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Matt Trueman: What’s the point of reviewing Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet?

Tom Hiddleston. Photo: Shutterstock

HiddleHamlet is at hand. Come September, Hollywood’s very own Tom Hiddleston will take on the Dane as directed by Kenneth Branagh in a fundraiser for RADA.

My first thought – after ‘How many Hamlets can one man direct?’ – was whether or not it should be reviewed. To see or not to see, that is the theatre critic’s ethical dilemma.

The production is not holding a press night, nor giving critics comps, but we were invited to enter the ticket ballot and report if we wished.

I opted not to, and not for reasons of cost. There’s no doubt it’s newsworthy: it has an A-list star in an A-list play. What editor wouldn’t want all those Hiddlestoner hits for their site? What critic wouldn’t want to have their say? At some level, it’s probably professional negligence not to try.

But my gut told me otherwise. With respect to the artists and actors involved, the show just doesn’t feel like it warrants a review. Why? That’s the thing: apply logic and that instinct starts to fall apart.

It starts with that old mantra – you’ve heard this one before – what a critic chooses to review is a critical act in itself. Reviewing HiddleHam means missing something else off.

And what purpose would a review serve? Since it sold out straight off, any write-up can only report, not recommend. But it wouldn’t be the first sell-out I’ve seen, nor will it be the last. It’s not a critic’s job to sell tickets, after all.

The thing is, this one is unusually exclusive. A show that would, in ordinary circumstances, justify a long run, a large theatre and a live broadcast to boot will play to 160 a night for just three weeks. Some 780,000 people have seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet on screen to date [1]. Just 3,360 will see Hiddleston’s.

However, capacity can’t rule out a review. A Royal Court Upstairs show is seen by half that. Nor can demand for tickets: I’d have gone into David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig’s Othello [2], which played to 199, and I went into The River with its queues round the block.

The difference, perhaps, is that both those shows sprang from conscious artistic choices. Both productions drove at the intensity of intimacy: compact shows for compact spaces. One-on-one shows do the same. HiddleHam’s different. It is first and foremost a fundraiser – a way to bolster RADA’s £20 million regeneration.

Hats off to them, but it changes the terms. I wouldn’t review a National Theatre benefactors’ gala, just as I didn’t review Ian McKellen’s recent solo show for the Park. I have, however, reviewed work made in support of a good cause: Shon Dale-Jones’ The Duke, a free show that sought donations for Save the Children. Why should HiddleHam be any different from that?

At that point, you’re into the relativism of causes – what a critic chooses to back is a critical act in itself. Maybe I’m not that fussed about RADA’s new wing. Or maybe – just maybe – I’m not that fussed about Hiddleston’s Hamlet. I’d imagine the feeling was absolutely mutual.