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.
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?
Kevin Kline, for instance, was widely seen as the victim of Romanian auteur Liviu Ciulei’s adventurous 1986 production at the Public, where the action was set in a seemingly capricious Bismarckian style. In a Sunday essay for the Times, Frank Rich, trying “to understand the extent of the waste,” wondered why Kline, “having decided to pour himself unsparingly into the most demanding role in our literature, should be repaid for his efforts by having his performance thrown to the wolves of Mr. Ciulei’s bizarrely populated Elsinore.” Backed by Rich’s column and Joe Papp’s unswerving support, Kline valiantly took another crack at the role four years later, this time unimpeded by obtrusive Eastern European concepts. The actor directed himself. The results, however, were decidedly mixed. Though a cleaner, more pellucid version of Hamlet has yet to appear subsequently in New York, Kline’s performance this time had a disappointingly narrow scope, as though an opera singer with a one-and-a-half octave range was forced to stretch his way through the insane peaks and valleys of Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle.
A most recent case of directorial obstruction involved Andrei Serban’s notorious millennial production at the Public, which featured Liev Schreiber in the title role. Schreiber had already won an Obie for his role as Iachimo in Serban’s Central Park Cymbeline, and his earlier turn as Banquo at the Public had made Alec Baldwin’s Macbeth look like a green boy unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Schreiber seemed primed to play the Danish Prince. Delivering his opening monologue like a swallowed sob—”Seems madam? nay it is, I know not seems”—he kept having to stifle his mourning from turning into outrage. Here was an actor evincing rare comfort with Shakespeare’s cognitive music. The verse seemed poised for contemporary incarnation.
Unfortunately, Serban began to riff wildly on the seems/being dichotomy in the play, exploring the falsifying nature of representation, which eventually led to the trundling out of old Hamlet theater posters, including Ralph Fiennes’s 1995 Broadway dud and Diane Venora’s cross-gendered 1983 performance under Joe Papp’s apparently gaga-eyed direction. It quickly became clear that the production was about Serban staging Hamlet, not about his actors finding the visceral truth of their roles. Claudius was forced to don a pig mask, Ophelia acted like an X-rated geisha, and Gertrude (Venora again) seemed a close kin to the Bride of Frankenstein. By the time Fortinbras arrived on the scene as twin aliens from outer space, few in the audience were alert enough to register surprise. Sadly, the casualty in all of this was Schreiber, whose performance grew more rigid with every turn of Serban’s cartoonish wheel.
Of course, it would be easy to lay the blame for all the Hamlet flops at the feet of rambunctious European directors, but this would belie the fact that the most visionary of modern Hamlets was produced by the king of auteurs, Ingmar Bergman. The 1988 Swedish production (the only Hamlet to receive an Obie for its director) comes closest to fulfilling Polish critic Jan Kott’s ideal of being simultaneously most true to Shakespeare and most contemporary. For Kott, the genius of the play lies in its mirrorlike nature, and Bergman’s version, in addition to telling the story in the most theatrically vivacious terms, flickered with nightmares of the 20th century.
Peter Stormare’s Hamlet, dressed in black leather and sunglasses, had the petulant glamour of a Prince who knows he’s not only the richest and smartest bachelor in town, but also the most self-observing. Something’s indeed rotten in Bergman’s Denmark, though none of the other characters seem to notice that the fetid smell is coming from them. Gertrude and Claudius were portrayed as sex-crazed lovers, snarling over each other in their raucous pursuit of carnal pleasure. Polonius made the CIA look like a band of amateurs, so adept was he at espionage and rhetorical smoke screens. Ophelia, barefoot and half-mad from the start, haunted the periphery of later scenes like the scar of mutilating injury. Meanwhile the ghost cried out to his living son from another realm. Hamlet Sr. has to do more than simply urge his son to kill, however. In the climactic moment, the specter returned to hold his usurping brother for the reluctant knife. This was a Hamlet that required not just supernatural prompting but another pair of muscular arms. When Fortinbras arrived in a thunderclap of heavy metal music, he had Horatio peremptorily shot offstage (history, after all, is written by the winners) and launched directly into the most popular (and debased) form of modern theater—the press conference.
Never frozen in a particular period or style, Bergman’s Hamlet had the confidence of its own fluid audacity. What distinguishes it from other productions was not only the rigor of its interpretive engagement, but also the respect it showed its actors. Heightened theatrical choices didn’t mock the performers so much as liberate them into a higher level of aesthetic existence. Directing and acting were, at long last, in collusion, not collision. Though Stormare’s daringly over-the-top (and even faintly homoerotic) Hamlet wasn’t to everybody’s taste, it was a performance in perfect sync with Bergman’s revitalizing vision.
Most impressive of all, Bergman never tried to rescue us from the play’s fundamental state of metaphysical doubt. If Sophocles’ Oedipus is a parable about the limits of human understanding, then Hamlet is a paradigm of modern consciousness sentenced to uncertainty despite all its impressive learning. “Who’s there?” is the opening line of the play, and few directors have Shakespeare’s unsentimental capacity to admit that the question is unanswerable. Bergman had it, and he demonstrated it in the relentless questioning of Hamlet’s plight. Is violent revenge ever morally justifiable? How can one trust the validity of occult signs and injunctions? Confronted by the pervasiveness of death and disorder, how can dignity and honor be maintained?
It is because of these enduring conundrums that Hazlitt thought the reality of the play lies not in performance but “in the reader’s mind.” “It is we who are Hamlet,” he observes, a notion far less self-flattering than Coleridge’s “I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so.” And though our intellectual and moral sensibilities seem paltry when placed beside a character endowed with Shakespeare’s encompassing genius, we follow Hamlet’s lead into the dark. The text is a road map of uncharted human territory. Brook’s and Caird’s handling may not take us very far into the mystery. But at least Bergman reassures us that theater at its unshackled best can set us nobly on our tragic way.
Ingmar Bergman returns to BAM June 20 through 24, directing the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden’s production of Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata.