It is useful to consider his work before 2010, when his mercurial interpretation of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC One rebootso impressed the world it turned him into an international star. On stage he excelled at parts which required a sort of wilful obtuseness, be it as Hedda Gabler’s nerdy husband Jørgen Tesman in the Ibsen play, taking endless abuse from his wife, or the selfish yet self-destructive David Scott-Fowler in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance. He offered characters with plenty to object to, but with a humanity that was piercingly recognisable. He could make us love them even as we despaired at them - a trick he also managed particularly touchingly in the little-seen British film Third Star, where he played a self-regarding terminally ill man.
Cumberbatch plays with such subtlety because he is bright. He can do complex, because he understands it. Says Richard Eyre, who directed him in Hedda, “Benedict is witty, mercurial… thoughtful and expert. He’s very intelligent but he doesn’t let it show by commenting on the character he is playing.” He has a rare ability to remain present in the moment of the scene he is playing and not act as if he is anticipating events that are yet to come. Susanna White, who directed him as Christopher Tietjens in the 2012 BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novel sequence Parade’s End, explains that he, “loves trying different ways of doing a scene. Some actors come with fully set ideas of how they want to play a scene. He’s not like that. He often just works in the moment.”
Cumberbatch is also expert at exploiting the moment. Most can picture his chameleon-like changes of expression as Sherlock. But he let more soul into his woefully underappreciated performance as the troubled Tietjens (it got an Emmy nomination but Bafta slept through it) – a scene at the end of the first episode has him stroke his horse with palpable yearning for some sort of communion, as he lets flicker across his face all the sadness of having a faithless wife. And he nearly stole the 2007 film of Atonement with his tiny part as the arrogant, upper-crust Paul Marshall. His performance in that hinges on the chilling sequence when he gives a 15-year-old girl a chocolate bar and tells her, “Bite it, you have to bite it,” as his hawk-like eyes narrow and his suddenly lascivious lips hang slightly open. Marshall later rapes her.
Since Sherlock, Cumberbatch’s film roles have got grander, from playing a Star Trek villain to a major in War Horse to the disgraced darling of the left, Julian Assange. But always he remembers the detail, thrives on nuance. In Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave he gives a deeply moving performance as a slave-owner of compromised decency. But I wish he’d been given the plum role, that went to Michael Fassbender, of the more obviously bad Master Epps. Fassbender played him as an inexplicable sadist, but I suspect Cumberbatch would have found moments to make him a human being, and paint in the self-loathing that must have driven him.
A word on Cumberbatch, the man. Susanna White talks of how “there is an essential goodness and kindness about him”. A director friend of mine auditioned Cumberbatch for a small film before he was famous. He wasn’t right for the part but the director nearly gave it to him because he was such delightful, genuine company. I’ve spent a half hour with Cumberbatch myself, interviewing him, during which he was faultlessly polite, complimentary, warm and generous, as well as talking nineteen to the dozen. It was around the time he was saying some not altogether flattering things about Downton Abbey, but I heard these words in their context – later denied them by some publications - of accompanying ample praise of the show and the actors who play in it.
Not all great actors make great Hamlets. Ralph Fiennes’s was oddly two dimensional; Michael Sheen performed a couple of years ago in a production so wholly misconceived it was impossible to make sense of the character’s motivations. But Cumberbatch surely has the skills to yoke in the melancholy, wild optimism and nobility of this most fascinating and irresolvable of roles. He should make a sweet prince indeed.
Tickets for Hamlet go on sale today at 10am (Barbican Red Members only; booking is available to Orange Members on Monday). Tickets will be released to the general public on 11 August (barbican.org.uk). Lyndsey Turner’s production will run from 6 August to 31 October 2015.