LONDON: “I contain multitudes,” wrote Walt Whitman, though I’m afraid the poet has nothing on Hamlet, whose status as the multiply produced text of the moment is everywhere in evidence. With Shakespeare crowned man of the millennium, it hardly came as a surprise that Hamlet was the British theatre’s classical play of choice this year, cropping up as the affective centerpiece of the summer repertory at Shakespeare’s Globe while also appearing up and down the country on scales large and small. Concurrently, no fewer than a half-dozen American resident companies—from the classically oriented Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to the irreverent Shakespeare Tavern troupe in Atlanta, to Minneapolis’s physical-theatre ensemble Theatre de la Jeune Lune—slated the Danish play in their 2001-02 seasons.
Birmingham Repertory Theatre north of London opened its production, with Richard McCabe, a scant two weeks after John Caird launched his Royal National Theatre revival, starring Simon Russell Beale, thus placing two acclaimed Iagos head-to-head as Hamlet. In Scotland, the Edinburgh Festival presented German director Peter Zadek’s Schauspielhaus Hamlet, featuring German actress Angela Winkler cast against gender in the title role, while Chunnel-hoppers were whizzing to Paris in December to catch Adrian Lester in the part, directed by Peter Brook. Keen not to be left out of the mix, the London “fringe” was busily doing its bit: Stagings of Hamlet, reckoned the flyer for the Old Red Lion production that played atop an Islington pub last September, “are like buses or policemen—never one when you want it, but then, want it or not, they all come at once.” The latter production, which I missed, promised a running time of two hours (not significantly shorter, incidentally, than Brook’s one-act revision of the play in Paris). “If you can’t get the message across in that time,” said director David Keller, “then you can’t get the message across.”
In January, a second Islington venue, the King’s Head, mounted Hamlet, King of Denmark—An Alternative Ending. Director Ivor Morris’s conceit was that dramatic literature’s favorite Dane lived on to become King; the idea may not have been as daft as it seems, fully attuned as it is to a 21st-century ethos whereby everything from John Updike’s Rabbit novels to Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter can be recycled again and again. In context, Michael Almereyda’s recent and absolutely thrilling screen treatment of the play—a tale of a traumatized family, dominated by a baleful Ethan Hawke, displaced to a contemporary New York at once sleek, glistening and soulless—seemed relatively old-fashioned. For all his chopping and changing of the text, at least Almereyda’s screenplay adaptation adheres to Shakespeare’s time-honored tragic arc.
If anything, the movie is closest in feel to Brook’s fresh take on the piece, even if the surface environments of the two versions couldn’t appear more different. Produced by Miramax, the screen Hamlet occupies the modern urban technocracy inhabited by, well, companies like Miramax, while Brook’s Bouffes du Nord production inhabits that pared-down, placeless realm that this director’s work increasingly calls home. Chloe Obolensky’s set for Brook depicts a sizable orange carpet whose cushions and stools are continually being repositioned, with the visual landscape giving way to the febrile emotional one dominated by Lester’s agile, quicksilver Hamlet. And yet, like Almereyda’s film, the production sees to the very heart of its source. You may not get the entirety of Hamlet in either the screen or this stage version, and those wanting the trappings of regalia should look elsewhere—but by way of compensation, you come formidably close to the play’s troubling, tearing heart.
“It’s the role everyone wants to do,” says Lester, speaking from Paris during rehearsals last November for a staging now embarked on an American tour to Seattle, New York and Chicago before returning to Europe. (It arrives in late August at London’s Young Vic, home earlier this year to Brook’s rending itinerant production of Le Costume, or The Suit.) Having toured his Rosalind to the Bouffes in Declan Donnellan’s much-celebrated all-male As You Like It, Lester initially thought, “Wow, great, I’ll get to play Laertes,” when Brook first broached the prospect of Hamlet. Instead, presented with the title role, Lester found himself staring down Britain’s defining theatrical Tantalus.
“The play has survived for 500 years,” he reasons, “because it goes to the depths of human insecurities and asks, ‘Why are we here?’ It also asks a person to do the worst thing in the world, which is to kill.”
