New Globe Theatre, London, England – stage
(photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved)
Since the Prince of Denmark first stepped onto the boards of the Globe Theatre over four hundred years ago, and with almost the sole exception of England's roughly two-decade-long Puritan interregnum (1641-1659), few theatrical seasons have probably gone by during which the tragedy has not been produced in some part of the world or other. The publication of the 1623 "First Folio" did not diminish the demand for quarto editions of the Bard's individual plays; even before the temporary suspension of all theatrical activities in 1642, "Hamlet," like several of Shakespeare's other hits, made it all the way to a fifth quarto (1637), and after King Charles II had permitted the resumption of those activities in 1660, a fifth players' quarto was published in 1703. This, in itself, is powerful evidence of the piece's ongoing appeal, as is its discussion by literary and scholarly luminaries including the likes of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Hartley Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, A.C. Swinburne, T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, and Voltaire (who however, in his 1748 "Dissertation sur la Tragédie," famously went against the grain of what has now become four centuries' worth of public opinion by putting the play down as "a vulgar and barbarous drama which would not be tolerated by the most ignorant audiences in France or Italy," and which one would suppose "the work of a drunken savage").
The first actor to assume the title role on stage – and to immense success – was almost definitely Richard Burbage (ca. 1567-1619), followed by Joseph Taylor (ca. 1586-1652). After the Cromwellian era, which it survived just so, the play (in its 1637 Fifth Quarto incarnation) was rescued in the Restoration period by the company of Poet Laureate Sir William Davenant (1606-1668), alleged (though never proven) to be the Bard's illegitimate son, and in any event, due to the contacts he had managed to establish to the (original) King's Men in his youth, unquestionably one of the 17th century's greatest Thespian experts on Shakespeare. In 1660, Davenant on the one hand and Thomas Killigrew (1612-1683) on the other hand were granted letters patent by King Charles II to reopen theatres, and their companies – known as the Duke's Men and (once more) the King's Men, respectively – soon began to rival each other for audience attraction. Killigrew's King's Men performed in a venue known as the Theatre Royal or (for its London West End location) simply Drury Lane, and their star actors were Charles Hart (ca. 1625-1683) and Nell Gwyn (1650-1687), who however seem to be known, these days, at least as much for their first-rate and highly entertaining performances as for the fact that Ms. Gwynne later exchanged the king's embraces for those of her stage partner, who in turn is claimed by some to have been the illegitimate grandson of William Shakespeare's sister Joan (a claim that is probably, alas, about as safely grounded in fact as that according to which Davenant was the illegitimate son of the Bard himself). But it was the star of the Duke's Men, Thomas Betterton (ca. 1635-1710), whose name in particular became virtually synonymous with that of Hamlet, as well as a number of other Shakespearean heroes: from his first success as the Prince of Denmark in 1661 (when he was but 26 years of age) until his retirement over forty years later, he never failed to move his audience in this role. Betterton later also succeeded Davenant as the company's manager and oversaw its not quite decade-and-a-half-long merger with the King's Men, until after successive and equally disastrous periods of new management under Killigrew's and Davenant's sons and an actor named Christopher Rich, Betterton himself led a walk-out of the now Unified Company's chief actors, who resumed productions of their own at the original venue of the Duke's Men in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1695, from where they moved to Dorset Garden in 1671 and finally to Covent Garden in 1720.
In the eighteenth century, the Shakespearean tradition gained a vigorous (and after a few uncertain decades, again much-needed) dose of new life blood by the work of actor, playwright and, from 1747 on, manager of the Theatre Royal, David Garrick (1717-1779), who to his audience easily became that which his predecessors Burbage and Betterton had already been to theirs, and who had his own, unmistakeable approach to the naturalistic acting style that Shakespeare, in the Prince of Denmark's voice, sought to impress on his Players ("suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature"): While Garrick was instrumental in doing away with the bombastic style of playing which had beset London's stages since the beginning of the new century, he certainly did not shy away from the display of genuine emotion, and during performances of "Hamlet" even contrived to wear a special wig which, at the beginning of the Prince's encounter with his father's Ghost, enabled him to create the appearance of his hair standing on end, which in turn even more underscored the sheer horror showing on his face. Garrick's contemporary and biographer, playwright Arthur Murphy (1727-1805) gave this description of his impressions: "On the first appearance of the Ghost, such a figure of consternation was never seen. He stood fixed in mute astonishment, and the audience saw him growing paler and paler. After an interval of suspense he spoke in a low trembling accent, and uttered his questions with great difficulty." (Arthur Murphy, The Life of David Garrick, Esq., 2 vols., J. Wright, London, 1801.) And German writer and physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), having attended a 1775 performance, recalled in a letter written in October of that year: "[Garrick's] whole demeanour is so expressive of terror that it made my flesh creep even before he began to speak." ( Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Briefe aus England [Letters from England], 1776-78). Only eminent literary critic and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who, although a friend of the actor's, nevertheless enjoyed the occasional pan on his performances, responded to his own travel companion and biographer James Boswell's question whether he, too, would react this way to the sight of a ghost: "I hope not. If I did, I should frighten the ghost." (James Boswell: The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., 1784.)
