Category Archives: Hamlet

The 10 best Hamlets

  • From David Tennant’s sardonic and volatile performance to John Gielgud’s choked-up ferocity, Susannah Clapp picks the 10 best portrayals of Hamlet
William Shakespeare [Misc.];Henry Irving [Misc.];Ellen Terry [Misc.]
Illustration of English actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in Hamlet. Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Getty Image
  • Henry Irving

In the 1870s, Henry Irving was the most popular actor on the London stage. He produced himself in Hamlet in a version that, though heavily cut, was, due to long intervals with incidental music and elaborate scene-changes, more than five hours long. For Yeats, he was a «lean image of hungry speculation». In pale make-up, his white face emphasised by blue-black hair, Irving was also a lovable, scholastic prince. Playing opposite his future lover, Ellen Terry (above), he clearly yearned for Ophelia. Terry paid him a cherishable compliment: he «did not go to the audience. He made them come to him».

John Gielgud
John Gielgud posing in costume as Hamlet. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • John Gielgud

He became the Hamlet by which 20th-century performances were judged. John Gielgud played the role more than 500 times, in six productions: at 26 and at 44, in London, in Elsinore, and on Broadway, where he triumphed over a production starring Leslie Howard. At the end of the second world war, he performed for troops in the Far East, although he had «rather wanted to do Charley’s Aunt«. A 1941 radio recording demonstrates his wonderful power, capturing not only the mellifluousness for which he was famous, but a choked-up ferocity. He could make paralysis sound like an assault on himself.

  • Jonathan Pryce

It was a device of the director Richard Eyre that made Jonathan Pryce’s terrific, febrile Hamlet soar. Looking for a way to make sense of the Ghost to a sceptical audience, Eyre hit on the notion of a spirit that came out of the prince’s own body. Pryce, his arms wrapping round his body, hand reaching up to his throat, seemed to vomit up the sepulchral voice of the old fellow. He was also one of many actors to have played the part of Hamlet under the influence of a parent’s death. «I approached Hamlet,» Pryce said, «as someone who had seen his own father’s ghost.»

 David Tennant plays Hamlet on stage at the Novello theatre
David Tennant as the Prince of Denmark in the RSC’s 2008 production. Photograph: Ellie Kuurtz/RSC
  • David Tennant

Sardonic and volatile, David Tennant’s Hamlet was so graceful that at times he seemed almost to dance across the stage. The idea of seeing Dr Who in the flesh brought schoolchildren thronging into Gregory Doran’s modern-dress production for the RSC two years ago. What they saw was a japester who pushed himself squealing along on a caster chair, a young man sunk in a melancholy dream and a prince of parody, a compulsive mimic who kept becoming someone other than himself. This was a Hamlet who continually played with the idea that wit can look like witlessness. And vice versa.

Innokenti Smoktunovsky as Hamlet
Anastasia Vertinskaya as ophelia and Innokenti Smoktunovsky as Hamlet. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
  • Innokenti Smoktunovsky

For sheer excitement, the 1964 Russian film directed by Grigori Kozintsev is hard to beat. Innokenti Smoktunovsky’s strong, disgusted prince was utterly of a piece with Kozintsev’s political interpretation. Based on a translation by Pasternak, with music by Shostakovich, much of the action was set outside, with crashing waves, battlements and a large cast of underlings. For non-Russian speakers, the delivery of the verse ceased to be the point. What became clear was something often missing from more personally inflected interpretations: the sense that Hamlet’s actions, or lack of them, have weighty public consequences.

Jamie Ballard in Jonathan Miller's Hamlet
Jamie Ballard in Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet
  • Jamie Ballard

In Jonathan Miller’s 2008 production at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, Jamie Ballard was an almost revolutionarily sane Hamlet: flushed, disturbed but clear-sighted. This was Hamlet as a young man whose incisive mind was running away with itself. He was also a prince with a finely articulated past: from the beginning, he eyed up Laertes suspiciously; he debated with the adroitness and avidity of the philosophy student that he was; he seemed (unusually) truly to be in love with Ophelia. When he cried, he blubbed like a man whose flesh – and substance – really was beginning to melt.

