Benedict Cumberbatch: A Brit Hit Long Before ‘Sherlock’ or ‘Hamlet’

On Oct. 31, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Brit legit hit “Hamlet” closes its limited run at the Barbican Centre. If you’re kicking yourself for having missed it, you should kick even harder — the actor has acted for many years in theater productions that you’ve also probably missed.

The world seemed to have awakened to his talent with the series “Sherlock,” but he’d been doing theater for a long time before that show debuted in 2010.

Variety first reviewed him on June 2, 2003, in Ibsen’s “Lady From the Sea” at the Almeida in London. He played a subsidiary character in a work that centers on the character played by Natasha Richardson (just as it was a vehicle for her mother in 1976). The reviewer thought Cumberbatch “makes something quietly tragic” out of his character, the sculptor Lyngstrand.

Four years later, on July 23, 2007, a story reported that Cumberbatch would star in two upcoming productions at the Royal Court, Max Frisch’s “The Arsonists” and Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” The story noted that the actor’s “movie career is skyrocketing.” (The plays occurred around the time of “Atonement” and “The Other Boleyn Girl.”)

The Royal Court, like the Almeida, has fewer than 400 seats, so a limited number of people got to see Cumberbatch. He reached a wider audience with the five and a half-hour British mini-series “The Last Enemy,” which ran on “Masterpiece Contemporary” in the U.S. in 2008.  On Oct. 3, Variety’s Brian Lowry praised the actor and the entire production, saying the paranoid thriller about government surveillance and biological threats was close to a masterpiece.

In December 2008, Cumberbatch talked about his work, telling Variety, “At school, I had a reputation as a good mimic. I would constantly take off other kids or teachers. It was why I was drawn to acting. It lets you be someone other than yourself.” However, Cumberbatch says it is harder for Brit actors who naturally speak Received Pronunciation (RP), or “Queen’s English,” to succeed in roles as lower-class characters. ”It can be very frustrating. Actors are constantly criticized for mockney (mock Cockney) accents, but if a Glaswegian inner-city kid pulls off a posh acccent, he is lauded.”

After the first season of “Sherlock,” he appeared in the National Theatre’s adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s “After the Dance.” Following the last perf, he went to “War Horse” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” starring Gary Oldman. In 2011, Variety tapped Cumberbatch as one of its 10 Actors to Watch and he said, “It’s been a slow burn for me. I’m trying to make a career that will have longevity.” Asked whose career he’d like to emulate “Well, Gary’s done all right, hasn’t he?,” referencing his “Tinker” co-star.

He returned to the National Theatre for “Frankenstein,” directed by Danny Boyle, in which Cumberbatch alternated in the leads as Dr. Frankenstein and The Creature with Jonny Lee Miller (who, by coincidence, plays Sherlock Holmes in CBS’s “Elementary”). The production was a smash, but the sellout performances couldn’t extend because of the actors’ schedules.

Tickets for “Hamlet” went on sale in August 2014, a year before the official Aug. 21, 2015, opening. The two and a half-month run was sold out within minutes, making London theater history. But, as of Oct. 31, it becomes history… and theater fans will have to wait for his next venture.

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