“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.