He spoke the verse conversationally. He slouched. He looked trapped by his elders. In 1965, the 24-year-old David Warner, the youngest actor to have taken on the role at the RSC, played Hamlet in a long red scarf and a corduroy jacket and became a pin-up for a generation of teenagers. Peter Hall’s production, in which Glenda Jackson was an aggressive beatnik Ophelia, had touches of absurdist drama, but Warner’s demeanour was rebellious, surly: «nasty» was how he described himself. His duel looked dangerous and, in keeping with his prevailing irony, he died on a sardonic laugh.

Mark Rylance let Hamlet’s madness rip across the stage. In Ron Daniels’s 1989 production, derangement was stripped of any stage decorativeness. Rylance, wearing striped, shit-stained pyjamas, was wild. He mooned, he jeered, he spat in Ophelia’s face. He exercised his exceptional gift of seeming entirely rapt in his own mental universe and yet speaking directly to the audience, as if he were alighting on particular individuals. When the production was performed in Broadmoor, one of his inmate spectators approached him afterwards: «You were really mad – take it from me, I should know. I’m a loony.»

Angela Winkler
Angela Winkler in Peter Zadek’s production of Hamlet. Photograph: Murdo Macleod
  • Angela Winkler

Angela Winkler was by no means the first woman to play Hamlet. But in Peter Zadek’s production, seen at the Edinburgh festival 10 years ago, the German actress bought something other than femininity to the part. Winkler was Hamlet as waif, always engaging, sometimes too endearing: she jumped for joy at the sight of the Players. Against a grim grey background and a prevailing note of snarling anarchy, surrounded by well-upholstered courtiers, this ragamuffin, spindly prince looked like a changeling and behaved with innocence. She delivered the soliloquies, scarcely moving, looking straight out into the audience with an extreme candour.

Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet at the Lyttelton in 2000
Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet at the Lyttelton in 2000. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
  • Simon Russell Beale

Ironic, heartfelt, spoken with exemplary clarity, Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet was a study of grief. And a performance that radiated intelligence. Russell Beale, acting in John Caird’s cathedral-like production in 2000, soon after the death of his own mother, was often almost totally still, as if misery were making him heavy. And yet Beale could flash into sudden liveliness: when he talked of hawks, he suggested – without exactly mimicking – the cocked head of a bird of prey. And when he approached the point of death, he made you believe, as is seldom the case, that the readiness is all.

The Fine Mismating of a Him and Her

Johan Persson

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jude Law in the Donmar Warehouse production of “Hamlet,” directed by Michael Grandage.

The New York Times: September 9, 2009

YOU know the scenario: Boy meets girl. Boy hits girl. Girl hits boy. And the fight continues, amid thick hormonal steam, until one of them doesn’t get up.

It has been well over a century since August Strindberg forged the template for this savage alternative to the sentimental love story. When published in 1888, his fast, cruel and muscular little drama about a well-brought-up young woman known as Miss Julie — who, by the way, looks to be the muse of this fall’s theater season — was greeted with the kind of welcome reserved for a slop bowl on a doorstep.

“A heap of ordure,” wrote one journalist in Strindberg’s native Sweden of “Miss Julie,” which was understandably slow to find theatrical producers. Another reviewer described it as “a filthy bundle of rags which one hardly wishes to touch even with tongs.” Exciting, huh? When critics spewed like that, you knew that something serious was going on.

And so it has proved. Strindberg’s self-destructive heroine, who falls into a fatal liaison with her father’s footman, took a while to find her stage legs in this country. But once she did, there was no avoiding her influence. Hollywood might continue to prefer sunnier romantic formulas that ended with weddings instead of funerals. But theater artists, including the Olympian American dramatists Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, figured out that nothing strikes sparks like characters for whom making love and war is the same thing.

