Performing Hamlet by Jonathan Croall

Reviewed by Harriet

Back in 2015 I wrote a review for Shiny (here) of Jonathan Croall’s Performing King Lear, a wonderfully well-researched survey of performances of this great and challenging play. Now Croall is back with a discussion of no less than forty-three performances of Hamlet, beginning in the 1950s and ending in 2017, with a link provided to twenty-two more available to read online. Hamlet is ‘arguably the most famous play on the planet’, so it is not surprising that there was a wealth of material available here on the multitude of approaches to the play.

While Lear is a milestone for more mature actors, Hamlet is a part that all leading actors desire to play at the high point of their careers. The age of the character in Shakespeare’s play is never specified, but he must be assumed to be young, as he’s just graduated from university. That hasn’t stopped a few people playing the part nearing middle age – Michael Redgrave, in the 1950s, was the oldest at 50. Indeed the closest to the character’s real age was probably Ben Whishaw, who was 23 when he played the part in a 2004 production by Trevor Nunn at the Old Vic. But age is rarely a major consideration – interpretation is the crucial thing, and just like with Lear, many questions about the character need to be addressed by the actor and director before the rehearsal period even begins.

One burning issue is whether Hamlet genuinely goes mad, as some interpretations chose to present. Certainly there are moments when he appears to behave irrationally, but he says early on that at times he will choose to ‘put an antic disposition on’, and he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that ‘I am but mad north north west; when the wind is southerly I can tell a hawk from a handsaw’ – leaving aside the handsaw, this seems to suggest that he’s saying he’s pretending. Or is he? Actors and directors have been divided on this point. Then we have the question of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, which is seen by the castle guards and by Hamlet himself but appears to be invisible to his mother when it appears in her bedroom. Unless she actually does see it, as a few productions have decided. And how, in any case is the ghost to be presented? (In one extremely memorable production I was lucky enough to see, Jonathan Pryce played a Hamlet who was taken over by a kind of demonic possession, the ghost’s voice issuing terrifyingly from the depths of his own body). And what about the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia – were they lovers before the events of the play caused Hamlet to reject her? Then there’s the eternal question of whether, and what, to cut from a play that in its entirety can last up to five hours.

All these things, obviously will have a bearing on how the actor plays the part, and so too will the director’s choice of how to stage the whole production. In earlier eras it was not uncommon to use period costumes and sets, but in recent years it seems to have come to be almost a given that the play is done in a form of modern dress. At least two fairly recent productions have presented Claudius’s court as a totalitarian state complete with CCTV spying on its inhabitants. Stage settings have ranged from the representational and naturalistic to the brutalist and minimalist.

We learn a lot about the importance of the director in this book – there are many instances of directors working with the leading actor for a considerable time before the rest of the cast is assembled, and many will have immersed themselves in a great deal of background reading before embarking on the project at all. Actors seem to do this less, though Jude Law is a notable exception:

I examined different theories, and gained a sense of Hamlet’s place in theatrical history. I read memoirs of great actors who had played the part, Gielgud in particular. Certain works raised useful questions on my mind. I found out what was going on when Shakespeare wrote the play, what was inspiring him to write such a revolutionary work….I examined texts which Shakespeare might have been reading, such as Montaigne’s Essays, which are incredibly similar to the soliloquies. All this planted interesting seeds in my mind.

We learn a great deal about Jude Law’s approach to the part because he is one of the five actors who Croall was able to interview in depth for the book. The others were Simon Russell Beale, David Tennant, Maxine Peake, and Adrian Lester. He also interviewed six leading directors. But this is not to suggest the the remaining actors and directors are given short shrift. Some names will be more familiar than others: Alec Guinness and Richard Burton in the 50s, Ian McKellan and Albert Finney in the 70s, Mark Rylance and Daniel Day Lewis in the 80s, Maxine Peake and Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2010s, for example, and among the directors Peter Hall and Peter Brook. But the relative fame of the actor is not necessarily an indication of their success in the role and there are accounts of some fascinating-sounding performances by names I’d scarcely heard of. Occasional directors have cast against gender and colour: there are two female Hamlets here – Frances de la Tour in the 70s and Maxine Peake in 2014 – and two black Hamlets, Adrian Lester and Paapa Esiedu. The last section of the book, subtitled ‘Hamlet Observed’, is a blow by blow account of John Caird’s 2000 production with Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet. This takes us through the first genesis and planning stages, through rehearsals, the tour and the London opening.

All in all this is an extremely impressive work which will be of great interest not only to actors and directors tackling this most demanding of plays but also to people studying Hamlet as a work of literature.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Jonathan Croall, Performing Hamlet: Actors in the Modern Age (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2018). 978-1350030756, 198pp., paperback original.

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