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The thing with this play

The Independent, 2nd November 1994

As Michael Pennington prepares for this fifth Hamlet (the second for Peter Hall), the actor replays scenes with David Warner, Marianne Faithfull, Nicol Williamson, Tony Richardson, Olivier, Gielgud and a cast of thousands.

In 1965 Peter Hall showed me how to play Fortinbras. It was much my best part to date. But the previous year I had been an undergraduate Hamlet, directed in Cambridge by Gabor Cossa, a Hungarian antique dealer and enthusiastic amateur who once a year locked up his shop and put on a play. We had cooked up our production in the back room, among the dusty clocks. It went OK: George Steiner, no less, enthused about it in the Guardian, though a local critic did note that “some gestures tended towards monotony”. A year later, delivering my valediction over David Warner’s Prince at Stratford, I reckoned I was cooking.

Fortinbras, Peter said, was a glamorous political opportunist who can hardly believe his luck, arriving at the end to find the crowned heads dead all around. You can imagine the result: a performance of precocious deliberation and self-indulgence that must have been more keenly felt by the dead Court of Denmark, holding mortally still after four hours’ work while I laboured through my  moment. I found my place better earlier in the evening as the bottom half of the Ghost, a 10ft figure theoretically played by Patrick Magee but really a kind of two-tiered zimmer frame on wheels. The operator peered blindly through a small grille in the belly of the beast, the back of his head pressed into the loins of Magee, who stood on the upper tier, his arms in the great arms of the model, his head in the helmet. I was that operator. The steeply raked stage had a deep winching channel cut down its centre, a few millimetres wider than the wheels of my machine, as I often parlously found. Then Magee left the cast, leaving a recording behind, and another supernumerary was brought in to join me, miming the action on the upper deck (a cushy job, I thought). The director asks me to point out that the whole device was a folly of his youth: and indeed it was eventually cut, unwisely leaving me free to sit and prepare for Fortinbras.

The production, and David Warner’s performance, based on a provisional political alienation which anticipated the Paris événements by three years, became famous and rightly so: it combined theatricality with a fascination with the warp and woof of politics. It was certainly strong enough to contain an aggrieved young actor in a zimmer frame and a narcissistic Fortinbras.

I played Laertes in 1969, the first full-scale at the Roundhouse, home of Centre 42, idealism battling in the place with patchouli and dankness. The casting ranged from Gordon Jackson and Judy Parfitt in the north to Michael Elphick and Marianne Faithfull in the south, Roger Livesey and Mark Dignam in the east to Anthony Hopkins and Anjelica Huston in the west, with Nicol Williamson in the middle,  baleful and tender, an object lesson in passionate commitment. Elsewhere the show was a riot of individualism, all bones and muscle and not much brain, and too many of us in the middle ranks were taking chemical risks for things to stay stable for very long. The director Tony Richardson presided over the event with a sort of piratical laissez-faire, dispensing provocatively incomplete ideas like incest between Laertes and Ophelia (“just grab his cock, Marianne”). The show had balls all right and a terrific Hamlet, but a rather conventional air, and no politics.

I rejoined the RSC in 1974 and learned that John Barton had an idea to do the play with me. I immediately felt a great peace, which soon gave way to a more or less permanent anxiety. Six years later (the interim being mine), we did the production. I pause: what can a man say about his own Hamlet? The part is like a pane of clear glass disclosing the actor to a greedy audience; and playing it changes you for good, and for the better. It may not advance a career, often marking the end of a sequence of work rather than the beginning; it may bring eccentric benefits, in my case the freedom of the city of Assisi. Some nights the part felt like slipping on a tailored glove, others it drove me crazy mad; I can remember a spectator calling “Don’t do it!” when Osric brought Laertes’ challenge to duel, and severe food poisoning in the first soliloquy, causing the understudy to start like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons. John Barton wanted a graceful Hamlet to balance the recent wave of caustic ones: meanwhile, I thumped Ophelia resoundingly to the floor in the Nunnery Scene. Many kind and unforgettable things were said to me; on the other hand James Fenton, not yet Professor of Poetry, called it Hamlet, Prune of Denmark, and then reprinted his review in an anthology of his writing, so his kindly description now has a permanent place in many of the lavatories of the land.

During the run, I spent the day with Laurence Olivier. He was my first Hamlet, in the film, and I still think it very fine. At the moment of sighting me he declared that I had dyed my hair for the part, just as he had; I privately hoped that my highlights were more subtle than his had been. Nine years later, on the day that he died, it happened that I was filming John Mortimer’s Summer’s Lease in Tuscany. John Gielgud and Susan Fleetwood on one sofa, myself on another with Fyodor Chaliapin, the son of the great singer, now himself nearly 90. Colin Rogers, the producer, came on the set, sorry to break in, but he felt he must inform is that Olivier had died. Everyone tried not to look at Gielgud. Chaliapin, a little hard of hearing, continued to tell me what the painter Repin had said to him in 1913. I interrupted him. “Fyodor, I think I should tell you that Laurence Olivier has died.” “Aaaagh!” cried Chaliapin, on a fierce intake of breath, and extravagantly raising his hands before his face clapped them together in dismay. When they separated, a large fly lay horribly crushed in one palm. Now, when I think of the passing of Olivier, this crushed fly is what I see. But what I hear is the voice of Gielgud, talking later about his own feelings for Olivier. His voice - generous, humorous and sad - was Hamlet’s own.

Preparing to open Gielgud’s theatre, we toured Peter Hall’s third production of the play this summer to the Herodes Atticus amphitheatre in Athens. Gertrude comes forward to report the drowning of Ophelia like the messenger coming to tell of the death of Agamemnon: the evening breeze blows at Ophelia’s dress as if to take her fragile wits away. During this week a great Russian Hamlet, Innokenti Smoktunovsky, has died. It is 30 years since I saw him in Kozintsev’s wonderful file, beautiful, mordant and true; 30 years also since I fell out with Gabor Cossa in the back room of his shop, and the first of some 600 performances of the play that I’ve participated in. Gabor never directed me in the end: when it came to the point, he would cast his eyes proudly heavenward and say that I would explain, since “Michael has his own ideas”. I didn’t and I still don’t; but I hear the play all the time, rather as Nick Hornby hears Arsenal, not so much as an obsession but as a condition of life. Now, after five of the principal parts, in step with mu own ageing (and hopefully to side-step Polonius) I suppose it’s just the Gravedigger and out.

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