The Stratford High or Market Cross at the top of Bridge Street, decorated for the Garrick Jubilee
(ca. 1760s; by permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, England)
As can be seen from the surviving copy of his prompt book, Garrick's productions made substantial changes to Shakespeare's text; not least in order to placate his friends and critics in France; first and foremost Voltaire, who thoroughly disapproved of a whole range of elements of the play, but none more so than the Gravedigger scene. Yet, for all that, and for Garrick's tendency towards self-aggrandisation, he rightfully occupies a prominent place in the history of the Bard's theatrical legacy, not only for ensuring the continuance of that legacy throughout the 18th century and for his constant emphasis on the highest professional standards in acting, but also for sowing the seeds of a stage tradition in Shakespeare's own home town, where performances of the Bard's plays had been banned as early as 1606: a prohibition that had never been lifted except for a single benefit performance of "Othello" in 1742, staged by the actor John Ward, whose grandchildren John Philip and Charles Kemble and Sarah Siddons (née Kemble) would be among the 19th century's most celebrated performers. – Asked by Stratford-upon-Avon's town fathers to contribute to the funding of a Shakespeare bust to be placed inside the city's new town hall (completed in 1767), Garrick responded with a visit and, in short order, with the initiation of a festival in honour of Shakespeare's birthday. The festivities were celebrated to great fanfare – and from day 2 on, despite sheer abominable weather – on September 6-9, 1769, and are remembered as Garrick's Jubilee. They eventually inspired the creation of an organisation known as the Shakespeare Club, which was founded 1824 and soon counted a number of prominent actors among its members. The Shakespeare Club, in turn, later brought forth the Royal Shakespeare Company. Thus, it was certainly not merely hyperbole when, in a 1764 letter, Garrick advised aspiring actor William Powell not only to "give to Study, and an Accurate consideration of Your Characters, those Hours which Young Men generally give to their Friends & fflatterers [sic]" (because the audience's favour "must be purchas'd with Sweat & labour"), but moreover admonished: "Never let your Shakespear out of your Pocket" – indeed, Garrick continued, one should keep Shakespeare's works always about one's person "as a Charm."
In 1816, "Hamlet" was performed for the first time in Helsingør's Kronborg Castle, the model of Shakespeare's Elsinore, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bard's death. Meanwhile in London's West End, even before the 1843 parliamentary revocation of the monopoly erstwhile bestowed on the King's and Duke's Companies by King Charles II, new theatres had begun to spring up, most prominently so the Lyceum on Wellington Street (whose first building was erected in 1834) and the Haymarket Theatre; already in the patent company era, the actors' preferred alternative venue whenever there was a revolt at Drury Lane or Covent Garden. The 19th century Romantic movement fully exploited the melancholic aspects of the Prince of Denmark's character, who was – again – portrayed by the era's greatest Shakespearean actors, from brothers John Philip and Charles Kemble (1757-1823 and 1775-1854, respectively) to fiery instant sensation Edmund Kean (1787-1833 – prior to Sir Laurence Olivier, the only actor honoured by a burial in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner) and his son Charles (1811-1868), in turn already on his way to a brilliant stage career when Kean senior (playing Othello to Charles's Iago) collapsed in a joint Covent Garden appearance in 1833; as well as by profoundly committed Willian Macready (1793-1873), who ditched a career at the bar in favour of the stage; by slender, graceful Thomas Barry Sullivan (1824-1891), who during a six-year stay in Melbourne also considerably helped raise the profile of the Australian theatrical scene; by highly distinctive Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905), who was driven to the stage even if it meant proving his mettle in the provinces before gaining access to the hallowed boards of London's West End; and last but not least, on both sides of the Atlantic, by refined and introspetive American Edwin Booth (1833-1893), whose career was tragically affected by his brother John Wilkes's April 14, 1865 murder of President Lincoln, but who nevertheless managed to salvage it to make "Hamlet" – of all his vast repertoire, also the play he chose for his first stage appearance after the assassination, on January 3, 1866 – his signature role in a way that few other actors have done before or since. And one can only guess how he must personally have felt about the Prince's conflict, particularly during the Now might I do it pat speech in Act III, Scene 3 ... (if that scene was in fact included in his appearances at all: the crossed out lines in his prompt book suggest that it may have been omitted entirely.)
