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The role to die for


As David Tennant prepares to take on Hamlet, Michael Billington picks the 10 greatest performances of the part that celebrates – and defines – the art of acting.


The Guardian, 31st July 2008, Michael Billington


Oscar Wilde famously said that “there is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet … there are so many Hamlets as there are melancholies”. One see his point: there is something elusive and unpindownable about the role and, of all the great parts, this is one that most encompasses an actor’s individuality. David Tennant’s Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon next week will doubtless be very different from Jude Law’s in London next year. For this reason the role will continue to attract actors of all ages, races and genders for as long as theatre survives.


But, in considering the best Hamlets I’ve seen in 50 years of theatre- (and cinema-) going, I am struck by several facts. One is that the romantic tradition of Hamlet as a figure of introspective melancholy – “the gloomy Dane” – has long been supplanted by an emphasis on a host of other qualities : his wit, irony, intellectual agility, sexual confusion and frequent brutality. This, after all, is a man capable of murdering any number of people except the one who really matters: his uncle Claudius.


The restoration of the full text, and the rise of the director, has also led to a decisive shift in attitudes. We no longer shred the play, so that it becomes a succession of solo arias with all the other characters reduced to figures in Hamlet’s dream. Directors and designers are also expected to give us a portrait of Elsinore itself: a political tyranny based on ceaseless eavesdropping. For me, the fullest realisation of this was a 1977 production by the Russian director, Yuri Lyubimov, one that was dominated by a vast, woven curtain, which swung backwards and forwards and reminded us that Elsinore was a police state where the walls had holes as well as ears.


In choosing my 10 favourite Hamlets, I have opted for strict chronology rather than a preferential league table. And while any consideration of the great Hamlets is also a celebration of the art of acting itself, I hope to shred some light on the way the role has combined self-revelation with a response to the times through which each actor lived.


Michael Redgrave (Stratford, 1958)


Innokenty Smoktunovsky (Russian film, 1964)


David Warner (Stratford, 1965)


Derek Jacobi (Elsinore, 1979)


Michael Pennington (Stratford, 1980)


Pennington must be the only actor who has not just played Hamlet, but written an illuminating book about the play. He is an intellectual who arguably has as great an understanding of the text as any scholar. At a time when lesser actors were starting to treat Hamlet as a nerdy slob, Pennington gave us the full Monty: a Hamlet who was both passion’s slave and capable of dissecting the speeches with a postgraduate intelligence. The one thing Hamlet can never be is stupid. Pennington gave us not only the character’s quicksilver mind but, in John Barton’s Pirandellian production, the sense that he was digging for essential truth in a world where everyone was caught up in theatrical role-playing.


Jonathan Pryce (Royal Court, 1980)


Stephen Dillane (Gielgud theatre, 1994)


Kenneth Branagh (film, 1996)


Angela Winkler (Edinburgh, 2000)


Simon Russell Beale (National Theatre, 2000)


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