Owen Saunders and Georgia Hulkes argue for and against the casting of celebrities in both the West End and purist, highbrow theatre.
‘Celebrity’ is a term that encompasses a broad range of well-known personalities, but, unlike in the realm of reality TV, the cogs of the acting industry are usually (though not unequivocally) kept turning by talent and ability. Though celeb actors in recent musicals, such as Strictly’s Joanne Clifton in Flashdance, have been subject to criticism, most ‘straight play’ companies manage to get the balance of celebrity status and genuine talent just right. A good example is the National Theatre, who have excelled for a long time in putting on productions like Hamlet, Saint Joan, Angels in America and Frankenstein (to name but a few), which not only star A-List actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Gemma Arterton and Andrew Garfield, but also constitute some of the highest quality theatre there is.
Say what you will about these actors, but no one can deny that, under all of the art, theatre is an industry. Benedict Cumberbatch, for example, has become one of the greatest examples of gold dust – at least in a business sense – in modern theatre, cinema and television. While the business minds of film studios have done little good for artistic integrity in recent years, celebrity theatre is booming. Money must be made, and star-studded casts are a proven business tactic for generating it. However, another argument can be made; an argument that isn’t so cold and unfeeling, but in fact stays true to the very heart of theatre itself: appealing to the masses.
Despite its enormous success, theatre is still somewhat of a niche industry in comparison to the TV and film giants that dominate the world of modern entertainment. I would argue the theatre is not for drama snobs, but for the masses, and celebrities draw in the public. It is a fact of our modern age, and has arguably been so for all of human existence. Who are we to criticise the use of established actors in theatre, when they open up the industry to a mass of people who may otherwise have shrugged off the theatre as ‘artsy fartsy’ nonsense for ‘artsy fartsy’ people. The theatre is for everyone, and if celebrity actors with genuine talent help to keep this universal experience alive, then I say, so be it.
It was two summers ago when I first saw him, ‘him’ being Kit Harrington in a recent production of Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York Theatre, and just like many other eager, teenage theatregoers, I was very excited to see the real-life Jon Snow on stage. Yet, the avant-garde movement pieces, intricate set and stellar supporting cast seemed undercut by the fact that Game of Thrones royalty was on stage.
As talented as Harrington proved himself to be I couldn‘t help thinking that the decision of his casting was a money making scheme. Was he placed in the titular role as a thought through creative choice or as a responsible business decision?
This inclusion of celebrities does attract a wider audience to the theatre and may increase ticket sales of NT and RSC Live, but there does seem to be a cost. Hollywood actress Rebel Wilson was cast in a brief run of Guys and Dolls, sitcom actress Miranda Hart — who has always dreamed of performing in a West End show — was cast in Annie. But is the confirmation that Freddie Flintoff is about the start a run on a London stage a step too far?
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Hamlet has recently been rebroadcasted to cinemas across the nation and whilst this allows current access to one of Shakespeare‘s most produced plays it seems that Cumberbatch’s name is the one that you remember. And whilst I do not wish for the undeniable talent of Cumberbatch to be questioned it does seem that the supporting cast become more of a forgettable starter to main course of the media frenzy that celebrity participation in theatre creates.
Celebrity has a place in theatre but not at the cost of theatrical and artistic integrity.
(Image courtesy of Donald Cooper / Rex Features)