A Hamlet Devoutly to be Wished
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has not been a play for almost 300 years and everybody knows it. More studied, quoted and lauded than any other dramatic work in the Western canon, it has become something of a foundational myth for the European and American worlds. Harvard’s own Marjorie Garber asserts that one never really reads Hamlet for the first time; our culture is so permeated with the play that we grow up knowing it, even if were not aware of this knowledge. And I’ve even heard some Shakespeare enthusiasts go so far as to claim that every moment of every day, somebody, somewhere, is performing the play. Whether or not this is actually true is besides the point. That such a claim could be made, even if only in the hope that it be true, shows just how profoundly Shakespeare’s great tragedy is capable of touching our lives. It is present, always, invisibly; and like Hamlet yearning to see his father in the flesh again, many want to see it manifestly around us as well.
In fact, while much of the Shakespeare cult of modern times can be seen as a relatively recent historical phenomena, the overwhelming reverence paid to Hamlet extends as far back as the late 17th century. While English dramatists of the Restoration were adapting Shakespeare’s plays left and right, altering them to fit the popular penchant for love triumphant and a happy ending, Hamlet remained untouched. Even King Lear got a makeover in the form of a glorious marriage between Edgar and the distinctly not-dead Cordelia. But the thwarted love, the suicides and the excessive carnage of Hamlet all stayed exactly where Shakespeare placed them, as though they were something permanent and unchangeable. With Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s discovery of a touch of Hamlet in himself about 100 years later and the general attention to the play paid by the Romantics, Hamlet has only become more monumentalized over the years. Even T.S. Eliot’s famous dismissal of the work as an artistic failure seems to further bolster its status. No one has ever seemed to think that Eliot’s judgment actually has any impact on the work. His voice is like that of a man telling a storm to stop; it only serves to emphasize the storm’s overwhelming power.
For performers, the mythic status of Hamlet poses something of a problem. The best actors approach the role as the great Greek tragedians did a myth: they provide a profound and deeply personal interpretation of it, but they never capture all of its possibilities. More so than with almost any other role, Hamlet is bigger than they are. It stands apart from them, even in the midst of their performance. Theirs is an approach to Hamlet, never a full embodiment. And for the worst actors, a performance of Hamlet is something even less than an approach; it is a type of game to be won. How many new ways can one say “Frailty thy name is woman” or “Words, words, words” or that great non-line “To be or not to be?” I say non-line because that fabulous soliloquy is no longer something to be said by a character; it is something to be mouthed by an audience. One can hardly go to a production of Hamlet without sitting in earshot of somebody whispering right along with Hamlet’s musings. The worst actors play into this instinct in audiences, trying to win favor by second-guessing their expectations and putting new twists on old lines. But in the end their performance becomes nothing more than a collection of lines. They haven’t even done so much as to interpret the great myth that is Hamlet. They have merely acknowledged its existence. And that’s something we have all known about from day one.
Or so it seemed until last summer when London’s Royal National Theatre opened a new production of Hamlet starring Simon Russell Beale. I had the privilege of watching the show while it was still in previews, sitting flush with the right-hand wall in the very last row of the balcony. It was probably the worst seat I have ever had in a theater, but it was undeniably one of the most incredible theatrical experiences of my life. Charles Spencer of London’s Daily Telograph said that Beale’s was a performance he had “never seen bettered,” and Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard went so far as to call Beale’s enactment “the Hamlet of a lifetime.” But these praises hardly begin to do justice to Beale’s accomplishments. Even the assortment of awards Beale garnered—a London Evening Standard Theatre Award, a London Critics Circle Award and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination—seem insufficient.
No, the magic of Beale’s performance cannot be captured in newspaper reviews or theatrical awards. In fact, it is with great uncertainty that I even try to represent his great achievement in words. Reviewing this Hamlet is not a matter of reviewing a character or even an actor. The experience is instead like trying to review an actual human being who, after more than 300 years of hiding behind a colossal myth, has quietly and unassumingly stepped out to tell his story: Hamlet the man—not the character, the icon or the gimmick. The glory of Beale’s presentation lies not in a powerful interpretation or a transcendent ingenuity; it lies in a deeply affecting humility. Beale’s Hamlet speaks like a man who has heard his own words repeated the world over a thousand different ways and has at last decided to say them himself—simply, straightforwardly, and quietly. This Hamlet’s statements are not finished lines; they are the imperfect words that stumble out of a confused, brilliant and deeply saddened mind. There is nothing to be interpreted or reinvented in them, for although these lines are the same that have been said and resaid for the past 400 years, they are spoken as though being put on this earth for the first time.
