“Buzz, buzz”

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“You can play it standing, sitting, lying down, or, if you insist, kneeling.  You can have a hangover. You can be cold-sober. You can be hungry, overfed, or have just fought with your wife.”  (Gene Fowler)

I’m sure that Rory Kinnear (who is playing Hamlet at The National Theatre from September) will take comfort from the fact that when it comes to playing Shakespeare’s “sweet prince” it seems that the sky’s the limit as far as performance choices go.  Hamlets come in all shapes and sizes. Painters have often pictured him as being tall, lithe, and sinewy, but actors need not reduce their intake of carbs to fit into the prince’s “inky cloak”.  During the duel which closes the play Gertrude comments that her son is “fat and scant of breath” – how motherly of her to point that out when he is fighting for his life! Hamlets have been seen to wander around Elsinore in their pyjamas, carrying guns, clutching bottles of liquor, smoking – though not necessarily all at the same time.! And,” To be or not to be” has been spoken in a whisper – in despair – with a laugh – with great fear – with profound concentration – and with audience members  mouthing along .

Nicholas Hytner, who is directing the production, and who will have seen multiple productions of the drama, will play an important role in guiding Rory’s portrayal. Together they will make decisions about setting, costuming, and design that will shape a new interpretation of this famous work.  Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his murdered father who commands “Remember me”. Will Rory Kinnear also be haunted by memories of David Tennant and Jude Law’s performances of the role just last year? Will he decide to have another look at Kenneth Brannagh and Laurence Olivier’s films of the play, or would he prefer to try and “wipe away all trivial fond records” of productions past from his mind’s eye?

Rory might take comfort to hear that the success of The National Theatre’s forthcoming production does not rest on his shoulders alone – according to this anecdote the play can be performed with some success without Hamlet even making an appearance:

“Hamlet was to have been played at the Richmond Theatre by an inexperienced actor called Cubit who had previously only been given small, walk-on-parts. His debut as the Prince of Denmark had not been much relished, by the first night audience.  This so undermined Cubit’s confidence that he was taken unwell on the second night just before curtain-up.  With Hamlet ailing in his dressing room the manager was obliged to request that the audience ‘suffer a production’ which omitted him entirely.  According to Sir Walter Scott the play was better received than on its first night, and many of the audience felt that it was an improvement on the complete play.”

Earlier this year I worked with the RSC and the BBC to produce a performance history of Hamlet to support the release of their DVD starring David Tennant  – you can access this at http://www.bbc.co.uk/hamlet/past_productions/rsc_stage_1989.shtml . There are some super production photos on this site, supplied by our SBT library. Along with the commentary the photos give  a sense of how the play has been staged in Stratford over the last 100 or so years. It will be interesting to see what the National’s forthcoming production adds to this play’s performance history.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Nick Walton

    Thanks for your resposne Andrew. I wasn’t aware of Nabil Shaban’s performance, so I’ll have to look that one up. Thanks for the pointer.

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks for your resposne Andrew. I wasn’t aware of Nabil Shaban’s performance, so I’ll have to look that one up. Thanks for the pointer.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    I'm glad to see your link defaults to Mark Rylance's Hamlet, easily the best I've ever seen! I'm not sure you can read too much into 'fat and scant of breath' (I don't think scholars are unanimous on the aged 30 reference either) but apart from a range of ages and physical types I also saw Frances De La Tour play a female Hamlet at The Half Moon Theatre in 1980 and, although I didn't see it, I gather Nabil Shaban was an excellent wheelchair-bound Hamlet in 1988. I'm sure part of the enduring appeal of Shakespeare's plays is the lack of stage directions and physical descriptions so every generation of actors, directors and audiences can rediscover the plays for themselves.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    I'm glad to see your link defaults to Mark Rylance's Hamlet, easily the best I've ever seen! I'm not sure you can read too much into 'fat and scant of breath' (I don't think scholars are unanimous on the aged 30 reference either) but apart from a range of ages and physical types I also saw Frances De La Tour play a female Hamlet at The Half Moon Theatre in 1980 and, although I didn't see it, I gather Nabil Shaban was an excellent wheelchair-bound Hamlet in 1988. I'm sure part of the enduring appeal of Shakespeare's plays is the lack of stage directions and physical descriptions so every generation of actors, directors and audiences can rediscover the plays for themselves.

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