Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The best Hamlet of all time

In the Autumn term 1989 my wife and I (we were both English teachers with A level classes) took a group of students to see Hamlet at the Olivier. To be honest, neither of us was particularly enthusiastic at the prospect: when you have studied and taught a great play several times it is very rare that any production can come close to delivering on all of the power and subtlety of the text itself. However we recognised the importance for the students of engaging with the play in performance, so off we went. The actor billed to play the title role was Daniel Day-Lewis, which explained the high takeup rate amongst the female members of our classes, but did not fill us with unalloyed joy: the prospect of his taking the method acting approach he used in My Left Foot to this part was not a pleasant one.

We arrived at the theatre and somehow got the students to their seats (like herding cats, as usual). Someone had seen a notice that Day-Lewis was indisposed, but they hadn't seen who was taking the lead role. Our spirits sank further.

However, from Hamlet's first soliloquy in Act 1 scene 2 something electric happened. I cannot abide the "classic actorrr" approach of declaiming Shakespearean soliloquies and this was nothing like that. The actor playing Hamlet spoke the lines "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt/Thaw and resolve itself into a dew" as if for the first time, and as if he was simply voicing aloud the tortured thoughts running through his brain. When he said "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,/Seem to me all the uses of this world" the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Neither of us recognised him- he looked as if he had been handsome but his face was puffy and he moved as if beyond exhaustion.

There were other parts of the production that captivated me, though it is the performance of the title role that left the strongest impression. One other detail does stick in the mind though, as it revealed a hitherto unsuspected (at least by me) gem of Shakespeare's brilliance. In Act 2 scene 1 as Polonius is instructing Reynaldo to go and spy on Laertes the following exchange took place:
POLONIUS: …He closes with you in this consequence;
'Good sir,' or so, or 'friend,' or 'gentleman,'
According to the phrase or the addition
Of man and country.
REYNALDO: Very good, my lord.
POLONIUS: And then, sir, does he this--he does ...

and then the actor playing Polonius stopped. There was silence. Which went on. That terrible, embarrassed silence of a theatre audience when an actor has forgotten his lines. And then he resumed with:
"what was I
about to say? By the mass, I was about to say
something: where did I leave?
REYNALDO: At 'closes in the consequence,' at 'friend or so,'
and 'gentleman.'"

and I suddenly realised that Reynaldo's lines were those of a prompter. The long, embarrassing pause was there in the text after all. Yet again, Shakespeare had played with the willing suspension of disbelief and reminded us that this was a play. I had delighted in these elements of Hamlet before (the way Polonius and Claudius play the role of audience in the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia; the way Hamlet greets the actors for the play within the play; Hamlet's mentioning of the "roof fretted with golden fire"- a reference to the newly reguilded stage canopy in the Globe, etc.) but until that production I had never noticed this one.

At the interval I went and bought a programme (virtually unheard of for me) and discovered that the actor playing the Hamlet role was Ian Charleson, he of Chariots of Fire. That surprised us, as he was virtually unrecognisable as the handsome archetype of male athleticism of that film. However the second half was as powerful as the first and even the potentially farcical last scene was profoundly moving.

Later we found out more. The change in lead caused some notoriety at the time- Daniel Day-Lewis had walked out mid-performance claiming that he had seen the ghost of his dead father (method acting, see?) and citing exhaustion. No explanation was given at the time for Ian Charleson's changed appearance, but eight weeks later he died of AIDs, having requested that that fact be made public. He was the first high profile figure to be acknowledged as having died of the disease.

Now we understood, and now if anything the hairs stood up even more on the back of the neck in memory. Sir Ian McKellen said of the performance that we had seen that "Charleson played Hamlet so well it was as if he had rehearsed the role all his life." When we thought we were hearing him not declaiming the soliloquies but voicing the tortured thoughts running through his brain maybe we were not far off the mark. Hamlet is a play about sex and death, about disgust with the physicality of the body, about "the flattering unction [that] /will but skin and film the ulcerous place,/ Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,/ Infects unseen." Imagine playing that part whilst dying of AIDs- a disease at that time still shrouded in shame and hypocrisy and disgust.

I feel privileged to have witnessed this performance, but glad that I knew nothing about Ian Charleson's condition at the time. Had I known I don't think I could have beared to watch, and then I would have missed the best Hamlet of all time.


  1. What, you mean better than Mel Gibson's?

  2. Well in fact I thought Mel Gibson was nothing like as bad as I had feared (considering Zeffirelli was inspired to cast him by seeing him contemplating suicide in Lethal Weapon!) But yes, even better than Mel Gibson.
    Actually for me Hamlet the play is so much about the theatre itself that it would be hard to conceive of it as a truly successful film.