Increasingly, and particularly so after 1843, new venues also opened in other parts of England; including in Stratford, where a first permanent stage dedicated to the works of the town's most famous son was created with the New Royal Shakespearean Rooms in 1844. These became the [Stratford] Theatre Royal in 1869 which, however, was already pulled down again in 1872. Seven years later, the elaborately Victorian Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened on a site donated by local brewer Charles Edward Flower on the banks of the River Avon; its first season comprised performances of "Much Ado About Nothing," "As You Like It," and "Hamlet," all of them with actor-director Thomas Barry Sullivan at the helm and starring, respectively, as Benedick, Jaques, and (of course) the Prince of Denmark. Only a year after the company had been granted a Royal Charter in 1925, however, their venue was again destroyed; this time by fire. It was finally replaced in 1932 by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre still standing on that same site, whose inaugural performance was a production of "Henry IV, Part 1," followed by "Henry IV, Part 2" on the same night, and starring Randle Ayrton in the title role, Gyles Isham as Prince Hal, Roy Byford as Sir John Falstaff and Ethel Harper as Mistress Quickly. The company's main stage has since been joined by the Swan Theatre (opened in 1986 with a performance of "The Two Noble Kinsmen" and built inside the shell remaining from the 1926 fire), a studio theatre simply known as The Other Place (opened in 1974 with an abbreviated production of "King Lear") and the brand new Courtyard Theatre a little further up the street from the Royal Shakespeare and Swan Theatres, which opened in 2006 with current RSC director Michael Boyd's production of the complete "Wars of the Roses" trilogy – "Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3" – as part of the company's Complete Works Festival in memory of the 390th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death.
As a look at the 1676 promptbook of William Davenant and Thomas Betterton shows, even before David Garrick's (in)famous drastic rewrites of "Hamlet," the notion of abbreviating the play was not new or unusual; and however much those responsible for its stage productions at any given time may have protested that, by cutting part of the tragedy's contents, they were either not materially interfering with its meaning at all, or were even (as Garrick thought he did) improving on it, none of them can have been blind to the realisation that they were indeed tampering with nothing short of Shakespeare's own intent as a playwright.
Thomas Lawrence: John Philip Kemble
as Hamlet, Act V, scene I
(ca. early 1800s, Garrick Club, London, England;
photo (c) The Art Archive, used by permission)
This is not to say, of course, that faithful interpretation is only possible by using any given play's full-length text or that, for that matter, this tragedy hasn't seen a single production using either its complete Second Quarto or at least its First Folio text: John Philip Kemble's minutely-illustrated prompt book, for example (published in the Folger Facsimile series, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1974), suggests a fairly straightforward application of the latter (in keeping with Kemble's renown for an elaborately precise, albeit occasionally somewhat studied and inflexible approach to acting?), although even it contains some significant cuts and flat-out rewritings, particularly in the conspiracy scene, where Claudius's and Laertes's entire exchange between "If he be now return'd" and "A very riband in the cap of youth" is cut, and both characters' lines between Laertes's "I will do't!" and Claudius's "We'll make a solemn wager on your cunnings" are summarily rewritten. Kemble's stage directions also suggest that contrarily to what Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude when informing them about Hamlet's letter to his daughter, the maid has actually kept a number of the Prince's letters from her father, which she has bundled together and tries to return to Hamlet himself in the nunnery scene as the "remembrances" that she has "longed long to re-deliver."
But by and large, the late 19th and early 20th century's productions – and perhaps none more so than those starring Sir Henry Irving and Edwin Booth – continued the tradition of showing the play in versions tailored to suit the interpretation of their star performers. Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853-1937), who first played the Prince of Denmark at age 44 (in 1897), and whom even Sir Laurence Olivier, in his explanation of his approach to his own movie (New York Times, September 19, 1948), acknowledged as "the finest 'Hamlet' of the present century," restored the character of Fortinbras, which had (along with all political references) been omitted from the vast majority of 19th century productions of the play. Not surprisingly, this made Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet a particular favourite with George Bernard Shaw. Yet, even Forbes-Robertson explained, in the brief preface of his 1897 "acting version" of "Hamlet," that he had "ventured to transfer the scenes taking place in the house of Polonius to the Castle of Elsinore, in order to avoid as much as possible a change of scene, and to allow more scope and freedom of movement to the characters;" and that he had also made "[o]ther changes of scene ... which may be permitted, seeing that the Acts and Scenes are not marked in the Folios beyond the second Scene of the second Act, and not at all in the Quartos."
