Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

Cue for passion

The Guardian 17th September 1981

Michael Pennington, the current RSC Hamlet, who brings Elsinore to the Aldwych tonight, describes his reaction to tackling the aspiring actor’s dream role.

I find this rather difficult. I have been in only half a dozen Shakespeares in my life, but I could speak more comfortably about any of them than about Hamlet, supposedly the most discussable of them all.

It’s a special play of course, a white magic play and the central character is the best straight part I know of – which is the rub, because the actor is being judged on what he is as much as what he does. It’s not a matter of imagining power so absolute that you may at will divide your kingdom into three, or of glimpsing unwashable blood on your fingers; the emotional issues in Hamlet are closer at hand for most of us, and the part uses up most of what the actor knows about life, and a bit beside.

After a year of it I can most safely report what is obvious enough perhaps: that the part brings many rewards but it can also break your back. When things go sweetly you could do three performances a day and still be the last to leave the party, and at other times the part shakes you like a rat. Some nights the sound of the audience assembling is like a mating call; at others it sounds like the baying of wolves. It is best to be very fit and ready each time but it can be done on no sleep at all if need be.

Special though it is, I sometimes wonder if the whole thing isn’t too much of an Event. The contemporary tyranny of being defined as a Hamlet of the sixties, the eighties, the Uncut Hamlet, the Dissident Hamlet, is more oppressive than the longer shadows of the past. And when the definition is over, most of us, unlike the actors of the pre-war generation, are unlikely to get another chance; there are too many Hamlets-elect waiting.

Reinterpreting Shakespeare is a circular business. You cut the play down to the bone, grow your own muscle on it, and then someone cuts that away and discards it as part of the past. In the early days, trying to shed what I’d seen before, I got a number of innocent surprises.

I’d somehow assumed that the play was politically hot – but it isn’t; the converging lines of those eight characters are insistently personal. For a good dialectical read you’re better off turning up ‘Measure for Measure’ or ‘Coriolanus.’

I had thought it would be easy to cut the text, but every subtle piece of filleting hurt. Of all plays it is the least hidden, the least theoretical, the most urgent to get off the page and onto its feet, and since the complexities are, so to speak, so obvious, the simplest acting choices are invariably the best. In rehearsal I didn’t feel under the shadow of countless predecessors, and the preparation was as much athletic as aesthetic.

When it came to performance, more surprises. I’d always assumed that everyone knew the story but have found that it’s possible to trick people into forgetting that they do so sharp are the narrative angles; and those are the best moments of all. I had thought Hamlet was defined by his relations with his neighbours; now I know that his most intimate relationship is with the audience, and that confidentiality is richly rewarded.

Day to day, I get ready for it much as for any other play, only rather more so – I don’t get into the theatre early unless I’m rattled, in which case I might be there from teatime. It’s important to enter the play sharply but without striving and not to unwind too much in England in the fourth Act.

The Stratford opening was still exploratory, it’s taken a long time, over 120 performances, to get to London and much has happened in between.

It’s impossible not to be changed by the part, and the part, more than most, will be changed by the evidence of your own life. The death of an old friend over Christmas naturally pulled my centre of gravity over to the scene with the skulls, and an habitual sense of impending disaster always ties me on to the moments before the duel. When I used to worry about this sort of thing, I would set to writing Hamlet-riddles to put some distance between us!

“The external world is proceeding smoothly. The court is attractive, warm-hearted, congenial; they all understand one another. The difficult thing is to stand apart from this seductive world.

“This one man who does have a nightmare in which he picks up a message declaring that the external world is riddled with corruption and its leader a murderer and adulterer. It is inconceivable. The benighted dreamer looks about for conformation of his fantastic dream and finds none. Nobody acknowledged even the possibility of guilt.

“An entertainment devised to expose the guilty is dismissed as a social embarrassment. The man must be mistaken, and his dream truly a nightmare. His reason totters and he begins to despair. Events overtake him and he finds himself the hero of an adventure story that in the end destroys him. Before dying he does indeed destroy his enemy, though still holding no clear proof of his guilt.

“By the end the man has killed three people and caused the death of others. He has still not exposed the crime to the outside world. He has only trusted the logic of his dream; and by an extraordinary and deep irony, his instinct was true.”

In the end the blind jump of performance is more interesting than all the cautious breakthroughs of rehearsal. Though the one obviously anchors the other. The show slips in and out of the repertoire, developing at its own speed, sometime standing still for months and then jolting forward in the course of a single evening.

Coming into London we are all different people, and what was right then may not be now, you can never rerun the past in the theatre, least of all the previous evening, and to try takes the breath out of a live thing. There has to be a first night to have a judgment on, but it is years out of date after the second. How can you photograph the sap of a tree?

All sorts of things happen. I heard of a Hamlet who found Guildenstern so offensive one night that he knocked him down, and there was another who got into trouble with a trunk. I believe that Junius Brutus Booth once sat up in the flies during one of his own performances crowing like a rooster and refusing to come down unto Andrew Jackson was re-elected President. Now there’s a political Hamlet.

Myself, I hope to stay in control, but you never know. All that’s happened so far equips me only to go back to the beginning and start again. A cherished king and father has gone, and a ghost is walking. For all of us, the readiness is, it is to be hoped, all.

Return to Hamlet