The worry in advance was that Brook’s take on the play would be a reductio ad absurdum: a sort of Shakespeare’s greatest hits put through the Moulinex. But just as Almereyda’s movie cuts some speeches and splices others, putting some of the Player King’s words into the mouth of Robert MacNeil’s news reader at the film’s close, Brook accomplishes a similar liberation of the play by playing fast and loose with it. “Peter has made Hamlet a thriller, which is very, very exciting,” says Lester, though the real thrill lies in the freedom implicit in the event. Not for nothing is Lester’s prince distrustful of “words, words, words,” in a Hamlet containing markedly fewer of them. Repeatedly smacking his dreadlocks as if to dislodge some primal distress within his head, his discourse interrupted by a cartwheel that wouldn’t look out of place in Chicago, Lester offers up a restless, animated Hamlet possessed of a heavy but never lugubrious heart. Note the approving chuckle from the audience that greets his “I am but mad north northwest,” or the way he dribbles his reply to Polonius’s “How does my good lord?”, as if Hamlet himself had contracted the foot-and-mouth infections currently raging across Britain. “My wits are diseased,” says Hamlet, and yet they are here also revivified by an actor who gives equal time to the disease and the wit.
“Other Hamlets I’ve seen I haven’t really liked” (at the time of our conversation, he hadn’t yet seen Beale, who is a friend), says the 32-year-old actor, who approached the role “as a blank card, as any actor would: What if it was me? What would I do?” And that immediacy permeates every moment of a production that transposes “To be or not to be” toward the end of the play, even as it dispenses with Fortinbras and Osric. The simple question “Who’s there?”, as spoken by Scott Handy’s adoring, almost smitten Horatio, bookends an abridgement that seems itself to be asking of Hamlet, “What’s there?” The approach will be familiar to those who saw Brook’s much-traveled and pared-back Carmen, which was itself given the added “The tragedy of” before its one-word title, just as Hamlet has been. In the same way that Natasha Parry’s elegant Gertrude is seen taking Hamlet’s pulse, Brook takes the pulse of a play that over time has been crippled by too much respect and sobriety. (Just compare the deadly Kenneth Branagh movie version, containing scarcely a cut syllable, with Almereyda’s cheeky update: The more freewheeling film is also the truer one, by miles.) There are times during Brook’s Tragedy of Hamlet when you may yearn for a touch of calm, but there’s equally no denying that he has allowed the play once again to breathe.
That’s not true, unfortunately, of the second Hamlet I caught in Paris on the same December day: the sellout engagement for three performances at suburban Bobigny of Zadek’s German-language account of the play. Masochistic though it may seem to couple the two productions so closely, Brook’s revisionism seemed doubly welcome compared to the dreary rigors of a four-hour evening from which one staggered out, much as Angela Winkler’s droopy Hamlet totters on stage at the start. (In the U.S., the actress probably remains best known as the star of Volker Schlöndorff’s 1975 movie The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.) Small wonder a good 30 percent of the audience had departed by the finish, with those remaining either on their feet cheering or careening toward the exit. If Brook’s achievement was to let in some air, Zadek’s perverse triumph lay in an entombment of the play well beyond its climactic body count. One searched in vain for something humane or vital to emerge from a sullenly by-the-book presentation. Instead, alas, you clocked the production’s intermittent innovations—such as the space-age-style gravediggers who treat Annett Renneberg’s Ophelia as if she were little more than so much toxic waste—while keeping an eye on the clock.
Perhaps it’s simply that a washed-out Hamlet is a tedious one. Emerging in the inevitable black, her stringy hair contributing to this Hamlet’s downcast, student-like demeanor, Winkler’s physical presence is as sluggish as Wilfried Minks’s set is dispiriting: a metal container positioned diagonally across a stage as gray as the prevailing wind. One can indeed feel the howling gales that engulf the characters at the outset before coming to rest in Hamlet’s mind; what is rarely felt is any sense of the high stakes for which Hamlet, whether mad or merely sad, is either playing or play-acting.
The shift in gender—following on from Sarah Bernhardt, Diane Venora and Frances de la Tour, among others—turns out to be a red herring that leaves a vacancy at the center of the evening. Yes, the players come on accompanied by the energizing sounds of Scott Joplin, and the closing swordplay is nimble and fierce. But Zadek’s production is ultimately as debilitated as Winkler’s lachrymose performance. On its home turf, this staging may well have seemed brave; abroad, it was simply punishing.