In addition to Forbes-Robertson's work, the romantic tradition established by the great 19th century actors was carried over into the 20th century primarily by way of the Prince's graceful portrayal by Sir Francis Robert (Frank) Benson (1858-1939), who after an 1882 appearance under Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum founded his own company, in 1888 took over management of the Stratford productions, and explained in 1905 that it was his aim "to train a company, every member of which would be an essential part of a homogeneous whole, consecrated to the practice of the dramatic arts and especially to the representation of the plays of Shakespeare." – Moreover, the early decades of the 20th century saw the stage debut of the grandnephew of Sir Henry Irving's longstanding and equally celebrated stage partner Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928); Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000), who first appeared as the Prince of Denmark in London's Old Vic Theatre in 1929-31, and who would still garner laurels for his sensitive take on the role even when he was already well into his fifties.
The Prince's incarnation by American actor John Barrymore (1882-1942, a/k/a "The Great Profile"), on the other hand, radically departed from the soft-spoken approach of his predecessors and showed the world a Prince violently torn by emotions. Barrymore also pioneered the Freudian interpretation of the role subsequently linked even more strongly with the name of Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-1989); star of an unabridged 1937 Helsingør/ Elsinore production building on his prior appearances in the role also at the Old Vic, director of a multiple Academy Award-winning 1948 movie, managing director of the National Theatre Company, volcanic Thespian force, and recipient, for his mutiple merits, not only of a knighthood but a peerage, as well as the distinction of a burial in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner – besides his 19th century predecessor Edmund Kean the only actor to have thus been honoured.
A cider mug commemorating the Shakespeare Club
(ca. 1824; by permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, England)
These days, the Royal Shakespeare Company (which exists in its current form since 1961, though its history dates back all the way to the 19th century Shakespeare Club and, ultimately, the 1769 Garrick Jubilee) unquestionably continues to carry the brightest consistent torch for the Bard's theatrical legacy. Since the 1879 inaugural season of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, it has mounted 92 productions of "Hamlet" alone. Thomas Barry Sullivan returned as the star and director of its 1880 production (though largely with a different cast than that of the 1879 season), and Sir Frank Benson, who guided them (and the Prince of Denmark's tragedy) into the 20th century in an extraordinarily successful run of twelve seasons spread out over the 21-year period from 1886 to 1907; with consecutive seasons in 1898 – 1899 and from 1902 to 1907, and with his wife Constance co-starring as Ophelia as well as in many other roles. In 1908, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson briefly took over, but Benson returned to Stratford in 1909 for another run of eight seasons, up to and including the summer of 1916, thus also throughout the first years of World War I, until productions were interrupted for two years by the increasingly merciless hostilities. – In 1913, the company even staged three productions of "Hamlet," two in Stratford (one in spring/ summer and one in the fall), and the third, a Stratford-upon-Avon Players North American tour featuring fourteen plays all in all and lasting until June 2, 1914; virtually until the eve of the war. (One dare not imagine with what kind of trepidations the actors must have boarded the ship on their return voyage to England.)
Maude Cattell: ink sketch showing the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
(1924; by permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, England)
Business at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre resumed in 1919; "Hamlet" was back the following spring with a cast headed by Murray Carrington and directed by W. Bridges-Adams, who would remain the company's director (and chief designer) until 1933. The company did go on performing in a Stratford cinema even after the 1926 destruction of the Memorial Theatre, but also made up for the intermittent loss of their stage by three further North American tours, the first two of which (in October 1928 – March 1929 and October 1929 – April 1930) also included performances of "Hamlet." Between the 1932 opening of the house now known as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the 1939 beginning of World War II, there were three more productions of "Hamlet" in Stratford: first in 1933, directed by Mr. Bridges-Adams, starring Anew McMaster as the Prince, Gerald Kay Souper as the Ghost and two of the early 20th century's actors most profoundly steeped in Shakespeare's works in general and this play in particular – Stanley Howlett and Eric Maxon – as Claudius and Horatio. (The latter thus reprised the part that had also been his in the temporarily "homeless" company's spring 1927 to 1930 productions, first to John Laurie's, then to George Hayes's Hamlet, whereas Howlett had already been Horatio to Sir Frank Benson's Hamlet all the way back in 1915.) Then the play was performed again under the new direction of B. Iden Payne in 1936 and in 1937, both years with Donald Wolfit starring as the Prince and Norman Wooland (who would be Horatio to Sir Laurence Olivier's Hamlet in the latter's 1948 movie) co-starring as Claudius, Valerie Tudor as Ophelia, Eric Maxon as Polonius and Donald Layne-Smith as Guildenstern.
