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Hamlet Hype

September 10, 2014

What were you doing at around 9.30am almost a month ago today? 11th August 2014. Nope, not the day Nick Clegg failed an IQ test, or Simon Cowell said something amusing unscripted. No. The day “Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet” tickets went on sale.

Like a lot of folk wanting tickets, I spent that half hour before 10am getting organised.  Knowing that the Barbican promised their technology was up to the job, and that there would be a “random queuing system” in place from 10am, I put it to the test with two computers – “work” and “home” – tuning in. My “home” computer I pointed to the page at 9.30am, and my “work” machine at 9.45am.

True to their word, at 10am the “random place allocator” kicked in. “Home” machine was allocated place 6549. “Work” fared better – getting allocated a very respectable place 327. So it really was random – when you pointed at the page didn’t determine when you got in line. Fair play to the Barbican, it did what it said.

The green man (you had to be there) stopped marching at around 10.25am and after a “heart in mouth” pause, the booking page appeared. Smooth as silk street (little Barbican joke there), I found there was plenty of good upper circle and balcony, plus a bit of dress circle too to pick from. I got the (fairly reasonably priced, I felt) £30 upper circle seat I wanted with no problem.

Very happy, and well done Barbican on your IT, I’d say. But I would, because I’m a happy customer. Really, I am genuinely sorry for those less fortunate. Hence this blog entry.

And here’s the thing… actually, I’m not a Benedict Cumberbatch fan in particular… so why did I feel the need to do all that to secure a ticket?

Two reasons. The main one is that I am a fan of producer Sonia Friedman, so I wanted to see what she’d do with the play, given how amazingly well “Mojo” was produced. Also, I wanted to cover the play for Theatremonkey.com; and I knew my best chance of tickets was to “go for it” like everyone else – then use all my wiles later if I had to… except that I doubt many would work in this case…

… and that of course was due to “hype.” Millions of fans of the lead actor, only a limited season, though at least in a large theatre. Hopefully, a few of those fans won’t have seen a Shakespeare play before, or have been to a theatre, and will grow to love it too. Yet, I don’t think that was the main reason for such a fast sell-out.

I actually put it down to technology.

First, the internet spreads news and builds anticipation like nothing previously invented. Information can be read, exchanged, discussed as never before, so that even those less interested begin to wonder what they might miss out on.

Second, it allows tickets to be sold far more efficiently. In the “old days,” it was either “wait in line” in person at the box office (skip school / work, hope you aren’t filmed for the news), send a letter with a cheque (a sort of IOU form issued by a bank, kids) and self-addressed envelope for return of tickets – or hang on the phone for the three people answering calls… IF you could get a ringing rather than the ‘busy’ signal. With all those factors to consider – time and number of staff processing bookings, it would take days or weeks to “sell out” some 10 weeks of performances.

The Barbican, bless them, managed to get 27,000 or so (though I suspect many, like me, had multiple machines in that line) in an orderly queue and deal with 250 or so (based on where I was in the line and how long it took for me to be allowed in to buy my ticket) around every 15 minutes. Thus the Barbican sold their tickets in a matter of hours in orderly fashion. Like I said, I was impressed.

Finally, technology also allows remaining tickets to be scooped up faster. “Returns” can appear and be snapped up at any time. Elsewhere, the Barbican’s admirable “Shop a ticket tout / scalper” (which I’ve tested, and doesn’t appear to work) and “photo ID required” policies supposedly all but closed down that route. I found only 5 seats on sale when I looked out of curiosity,  the centre did nothing about it, though – so they perhaps don’t have as much influence as it seems, alas.

What it all adds up to is that tickets are simply, like the rest of life, circulating faster and more efficiently than ever before. If not actually fairer, at least the Barbican’s way has been democratic, which I for one can’t argue with. Still, perhaps the old way was a little more fun, as you played the game over a far longer period and it wasn’t almost entirely restricted to the most computer literate… a bit of the “old way” gone, alas, perhaps.

Still, all I have to hope for now is that I’m “fit and well” on the day… only a year and a bit to go for me.

P.S. As I was writing this, a heavily discounted offer came in for Macbeth at the same venue. Surprising, as I thought the place was a magnet for Shakepeare fans… of course, it could just be the curse of the play, couldn’t it?!

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