The next few months will find an assortment of marquee stars picking up their Strindbergian weapons and testing their muscles against the opposite sex. These are not featherweight matches. Miss Julie herself — or an identical British cousin of hers — returns to New York in the person of the eternal starlet Sienna Miller, bearing arms against Jonny Lee Miller as her erotic adversary, in Patrick Marber’s “After Miss Julie,” which reimagines Strindberg’s play in an English country house in 1945 and opens Oct. 22 at the American Airlines Theater. (The author of the bleak and biting “Closer,” the love-is-death psychodrama that was made into a film, Mr. Marber is naturally suited to such material.)

The Oscar-winning chameleon Cate Blanchett steps into the well-worn dressing gown of Blanche DuBois in the Sydney Theater Company’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Williams’s benchmark drama of beauty versus brutality, which runs Nov. 27 through Dec. 20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles come to blows in “Oleanna,” David Mamet’s 1992 play about sexual harassment, set on a college campus, directed by Doug Hughes, which starts previews this month at the Golden Theater. And to remind us that love as a death sport did exist before Strindberg, Jude Law will be on hand to push his girlfriend into madness and a watery grave in the title role of the Donmar Warehouse’s production of “Hamlet,” opening Oct. 6 at the Broadhurst Theater, directed by Michael Grandage.

The nail-biting question is whether these stars, all better known for film than stage work, will plumb the full complexity of characters who are more than their battle positions. (It seems fitting that “Streetcar” is being directed by Liv Ullmann, who became famous acting in film for one of the most nuanced anatomists of sexual conflict and its casualties, Ingmar Bergman.) In great drama, man against woman is never just a story of yin and yang, or of the clear-cut quest for dominance so memorably portrayed in James Thurber cartoons.

You want the actors to give good fight but also to reveal the restless psyches within that keep the balance of power unsettled. And it’s crucial that they make it clear that issues other than sexuality, riveting though that may be, are at stake. Of these the most obvious is — to use what has become a dirty word in recent years — class.

The romantic adversaries of “Miss Julie” glare at each other across a great social divide before crossing it with disastrous consequences. She’s an anemic relic of a crumbling Swedish aristocracy; he’s the full-blooded member of a rising working class. Mr. Marber didn’t have to look hard to find their parallels in 20th-century England. “After Miss Julie” takes place on the night of the epochal landslide victory by the Labour Party, which many upper-class Britons took as a personal death knell. (Such cultural transliterations in theater can feel painfully strained. But when I saw the Donmar Warehouse’s “After Miss Julie” in London in 2004, Strindberg’s poisoned story nestled most comfortably in its new context.)

As remnants of dying civilizations go, Blanche DuBois is even more threadbare than Miss Julie, though she holds on to enough life force to go a few rounds with the blue-collar lug Stanley Kowalski (Joel Edgerton in this version) before he breaks her spirit. In “Oleanna,” arguably the ultimate he-said, she-said drama, Mr. Mamet reverses the equation, pitting a defensive and undereducated graduate student against a pedantic professor. Like Blanche and Stanley, Carol (Ms. Stiles) and John (Mr. Pullman) speak different languages. The only way they’re going to connect — for better or worse — will have to be beyond words.

As pungent and even transcendent as the dialogue is in these plays, it’s that area beyond words where we need actors to take us: a place where sex and class blur at the edges, and identity is in crisis. It may be the fights, the fusillades of accusations and insults, that raise our adrenaline. But the vision of personalities shifting and warping under threat is finally what haunts us.

In his much-quoted preface to “Miss Julie,” Strindberg wrote, “My souls (or characters) are agglomerations of past and present cultures, scraps from books and newspapers, fragments of humanity, torn shreds of once-fine clothing that has become rags, in just the way that a human soul is patched together.”

Of course the plays in this mold must exude the heat of battle. That’s a large part of what makes them so compulsively watchable. But like all great war stories, when they show us the scars and stitches — of both the victors and the defeated — they move us to terror and pity.