Although there had been no performances in Stratford during the last two years of World War I, the company put on a special effort to keep productions ongoing throughout World War II, whose September 1939 outbreak they answered with a series of performances of "Coriolanus" (the tragedy famously based on the life of a Roman general whose arrogance led him to ruin), whereas the end of the war was first greeted by a production of 18th century Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith's bawdy comedy "She Stoops to Conquer" (whose title, in a double entendre hardly foreseeable by its author, must have sounded strangely apposite to the play's 1945 audience), followed in short order and on a more serious note by William Shakespeare's "Henry VIII," which is substantially concerned with justice, ambition and the limits of a sovereign's power. "Hamlet," too, was performed during three of the wartime seasons, first in 1940 (again directed by B. Iden Payne, with Basil Langdon – the Osric of the 1936 production – in the title role, Clare Harris reprising her performance as Gertrude from the 1937 production, and Donald Layne-Smith as Horatio), then in 1942 (where George Hayes, the late 1920s' Hamlet, returned as the Prince, Balliol Holloway, another particularly experienced actor who had appeared several times as Claudius to Sir Frank Benson's Hamlet in the first two decades of the century, played the Ghost, and Gerald Kay Souper, the Ghost from the 1933 production, morphed into the Doctor of Divinity), and yet again in 1944, with John Byron in the title role, Viola Lyel as Gertrude and W.E. Holloway as the Ghost. George Skillan co-starred as Claudius in the 1942 and 1944 productions, Jay Laurier as the First Gravedigger in 1940 and 1942.
While the company did not miss a beat and went straight back to work in the first two postwar seasons (1946 and 1947), its first production of "Hamlet" after the end of World War II was mounted in 1948, under the new direction of Michael Benthall (who had taken over the company's artistic reins in 1947) and with a new generation of actors: Australian actor/dancer Sir Robert Helpmann alternated with a very young Paul Scofield as the Prince, a likewise blossoming Claire Bloom costarred as Ophelia, Anthony Quayle as Claudius, and Esmond Knight in a double appearance as the Ghost and the First Gravedigger. Led by Glen Byam Shaw, in December 1958/ January 1959 the company took the Prince of Denmark's tragedy, as well as "Twelfth Night" and "Romeo and Juliet" to the Soviet Union, while back home in England, Peter Hall – managing director since 1956 – blew out whatever cobwebs might have remained or resettled in their collective artistic brains with his mid-1960s productions, in summer 1965 in Stratford, then in the winter 1965-66 season at their new venue in London's Aldwych Theatre, and again in Stratford in the spring of 1966. Hall was succeeded by Sir Trevor Nunn, who began directing the company in 1965 and staged his first Stratford production of "Hamlet" (which was later also taken to London's Roundhouse Theatre) in 1970, starring Alan Howard as the Prince, a young Helen Mirren as Ophelia, Brenda Bruce as Gertrude, David Waller as Claudius, Sebastian Shaw as Polonius, and Barry Stanton as the First Gravedigger and Voltemand. Buzz Goodbody, who had first directed a Royal Shakespeare Company ensemble at the Aldwych Theatre in 1968, oversaw the 1974 inaugural performance of "King Lear" at The Other Place, and in the spring of 1975 also a studio production of "Hamlet" featuring Ben Kingsley as the Prince, George Baker as Claudius, Griffith Jones as the Ghost and multiple appearances by several other well-known actors, including Bob Peck (First Player, First Gravedigger, and Norwegian Captain) and Charles Dance (Fortinbras, Reynaldo, and Third Player). The same minimal but high profile cast also appeared during the company's December 1976 resumption of the play as part of the RSC in the Roundhouse Theatregoround Festival.
The 1978 season saw the play moving to a new medium with a part-reversed-roles pantomime production of "Hamlet on Ice," first staged in March of that year in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then in May, with the same cast, at the Young Vic Theatre in London; featuring Jill Baker as the Boy Prince, Bille Brown as Gertrude, Ron Cook as Horatio, Ian McNeice as Guildenstern, Iain Mitchell as Rosencrantz, and Geoffrey Hutchings as a character named Buttons. Two years later, in 1980, the play was back in its original form, directed by John Barton and starring Michael Pennington as Hamlet, Derek Godfrey as Claudius, Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Gertrude, Tony Church as Polonius and Tom Wilkinson as Horatio. The production migrated to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in March 1981, then back to Stratford a month later, and finally to London's Aldwych Thatre in the fall of that year. In 1985, Ron Daniels directed an even greater all-star cast including Roger Rees as the Prince, Brian Blessed as Claudius, Frank Middlemass as Polonius, Frances Barber as Ophelia, Virginia McKenna as Gertrude, Nicholas Farrell as Horatio, a young Kenneth Branagh as Laertes, Bernard Horsfall as the First Player, Christopher Ravenscroft as Rosencrantz, Sebastian Shaw as the First Gravedigger, and Jimmy Yuill as Bernardo and a Sailor, in a production that moved from Newcastle-upon-Tyne with (almost) the same cast to yet another new venue for the company, London's Barbican Theatre. Roger Michell and, again Ron Daniels directed two tours of the play, in October 1987 – February 1988 with Frank Philips in the title role, Tessa Peake-Jones as Ophelia and David Collings as Polonius, and then in September – December 1988 with Mark Rylance as Hamlet, Sylvestra Le Touzel as Ophelia, and Patrick Godfrey as Polonius and the First Gravedigger; a production which (with the addition of Rebecca Saire as Ophelia and Clare Higgins as Gertrude) also returned to Stratford in the spring, and to the Barbican Theatre in London in the fall of 1989.
