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
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including 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