At the Stage Door

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Hello, Sweet Prince (September 6, 2009)

Craig Schwartz

Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman in David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” directed by Doug Hughes. Top left,

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Δεν άρεσε σε όλους ο Τζουντ Λο ως Αμλετ…

Δεν άρεσε σε όλους

Ανάμεικτες εντυπώσεις άφησε ο Τζουντ Λο ως Αμλετ στην πρεμιέρα του ομώνυμου θεατρικού έργου του Σαίξπηρ στη σκηνή του Μπρόντγουεϊ. Τρεις μεγάλες εφημερίδες της Νέας Υόρκης αποκαλούν την ερμηνεία του «ηλεκτρισμένη» και επαινούν το μοναδικό ταλέντο του, που του δίνει άλλη υπόσταση από αυτήν που του έχουν προσδώσει τα σκάνδαλα της ερωτικής του ζωής. Ωστόσο, υπάρχουν και άλλες δύο σημαντικές εφημερίδες που μιλούν για «μεγάλη απογοήτευση», χρησιμοποιώντας βαριές εκφράσεις. Οπως και να χει, αυτή είναι η δεύτερη φορά που ο Λο εμφανίζεται στο Μπρόντγουεϊ μετά τη βραβευμένη με Τόνι ερμηνεία του στις «Αδιακρισίες», το 1995. [ΕΘΝΟΣ]

THEATER REVIEW | ‘HAMLET’

Ready, Set, Emote: A Race to His Doom

New York Times
By BEN BRANTLEY, Published: October 7, 2009

If vigor were all in acting Shakespeare, Jude Law would be a gold medal Hamlet. Playing the doomed Prince of Denmark in the barnstorming production that opened on Tuesday night at the Broadhurst Theater, directed by Michael Grandage, Mr. Law approaches his role with the focus, determination and adrenaline level of an Olympic track competitor staring down an endless line of hurdles.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

«Hamlet»: Jude Law plays the Danish prince at the Broadhurst Theater.

Hold your breath, sports fans! Here’s Mr. Law, lithe and taut, bracing himself for that first tricky soliloquy, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt.” No melting here. Mr. Law, gesturing and enunciating violently, nails the speech with the attack of an electric hammer. But can he keep it up for “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” and “To be or not to be” and “Alas, poor Yorick”? Yes, he can, bringing the same athletic gusto and no trace of fatigue (or modulation) to each and every one.

People who ask for a little introspection from the man whose name is a byword for that activity may find it perplexing that this Hamlet never seems to look inward, which means that he never grows up — or grows, period. When Mr. Law’s hyperkinetic Dane announces early that “I have that within which passeth show,” it is a promise that will not be fulfilled.

Mr. Law, a rakish leading man of film, doesn’t disappear onstage the way some screen stars do. Though small-boned and delicately featured, he fills the theater to the saturation point. But the finer shades of feeling that a movie camera has been known to extract from his face — most notably in his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) — are rarely in evidence here.

His Hamlet — which has only increased in intensity, if not in depth, since I saw it in London last summer — is, above all, an externalizer, never shy about acting out his inner conflicts and acting on his instincts. It is hard to understand the distress of Hamlet’s friends and family when he feigns madness, since the prince, in this case, appears to be as he always was: sarcastic, contemptuous, quick-witted and mad only in the sense of being really, really angry.

Mr. Law conveys these traits with a grandstanding bravado and annotative clarity that is often pitched full throttle into the audience. The much-quoted instructions that Hamlet delivers to a troupe of visiting players apparently do not apply to princes in mourning. This one mouths his words like a town crier and saws the air with his hands.

He does follow his own advice in suiting “the action to the word, the word to the action.” If Hamlet talks about his mind, you can bet that Mr. Law will point to his forehead; when he mentions the heavens, his arm shoots straight up; and when the guy says his gorge rises, rest assured that he clutches at his stomach. If every actor were like Mr. Law, signed performances for the hard of hearing would be unnecessary.