Sir Kenneth Branagh, who, due to what he felt was inadequate pacing, would famously later recall his first appearance as the Prince of Denmark as the fastest Hamlet on record, starred as the Prince in the play's highly acclaimed 1992 production at the Barbican, directed by Adrian Noble and alongside Jane Lapotaire (Gertrude), John Shrapnel (Claudius), Joanne Pearce (Ophelia), Clifford Rose (the Ghost), David Bradley (Polonius) and Rob Edwards (Horatio). In the spring of 1993, the production moved to Stratford. In 1997, the Prince's mantle passed to Alex Jennings, at whose side appeared, in a more than one year-long series of performances, Paul Freeman as Claudius, Diana Quick (and later Susannah York) as Gertrude, Edward Petherbridge, doubling as the Ghost and the Player King, and Paul Jesson as the Gravedigger; first in Stratford, then in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, then in Plymouth, then at the Barbican, and finally during an American tour in the spring of 1998, which also included performances of "Cymbeline," "Henry VIII," the 16th century morality play "Everyman," and Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape." Samuel West took the play into the new millennium with a 2000 studio production starring Adrian Schiller in the title role, followed by a full-fledged 2001 production directed by Steven Pimlott and starring Mr. West himself as Hamlet, as well as Larry Lamb as Claudius and Alan David as Polonius, which moved from Stratford to Newcastle-upon-Tyne and then to the Barbican. Current RSC managing director Michael Boyd's acclaimed 2004 production starring Toby Stephens, which fully explored the play's sombre Renaissance subtext, constituted another performance highlight for the company and, again, migrated from Stratford to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, followed, however, not by performances at the Barbican but at the Albery Theatre in London. During the 2006-07 Complete Works Festival, finally, the play was performed in a spring 2006 production directed by Janet Suzman, starring South African actors Vaneshran Arumugam as Hamlet, John Kani in the mirror roles of Claudius and the Ghost, Dorothy ann Gould as Gertrude, Roshina Ratnam as Ophelia, Royston Stoffels as Polonius and the Gravedigger, and Adam Neill as Horatio. Finally, in the fall of 2006, in yet another mutation of format, the play was performed by a troupe of Ninja puppeteers.
Even formats like "Hamlet on Ice" and Ninja puppets aside, however, from Sir Laurence Olivier's Old Vic Theatre, the reincarnation of Shakespeare's "Globe" which opened on London's Bankside in 1997, and London's many other great venues in- and outside the West End, to the New York Public Theatre's annual Shakespeare Festival in Central Park (a/k/a "Shakespeare in the Park") and the productions of Shakespeare's plays at the Stratford Festival of Ontario, Canada, countless outstanding venues all over the world today are dedicated to the purpose of honouring and expanding William Shakespeare's theatrical legacy; and there probably isn't a great actor alive (whether British, American, or whichever other nationality) whose resumé does not include "Hamlet" in some prominent fashion or other.
New Globe Theatre, London, England – stage roof
(photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved)
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the advent of cinema added a further dimension to interpretations of the Prince of Denmark's tragedy: the silver screen's unique potential in everything from setting to camera work and lighting brought with it both new artistic approaches as well as an even greater popular appeal. Some of the earliest movies have survived only in bits and pieces (such as the duel scene from the 1900 film starring a 56-year-old (!) Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, a piece of film history now better known as Le Duel d'Hamlet); other projects were, unfortunately abandoned, such as the 1933 movie designed to immortalise John Barrymore's Hamlet, from which only the Ghost Scene (Act I, Scene 5) survives. Yet, as of 2008, the Internet Movie Database lists no less than 124 cinematic adaptations (not even counting major spin-offs like Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," Sir Kenneth Branagh's "Midwinter's Tale," a/k/a "In the Bleak Midwinter," Claude Chabrol's "Ophélia," Akira Kurosawa's "The Bad Sleep Well," Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be, or Not To Be," and Penny Marshall's/Danny DeVito's "Renaissance Man") ... and no, I have not yet seen them all.
Hamlet (Nordisk Film, 1910): One of the play's earliest film adaptations (but by far not the earliest one), and the first of only a handful of productions choosing Helsingør (= Elsinore) as their actual setting. Directed by August Blom, with Alwin Neuß in the title role. Alas, unavailable in a commercial format ... restoration of the material alone would probably cost a fortune. (Where are the Criterion Collection folks when one needs them most?)
