A Hard Dane’s Night

In Search of the Perfect Hamlet (Or Just a Good One)

Our love of Hamlet is being severely tested these days. Two celebrated international productions have been booked back-to-back into BAM, with enough advance press to make attendance seem compulsory. The "sold-out" notices for Peter Brook's reduced version and the relentless hype for the Royal National Theatre's more traditional handling have only added to the cultural guilt. At least, that is, for the city's dutiful army of Arts and Leisure readers. For those who would rather reorganize the cleaning products under their kitchen sink than sit through another production of the play, there's no need to hang your head in shame. You happen to be in excellent company. "We do not like to see our author's play acted," observed William Hazlitt of Shakespeare in 1817, "and least of all, Hamlet." In his view, literature this dense needs to be read in solitude, not bastardized by self-aggrandizing hams in silly costumes.

Certainly the role of Hamlet is one of the most notoriously demanding in the repertory. While there have been a number of respectable Sweet (and Not-So-Sweet) Princes in recent years, there have been few truly memorable ones. No one, anyway, whose presence swirls into the mind's eye on those dark, boozy nights of the soul when you're musing dangerously over the great soliloquies. The best modern Hamlet I can come up with is a composite, a kind of performance collage incorporating Kevin Kline's lucidity, Daniel Day-Lewis's dashing athleticism, Peter Stormare's rock-star destructiveness, and Liev Schreiber's palpable grief. While we're at it, let's add a dollop of Mark Rylance, whose acclaimed London turns in the role earned him the artistic directorship of the newly built Shakespeare's Globe, and a whole heap of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the American actor I'd most like to see take on the Hamlet challenge (before proceeding to Macbeth, Othello, and, in a few decades, Lear).

The two new additions to the Hamlet list—Adrian Lester, seen a few weeks ago in Brook's distillation, and Simon Russell Beale, whose acclaimed star turn in John Caird's production arrives May 30—offer extremely sensitive if (surprise, surprise) incomplete portrayals. While the amiable Lester is infinitely watchable, the ultimate effect of his performance is as attenuated as Brook's text. Stripped of political context and shortchanged of metaphysical breadth, Lester's Hamlet seems to be engaged in a series of acting exercises, a string of loosely connected moments illustrating the character as bereaved son, tortured lover, mad graduate student, diabolical plotter, and finally, divinely appointed avenger. Russell Beale's Hamlet (seen during its Boston run) never lets up in emotional heft. Though he may not look the part (Hamlet as a bearded, corpulent Welshman?) and his spotty supporting cast makes the production seem at times like a star vehicle, he brings the same unstinting intelligence that distinguished his bitter, middle-manager Iago in the London National's otherwise unremarkable Othello, seen at BAM in 1998. While eloquent in despair and heartbreaking in defeat, Russell Beale's Hamlet is far too soft to ever seriously contemplate taking arms against himself, never mind his incestuous, fratricidal uncle. Awkward around Ophelia in the manner of a chubby high school outcast, he's more convincing as a clumsy neurotic than as an imploded lover. Suffice it to say that it's hard to picture him ever wanting to "drink hot blood" when a warm mug of cocoa might be nearby in the kitchen.

Illustration by Jeff Crosby

Let's face it: The casting of Hamlet calls less for a director than a Dr. Frankenstein—someone who can patch together an actor capable of embodying the character's "might opposites." The question remains whether an actor can do adequate justice to the subtleties of Shakespeare's manifold construction. A pessimist would remind that Olivier's Hamlet was thought too Freudian, Gielgud's too stiff, Scofield's too rhetorical—and these the leading 20th-century interpreters of Shakespeare onstage. Perhaps Coleridge's mixed compliment paid to Edmund Kean ("To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightening") is the most any actor can expect from his or her Hamletian labors. After all, if the greatest scholars have failed to pin down the character Harold Bloom describes as manifesting "the most comprehensive consciousness in all of literature," how much can we reasonably expect from a single performance?

Princes of the city: (clockwise from top left) Lester, Russell Beale, Schreiber, and Kline
(Photo of Lester (P. Victor), Russell Beale (Catherine Ashmore), Schreiber (Michal Daniel), Kline (Martha Swope)

Writing theater criticism in the early 19th century, Hazlitt was spared the far-flung "concepts" of our modern director's theater (Hamlet as a pot-smoking Jamaican dude in Richard Schechner's 1999 postmodern foray; Elsinore as a backstage dressing room in Andrzej Wajda's Stary Teatr's 1989 investigation). Though Hazlitt was certainly victim of egomaniacal actor-managers as much in love with their lace-frilled costumes as they were with their quavering vibratos. Still, it's hard to imagine anything as sabotaging as the modern-day gimmicks unloosed on the defenseless actor trying to cast human light on familiar poetry. True, anyone staging Hamlet today needs to exercise a strong directorial hand (and Caird's passivity should be as roundly taken to task as Brook's aggressive pruning was). Yet why does "making it new" invariably leave the actor a casualty?

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