A Pride of Hamlets

'It is we who are Hamlet,' wrote Coleridge in a moment of supreme identification with the troubled heir to the throne of Denmark. Yet even that great romantic poet might have registered puzzlement at the number of young actors who have recently been presenting the problems of the Shakespearean prince to audiences throughout the country.

Alan Bates' Nottingham Playhouse version, which opened earlier this month at the Cambridge, seems unlikely to call a halt to last year's rich Hamlet harvest. Already Ian McKellen has been signed to play the prince for Prospect Productions, and at Harrogate Martin Potter steps from the Fellini Satyricon to literature's Mona Lisa in 1971's new year crop of productions. And in March Richard Chamberlain's TV Hamlet invades the sitting rooms of England.

In interview with Peter Ansorge and Peter Roberts this month, four of the new interpreters of the part talk to P&P and discuss why our theatres are currently so Hamlet-obsessed. Though the answers ranged from the practical to the speculative, each of the interviewees would probably agree with David Warner's comment on the role - 'I don't know whether I learnt a great deal about Hamlet. But I learnt an awful lot about myself.'

Hamlets interviewed were:

Alan Bates 'Hamlet is the inner person of all time'

Richard Chamberlain 'I don't think Hamlet was cut out to be a king'

Alan Howard 'Why did Old Hamlet send his son to Wittenberg?'

Peter McEnery 'Fifty per cent of Hamlet is all energy'

Why did Old Hamlet send his son to Wittenberg?

Alan Howard was rehearsing Peter Brook's production of the Dream in a rehearsal room in Covent Garden prior to its New York run at the Billy Rose Theatre on Broadway. Paradoxically, Howard was preparing himself for star-billing, whilst the three others, with prestigious film and TV roles behind them, had chosen the comparative exile of playing Hamlet in the provinces. Howard's Hamlet, which was seen at Stratford last season and is due at the Aldwych this year, is inseparable from its context in the work of the RSC. It is also inseparable from the name of the director, Trevor Nunn. Perhaps for this reason Howard's performance has been interpreted as an unsympathetic, hyper-neurotic Hamlet. Certainly, Howard is not a Prince Charming of the sort to seduce a blue-rinsed matinee audience. But in fact he was able to give a unique, and deeply-felt account of his Hamlet which seemed to cover territory that a more glamorous view of the perplexed prince might shy away from.

Alan Howard as Hamlet

'The RSC is not yet at the point where we can prepare a production months ahead - with discussions, preparation, and work with the other actors. Often the rest of the cast are abroad or working in London right up until the first rehearsal. The main advantage is that you know the work of the other actors, or rather you don't, but your relationship with them is allowed to develop in a way that isn't easily achieved outside the RSC with an ad hoc company.

'Trevor Nunn first suggested my playing Hamlet after my Jaques in As You Like It. And later I spent three days discussing Hamlet at Cambridge when I was playing in Dr Faustus there. Trevor gave a clear picture of the kind of society he was interested in presenting - but he realised that the performance would finally depend on the individual personality of the actor playing Hamlet.

'Every actor is able to identify with some aspect of Hamlet's character - but this is often done at the expense of the whole, the complete personality. I became involved in the many facets of the man, the incredible range of his intellectual and emotional life, his magnificent and very proper inconsistency. I found that Hamlet could only face the situation he is in by being an actor, constantly changing his masks and various personae. Hamlet responds above all to immediate situations - it's this rather than reflective detachment which makes him unique. He takes every situation to the furthest point it will go - the breaking point.'

To turn Hamlet into an 'actor' himself, assuming different roles and personalities at a moment's notice, is certainly a remarkable solution, and the play scene became a momentous turning-point in Howard's interpretation. For this Hamlet has lost himself amongst the appearances of the real world - and is unable to locate its true meaning or purpose: 'Hamlet has been given to this kind of enquiry long before he meets his father's ghost. For such a man to say he is going to "feign madness" must be a deep cause of concern to Horatio. The latter has reached a position of stillness and tranquillity in his relation to the world.

'But for Hamlet - where is the dividing line between assumed madness and real madness? He is trying to find a link between reality and seeming, truth and acting. Thus he is capable of losing control - of killing Polonius without knowing what he is doing. If Horatio, afterwards, asked him what he had been doing that night, he wouldn't have been able to give a coherent answer. He forgets about Polonius immediately after the killing - it's gone out of his mind. In the final scene, when he has gained a maturity and kind of serenity, it might be that Hamlet is the only sane person on the stage, and the rest of the court, who are "performing" are mad - or not, depending on your definition of madness. "Mad" is such an imprecise, unscientific word. Claudius uses the term as a convenience - so he can forget about the problems of Hamlet. He casts Hamlet as the court jester.'

Howard explained that Trevor Nunn had attached great importance to Hamlet's university education at Wittenberg. It was the Lutheran university and Hamlet would have returned to the Catholic society of Elsinore impregnated by the 'new philosophy', claimed Howard. 'Hamlet refers to himself as a "scourge and minister" of heaven - he has returned from Wittenberg with the protestant idea of individual responsibility in his mind. Claudius is the other side of the Catholic culture - eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we confess. When, in the prayer scene, he tries to come to terms with himself, outside the confession box in the protestant way, he can't succeed.

'The strongest influence on Hamlet is, perhaps, his dead father. Obviously he had been a stern, austere Catholic king. In other words, Hamlet had a very unsatisfactory relationship with his father which predates the play. He has a mum problem, but it's the dad problem that fascinated me. Why had Old Hamlet sent his son to Wittenberg - not only the university of Lutheran ideas, but also of political dissent - the revolution? Did the Old Hamlet suspect Claudius and send Hamlet away to hide what was going on from him? We never resolved this.

'When Hamlet returns to Elsinore, Ophelia has blossomed and quite naturally they fall in love. We had a long discussion about whether they made love together. Trevor finally didn't think they had. Helen Mirren (who played Ophelia) and I both did. But probably in secret - a short slot, bringing an added tension to their relationship. When Hamlet first sees Ophelia in the nunnery scene she is playing a role which infuriates him. He starts playing a similar cool role ("I loved you not") - which suddenly makes Ophelia reveal her true feelings of love ("I was the more deceived") - but Hamlet interprets this as another role, not the truth. So he loses control. Just a few honest words would have saved the situation. But they communicate on different levels - Hamlet mistakes reality for seeming.'

Howard sees the relevance of Hamlet as integral to the Prince's doubts about the values of the world in which he is living: 'It's common to our own world - an individual who has learnt a certain amount, a kind of wisdom, suddenly faces a situation where his values don't apply any more - he sees people acting in other contradictory ways. He loses his absolute and the development of his personality is affected. This is what the "Rogue and peasant slave" speech expresses (Howard's choice amongst the monologues) - a desire to reconcile seeming and truth.'


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Playing Shakespeare/Hamlet