Most of the supporting cast members have chosen to follow Mr. Law’s semaphore style, though in a scaled-down manner that befits a team that knows its raison d’être is to avoid obstructing the view of the name above the title. (As Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, Geraldine James goes for a more impassive effect, and as a consequence, vanishes before your eyes.) Though the look of Christopher Oram’s black-on-black set (exquisitely lighted by Neil Austin) is very of the moment, the overall effect is what you imagine a 19th-century touring production of “Hamlet” might have been like, with a crowd magnet like Edwin Booth or Henry Irving.

Such histrionic bluster, enhanced by Adam Cork’s scary-movie music and sound effects, is not without its advantages. This is one production in which I could understand every word, and you feel the heat of energy from the stage. In the sequence in which Hamlet and the Player King (the resonant-voiced Peter Eyre, who doubles memorably as the weary, tortured ghost of Hamlet’s father) swap favorite memorized speeches from hoary old tragedies, you sense the pleasure the characters and the men playing them derive from the ripe theatricality of it all.

But that’s one of the few times you are viscerally connected to the people onstage. As the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, Mr. Grandage has been responsible for some of the most emotionally engaging shows I’ve seen in London in recent years, including marvelous revivals of “Passion Play,” “The Wild Duck” and “Caligula.” (He was nominated for a Tony for his ingenious staging of Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon.”)

His “Hamlet” generates little psychological tension, though. And it is remarkably lacking in the vivid, specific characterizations you expect of Shakespeare in performance. If the actors playing the villainous Claudius (Kevin R. McNally) and the pompous Polonius (Ron Cook) — or the stalwart Horatio (Matt Ryan) and the aggrieved Laertes (Gwilym Lee) — changed parts midway, I doubt anyone would care much. It’s as if they were all Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns (played here, for the record, by John MacMillan and Harry Attwell).

Granted, Mr. Law doesn’t give his fellow actors much in the way of interpersonal connection. When Polonius tells his daughter, Ophelia (the beautiful, unconvincing Gugu Mbatha-Raw), that Hamlet is “out of thy star,” he could be speaking to anyone. This Hamlet occupies — nay, is — his own constellation, and his radiance is bestowed almost exclusively upon the audience.

Still, Mr. Law’s undeniable charisma and gender-crossing sex appeal may captivate Broadway theatergoers who wouldn’t normally attend productions of Shakespeare. (When I caught the show in London I was heartened by the sizable presence of teenagers who seemed truly enthralled by the performance.) And, by the way, the sleeves on which Hamlet wears his feelings are seriously chic.

Mr. Oram has created an array of Pradaesque costumes — in shades of black, gray and navy — that could step right into the windows of Barneys. Hamlet’s cardigan, short raincoat and pea jacket are all must-have items for fall. If Mr. Law’s Prince seems way too active for a hero known for inaction, no one is going to argue when Ophelia calls him “the glass of fashion.”

HAMLET

By William Shakespeare; directed by Michael Grandage; sets and costumes by Christopher Oram; lighting by Neil Austin; music and sound by Adam Cork; technical supervisors, Aurora Productions and Patrick Molony. A Donmar Warehouse production, presented by Arielle Tepper Madover, the Donmar Warehouse, Matthew Byam Shaw, Scott M. Delman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Neal Street Productions/Carl Moellenberg, Ruth Hendel/Barbara Whitman and Philip Morgaman/Frankie J. Grande. At the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Through Dec. 6. Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes.

WITH: Ross Armstrong (Cornelius), Harry Attwell (Guildenstern), Ron Cook (Polonius/First Gravedigger), Ian Drysdale (Osric), Peter Eyre (Ghost/Player King), Sean Jackson (Reynaldo), Geraldine James (Gertrude), Jude Law (Hamlet), Gwilym Lee (Laertes), John MacMillan (Rosencrantz), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ophelia), Kevin R. McNally (Claudius) and Matt Ryan (Horatio).

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Related

Hello, Sweet Prince (September 6, 2009)

Times Topics: Jude Law | William Shakespeare

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Jude Law in the title role of a kinetic “Hamlet.”