Harry Plumb (director)/ Cecil Hepworth (producer) – Hamlet (1913): Not intended as a "movie" in the modern sense but primarily as a cinematic record of the Hamlet of Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, featuring the actor's entire Drury Lane cast of that same year; including his wife Gertrude Elliot (Ophelia) and fellow RSC actors Walter Ringham (Claudius), Percy Rhodes (the Ghost), S.A. Cookson (Horatio) and Sam T. Pearce (Second Gravedigger), all of whom had also appeared with Forbes-Robertson in the play's 1908 Stratford production (Ringham as First Player and Fortinbras), as well as Adelaide Bourne (Gertrude), J.H. Barnes (Polonius), Alex Scott-Gatty (Laertes), J.H. Ryley (First Gravedigger) and Grendon Bentley (Fortinbras). Another one for the Criterion Collection's "to do" list ...
Asta Nielsen – Hamlet (Asta Films, 1921): The great Danish leading lady of silent film was so hell-bent on making this movie (and on starring as a "woman in disguise" version of the title character!) that she ended up founding her own production company. I'd love to see the results ... unfortunately, this, too, has not (yet?) been commercially released on DVD or video and I've so far also failed to catch it on TV.
Laurence Olivier's HAMLET (J. Arthur Rank Films, 1948): Sir Laurence's multiple-award-winning movie, scored by Sir William Turner Walton and based on the stage production first shown at London's Old Vic Theatre and, in 1937, also in the play's original Helsingør/ Elsinore location. In the search for the stamp of [the] one defect that ultimately proves fatal to the Prince, Olivier's Hamlet plumbs the depths of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories. Elegiac and beautifully filmed and, though drastically abbreviated, the first one of my five all-time favourite adaptations and hence, a primary reference throughout this website.
Hamlet (Hindustan Chitra, 1954): Hamlet goes Bombay theatre, directed by Indian film star Kishore Sahu. Not having seen it, I'm not sure how accessible this adaptation is to Western audiences ... but if nothing else, it's a great example of just how universal the play's themes really are.
Hamlet, Prinz von Dänemark (Bavaria Film, 1961): Franz-Peter Wirth directed and Maximilian Schell starred in this adaptation finding itself somewhere between the sombre mood of postwar Germany and the introspections of Goethe's Werther.
Grigori Kozintsev/Iosif Shapiro – Gamlet (Lenfilm Studio, 1963): A celebrated Russian adaptation based on Boris Pasternak's translation of the play and director Kozintsev's earlier stage productions, starring Innokenti Smoktunovsky as the Prince and scored by none other than Dmitri Shostakovich. It rightfully won the Venice Film Festival's Special Jury Prize and was also nominated for several other awards. Commercially available DVDs (with "all region," region 1 and region 5 encoding) have only recently begun to surface outside of Russia, but although I've yet to see one with a full-fledged English language track, it instantly made my "Top Five" list of all-time favourite adaptations based on the directorial choices, the superb acting, visuals, and of course the soundtrack, alone. Another frequent reference throughout this website.
Philip Saville – Hamlet at Elsinore (BBC/Danmarks Radio, 1964): Another production, alas, still awaiting commercial video/DVD transfer: "Hamlet" returns to Elsinore with an all-star cast headed by Christopher Plummer in the title role and also featuring Robert Shaw (Claudius), Alec Clunes (Polonius), Michael Caine (Horatio), June Tobin (Gertrude), Jo Maxwell Muller (Ophelia), Dyson Lovell (Laertes), Roy Kinnear (the Gravedigger) and Donald Sutherland (Fortinbras). Those who have been fortunate enough to catch it on TV (I haven't, to date) seem to proclaim themselves near-uniformly smitten.
Richard Burton's Hamlet (Warner Brothers, 1964): A highly-acclaimed Broadway production directed by Sir John Gielgud and Bill Colleran, filmed during the final dress rehearsal. Notwithstanding the sparse setting, Burton's Prince has got to count among the most dynamic interpretations around (and it was probably even more gripping to a live audience). The antidote to Sir Laurence Olivier's and Kevin Kline's approach!
Shakespeare's Hamlet (Columbia Pictures, 1969): A Roundhouse Theatre production directed by Tony Richardson, starring Nicol Williamson as a rather ill-tempered Prince. Could be subtitled "the Essential Hamlet" – all in all, it's decidedly on the minimalistic side of things; not only because it cuts lines right and left (total running time is just under two hours) but also in the adaptation's overall approach (setting, costumes, etc.). If this one doesn't give you claustrophobia, though, then I don't know what will ...
