- From David Tennant’s sardonic and volatile performance to John Gielgud’s choked-up ferocity, Susannah Clapp picks the 10 best portrayals of Hamlet
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».
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.
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.»
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.
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.
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 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
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.