At least that was the case in London. Now, after a triumphant tour of Europe, Beale and his fellow players cross the Atlantic for a string of American engagements. Witnessing their debut at the Wilbur Theater, it became painfully clear that something had been left behind at the National’s Lyttelton Theater. Gone was a certain stillness that permeated the original production and helped it resonate beyond the stage. The actors who appeared so calm and humble in London now seem agitated and anxious; they are suddenly playing roles rather than living in them. There are lines to be said, marks to be hit and emotions to be conveyed. There is a sense of theatrical intention in the production that detracts from its original, unassuming sensibility. The world, it seems, has worn on this Hamlet and filled it with tensions.
Admittedly, not all of these problems are new and some of them seem legitimately unavoidable. Certain lines of Shakespeare’s are dead and gone forever. According to Harold Bloom, there were lines from the Ur-Hamlet, the play (probably by Thomas Kyd) on which Shakespeare’s Hamlet was most immediately based, which remained a source of mockery for years in the world of Elizabethan theatrics due to their utter ridiculousness. (The ghosts overemphatic and rather simple cry of “Hamlet, revenge!” was among the most common targets.) Now, what Shakespeare undid through fine craftsmanship, time has redone through overuse. A statement like, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” may never be said again with true authority; in fact an actor is fortunate if he can say it without provoking laughter. This may be okay for a show with a less consistent level of excellence, but in a show which instills such ingenuousness in nearly all its lines these exceptions appear particularly glaring.
This is not helped in the least by the relatively poor acting of much of Beale’s supporting cast. There was a comfort level at the Lyttelton which seemed to prop up the show’s other actors. What they lacked in delicacy and originality they made up for in confidence and a well-developed sense of how to turn a scene over to Beale without actually creating a one-man show. Now, with the cast out of its element, it has become increasingly clear that they resemble nothing more than a pick-up team whose only real purpose is to facilitate a single commanding performance. There are exceptions. Paul Bazely as Guildenstern shows a remarkable depth of character, portraying a young man torn between duty to the reigning monarch and a friendship he truly holds dear. Similarly, Simon Day as Horatio does an impeccable job instilling some signs of life, all be they muted, in what may be the flattest character ever written. But for the most part all parties involved, from Claudius to Laertes, show a distinct lack of subtlety or careful characterization. In those instances where Hamlet is absent from the stage for an extended period of time, the production can become downright painful to watch.
This isn’t purely a matter of acting, either. At the Lyttelton, Tim Hatley’s set design was a stroke of genius. Filling the enormous stage with crates of various sizes, surrounding them with gray windows and walls that rose to the sky in a cruel hybrid of prison and cathedral aesthetics and topping it all with a series of candle chandeliers which could retreat to the heights of the theater or lower to ground level singly or in battalions, Hatley effectively literalized the boxed-in nature of Hamlet’s privileged world. At the Wilbur, unfortunately, all that remains is a miniaturized version of a set designed for a far larger stage. The actors look packaged rather than contained. Paul Pyant’s lighting still brilliantly illuminates the stage in myriad ways, from morning in a church to dawn on a cliff-top, but now there is a distracting dichotomy between the effectiveness of the lighting and the ineffectiveness of the set. To a certain extent such problems seem inevitable in an international tour, but one would hope a better sense of scale could be reached in reconfiguring the set.
Nevertheless, at the center of it all remains Simon Russell Beale’s glorious performance. He has grown uneven with the various changes that have happened around him, but even at his worst he is a sight to behold. Most performers have it written into their contracts that they do no more than one production of Hamlet in a day. More would be too draining, both emotionally and physically. And yet, Beale has been playing the Dane for nearly a year now. For some such a run might be no trouble at all. But for a performer who so completely slides inside of a character as abused and abusive as Hamlet it is no surprise that his stamina may flag ever so slightly. The emphasis here must be on the slightly, though. Beale remains a marvel. To watch him in action is to witness something incredible: the steady and graceful transformation of a myth into a man and a monument into a story. We all know the tale of Hamlet, even if we think we don’t. But none of us has ever known it like this before.
Simon Russell Beale
Through April 29