Hamlet (BBC, 1970): That do I long to hear, or rather, see, in particular, if for no other reason because it's a production starring one of my all-time favourite actors (Sir Ian McKellen – these days, my "dream casting" for Claudius) in the title role.
The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare – HAMLET, Prince of Denmark (BBC, 1980): Part of the BBC's ambitious 1978 – 1985 project bringing all 37 of the Bard's then-attributed (and still existing) plays to the small screen, featuring another one of my favourite actors – Sir Derek Jacobi – as the Prince. But for a few minor omissions it uses the complete text of the play (largely Second Quarto, though occasionally giving preference to the First Folio version) and comprises, like virtually all of this particular BBC series's installments, the gold standard with regard to all major production values, crowned by a no-holds-barred performance by Sir Derek himself. The third of my five all-time favourite interpretations of the play and thus, likewise frequently referenced throughout this website. Sir Derek, of course, still easily fills the shoes of almost any of the play's major characters ... for proof, you don't have to look any further than his Claudius in the Branagh movie. As for my own little dream project, I'd particularly love to see him as Polonius.
Tragiska Historien om Hamlet – Prins av Danmark (Swedish TV, 1985): Not available on video or DVD – I'm not even sure whether it was ever released outside of Sweden at all; but the mere fact that Stellan Skarsgård played the Prince sounds interesting enough. (Directed by Ragnar Lyth, btw.)
Hamlet Liikemaailmassa ("Hamlet Goes Business" – Villealfa Filmproduction/Finnkino, 1987): Aki Kaurismäki does Shakespeare, bringing together a neonoir setting and the cutthroat late 20th century business environment; starring Pirkka-Pekka Petelius as the Prince. And if you thought the piece was dark as Shakespeare had written it, you ain't seen nothin' yet!
Franco Zeffirelli – HAMLET (Warner Brothers, 1990): A succinct rendition of the play starring Mel Gibson in the title role. Though cutting out roughly half the tragedy's content (including the better part of the major soliloquies' lines except for "To be, or not to be"), it manages to efficiently bring the play to modern audiences while at the same time maintaining a medieval setting. The fourth of my five all-time favourite adaptations and another frequent reference throughout this website.
William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Broadway Theatre Archive/PBS, 1990): A made-for-TV adaptation of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival production starring Kevin Kline. Modern dress, excising all political references and altogether more "melancholy" than "madness," but an interesting, very watchable concept which, to a modern audience, should be almost as accessible as Zeffirelli's movie from the same year. (Personally, though, I do have to admit a certain partiality for the movie's medieval setting, and I also fundamentally disagree with the omission of the play's political context, as well as with a number of aspects of the New York cast's reading of the major characters; including but not limited to that of the Prince himself, whom I see by far not as close to suicide as Mr. Kline).
Hamlet (Interactive Film Productions, 1992): A contemporary Finnish version directed by Jotaarkka Pennanen and starring Heikki Kinnunen, reportedly filmed largely outdoors (in natural caves, etc.) and featuring a 15 x 70 m copy of Michelangelo's "Last Judgement" as a background painting – a fact that ensured the movie an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Haven't seen it, but it sounds interesting ... provided there's an English language version somewhere: I'm afraid my Finnish is a bit rusty, and unlike in Kosintzev's essentially historic setting, I'm not entirely sure I'd be able to follow a contemporary outdoors adaptation without any language skills whatsoever. (Te käsittää?)
William Shakespeare's HAMLET – A Kenneth Branagh Film (Castle Rock Entertainment/Columbia Pictures, 1996): The first widely successful cinematic adaptation using the play's entire text (as reproduced in The Oxford Shakespeare – The Complete Works, gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1986/2005); a luxurious production which transposes the play to a 19th century setting and in the process, manages to celebrate both the story itself and the movie's own director and star (as well as the rest of the cast list, which reads like a virtual "who is who" of contemporary cinema). The final entry in my "Top Five" list of all-time favourite adaptations and, like the four others, frequently referenced throughout this website.
Michael Almereyda/Ethan Hawke – hamlet (Miramax Films, 2000): Hamlet goes "grunge" and film school in a postmodern New York City setting, Marcellus becomes Horatio's girlfriend Marcella, Shakespeare's language is tampered with (not only by way of cuts but also by actual rewriting) ... alas, altogether more "miss" than "hit" in my humble opinion. At the very least, not recommended as an introduction for newbies.
Campbell Scott – Hamlet (Hallmark Entertainment, 2000): Also not a version I'd recommend to first-time viewers, but a decidedly more interesting approach transposing the play to turn-of-the-century Long Island, with an African American Polonius clan and a Prince actually teetering on the brink of madness (though in a remarkably quiet way).
Copyright 2002 – 2009: Ulrike Böhm, all rights reserved.