’ll say you more: this is not Benedict, but Sherlock, ergo: Moffat & Gatiss ;-)

    What makes me feel sad is that we never will be able to know how good was Camberhamlet from an objective point of view, because I doubt that theatregoers (not cumberfans) hurried up to hunt for tickets.

  9. I agree with most of the comments. Benedict Cumberbatch is HUGELY popular world-wide. He has talent, brilliance, and charm. Tickets to Barbican members went on sale over a two-day period more than a week ago. I was in an on-line queue of over 8,640 members, waiting my turn to buy tickets. I scored a good seat in row 7of the stalls. (We call it orchestra in the USA.) Many thousands of the best seats were sold out by the time the public sale occurred. I am a theatre teacher and director. I have had a life-long love affair with the Bard; so, I get a double-dip treat here: Hamlet AND Cumberbatch!

  10. I don’t know if it’s the fastest sellout ever, and I won’t be going, but the key in that sentence is “advance” – there were those who purchased the ability to buy earlier than the general public. Then the general public seats offering resulted in the very long queue. I saw Richard III and it was fantastic, by the way. Continue to enjoy living in your theatre bubble – especially in London, such a great city for theatre, it must be a very nice place to live! :)

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