What, then, of the politics of the play? Those are clearly out of joint (or, at least, fashion), especially if one compares any of these recent accounts with the Ion Caramitru Hamlet from Rumania, or the Bergman-directed one, starring Peter Stormare—these are stagings as much about forbidding and repressive regimes as about depressive individuals. Oddly enough, and for all its distinctly American qualities, the Almereyda film seems far more politically trenchant than any of these European productions, the movie’s video-heavy sheen covering over—and indicative of—a societal decay as desperate and dark as man’s bloodiest impulses.
“I don’t miss the politics,” declares Simon Russell Beale, who, 40 this past January, is London’s oldest and perhaps least likely home-grown Hamlet, and also its most exciting in many a year. “Our production is love-based,” he adds of a play he was first set to do with his longtime friend and colleague Sam Mendes, before scheduling conflicts led to the shift to John Caird. In his and Caird’s view of Elsinore, says Beale, “Everyone there is potentially a good or a loving person. What’s so awful about the play is that their love is destroyed, even though everyone in Hamlet could have potentially got on.”
In place of that amity, of course, arises a mounting discord—what Beale, in describing the part, compares to “a balloon filling inside you of Hamlet’s misery and hurt.” Fortinbras never arrives, but a kind of hard-won radiance does. Whereas Brook’s production bathes the final moments in a light of nearly religious intensity, the Beale-Caird one achieves the same result from within. In context, it’s no surprise that Beale talks repeatedly of the “miracle” that is the play: His is a performance—on view this month to American audiences in five cities in four states—that bequeaths its own kind of miracle, insisting on love thwarted or gone awry as opposed to the legacy of hate.
Beale’s performance has prompted accolades, awards (London’s Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard Theatre Awards, as well as an Olivier nomination) and not a few standing ovations since the short, squat actor opened in the part at the National last September. A good thing, too, insofar as this is the role to which this notable Iago, Thersites, Ariel and Richard III has been building his entire career. A product virtually entirely of Britain’s state-funded theatre, Beale played Konstantin (in The Seagull) and Oswald (in Ghosts) during his considerable stint at the RSC: two dry runs for Hamlet on the way to the real thing.
Prior to opening, journalists trotted out the inevitable physique-led pun in their Beale interviews (“Tubby or not tubby?”), but the performance silenced all skeptics. “I cast Simon,” Caird told me on opening night, “because he’s simply the most romantic actor I know.” Ralph Fiennes may have the cheekbones (and the Tony award) and Daniel Day-Lewis the Byronic allure—and that’s before one ropes in other London Hamlets of late, whether they be Branagh (elocutionary), Mark Rylance (volatile), Stephen Dillane (sardonic) or Roger Rees (decidedly dry). But, says Beale, “Once you accept the age and shape I am, audiences go for it.” Or, to put it another way, if ever there were a theatrical date with destiny, Beale and Hamlet are it.
That’s one way of explaining the force field of feeling generated by Beale before he has even said a word. The actor is first seen bent over his father’s tomb, staring determinedly ahead. The moment comes informed in Beale’s own mind by the death of his mother prior to the production, though the actor’s innate empathy sets him apart, regardless.
Like Adrian Lester in Paris, who sings both playfully and poignantly to Yorick, Beale at the same moment supplies the skull with a cap, lest his old acquaintance get cold. The gesture is of a piece with a production forever bleeding together the living and the dead—think of it as Hamlet for the era of The Sixth Sense—so that the two become one. Beale’s Hamlet sees dead people and often wishes he were among them, too: Rarely has “to be or not to be” possessed such a distilled poetic yearning, as if, repeating the incantatory “to sleep,” that time could not come soon enough.
Some may feel that the staging as a whole soft-pedals the play, blunting its sharper edges, and that to write out Fortinbras is to collude in a dumbing-down of the text. But Hamlet has taken far more severe assaults—remember Hamletmachine, or Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth?—and soldiered on, so why shouldn’t it once more? “Let’s face it,” says Beale, who speaks of Malvolio and Macbeth as Shakespeare horizons within view, “you couldn’t get a better text for limitless possibility.” Which is why Hamlet keeps getting produced, and why, however fatiguing it may seem, we return so readily to it.
Shakespeare is “the big man,” smiles Beale. The rest is silence.
Matt Wolf is the London theatre critic for Variety and writes regularly for American Theatre from London.