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George Dillon as Hamlet, photo by Charlie Baker Denise Evans as Gertrude and George Dillon as Hamlet, photo by Charlie Baker Simon Merrells as Horatio, Ross Gurney-Randall as Marcellus and George Dillon as Hamlet, photo by David Usill Beth Fitzgerald as Ophelia and George Dillon as Hamlet, photo by Charlie Baker Colin Fisher as Polonius and George Dillon as Hamlet, photo by David Usill


Stage history

Sir Laurence Olivier described, in On Acting, how the role of Hamlet has passed from actor to actor since Richard Burbage played the first Hamlet and then coached the second, Joseph Taylor. After the reopening of the theatres in 1660, William D'Avenant, who had seen Taylor's performance, directed Thomas Betterton. David Garrick studied and learned from some of the older members of Betterton's company, and Edmund Kean from the survivors of Garrick's and so on by direct tuition or through observation via Henry Irving, Olivier and Steven Berkoff to George Dillon!

Just as our knowledge of Shakespeare's life is conjectural so too is our impression of the way Burbage played the first Hamlet, but from seventeenth century allusions to the play in performance and from Betterton's prompt-books, whose cuts are thought to reflect Elizabethan practise, we know that Hamlet was originally seen as a crazed avenger, energetically and often comically mad but with no question about his decisiveness or bravery. The restoration was, however, a more delicate age, and David Garrick, who played the role from 1742 to 1776, cut all the impieties and indecencies and began the refined misconception of Hamlet's character which ruled for the next two hundred years: 'Whether in the simulation of madness, in the sinkings of despair, in the familiarity of friendship, in the whirlwind of passion, or in the meltings of tenderness, he never once forgot he was a prince; and in every variety of situation, and transition of feeling, you discovered the highest polish of fine breeding and courtly manners' wrote the playwright Hannah More of Garrick in 1774.

In 1783 the twenty-six-year-old John Philip Kemble chose Hamlet for his London debut as a direct challenge to the leading actor of the day, John Henderson, and was praised by many as being his equal. When Henderson died of food poisoning in 1785 the way was clear for Kemble to shine alone for the next thirty years. After Garrick's 'naturalism', Kemble's acting swung the aesthetic pendulum back towards stylisation 'It was a great effort of a great artist, but I could never discover aught in it save the rehearsal of an endeavour' wrote one spectator. Tall and handsome - Kemble bore a striking resemblance to Eric Cantona! - although his style was flamboyant, his characterisation was, however, entirely orthodox, pleasing the conservatism of the age.

'He fixed on melancholy as the essence of the character and sought to give a generalised and idealised portrait of that single trait. Sadness hung like a visible colour over everything he said and did. Levity, anger, tenderness, intellectual pleasure - all were subordinated, suppressed, subsumed.' (John A Mills in The Great Tradition).

At 5 feet 4 inches, Edmund Kean was altogether the opposite of Kemble in appearance, and in his acting too he represented a return to the naturalism of Garrick. Garrick's widow, at the age of eighty, attended his every performance at Drury Lane and hailed Kean as Garrick's rightful heir. Even his direct predecessor's niece, Fanny Kemble, was an admirer, praising his reading as 'exquisitely touching and melodious in its tenderness, and in the harsh dissonance of vehement passion, terribly true.' However, Kean was inconsistent in the role, causing Samuel Coleridge to comment that watching him was 'like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning'.

In the late nineteenth century, the dramatic potential of Shakespeare's original texts was rediscovered and the production ethos centred on a charismatic star actor was toppled by William Poel who used only amateurs, Edward Gordon Craig who subordinated actors to set design and Harley Granville Barker who promoted the totalitarian rule of the director. Poel devoted 50 years to the attempt to stage Shakespeare 'exactly as it was given the first time it was acted' in Elizabethan costume, without sets, with musical accompaniment on original instruments. He used the shorter and more dynamic First Quarto of Hamlet as the text for his first historic production in 1881. He also started the tedious trend of staging Shakespeare uncut; the first 'complete text' production of Hamlet (a combination of everything from the three different texts) was produced by Francis Benson at the Lyceum in 1901.

The Age of Science also introduced a more psycho-analytical approach to acting. In the early nineteenth century Hamlet had been dreamily poetic, and the acting involved declamatory delivery, statuesque poses, sweeping gestures and long pauses. Towards the end of the century and in the early 1900s there was a reaction against this artificiality. The soliloquies, for example, were now played as 'spoken thoughts' with Forbes-Robertson and even Henry Irving making no eye-contact with the audience. The 1920s and 1930s saw the ultimate triumph of psychological acting, in the emotional prince of Gielgud and Olivier, the Oedipal son.

In the immediate post-war period, the choice was still limited to the honourable or the Freudian prince, but in the 1960s everything changed. Olivier chose to direct Peter O'Toole in Hamlet as the first production of the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1963 and hinted in the programme that Hamlet resembled John Osborne's archetypal angry young man, Jimmy Porter. Richard Burton, who had created Jimmy Porter in the film of Look Back in Anger, played Hamlet in 1964 directed by John Gielgud, and his tough, virile Hamlet (albeit with an upper-class accent) attracted world attention, and broke box office records on Broadway. The angry young man proper finally arrived with Peter Hall's 1965 production in which David Warner, at 24 the youngest Stratford Hamlet, spoke his soliloquies direct to the audience. 'As for Glenda Jackson as Ophelia, one can only yammer in admiration. This was a regular man-eater: a highly sexed young woman, cracking under the strain of a disintegrating love affair.' (Hugh Leonard).

From the mid-sixites to the late-seventies experimentation was in. Frances de la Tour joined the ranks of the female Hamlets, and Jonathan Pryce writhed and growled as he doubled as the ghost of his own father (which saved hiring another actor!) In 1976 Peter Hall again directed Hamlet as the last production of the National Theatre at the Old Vic, with the 39year-old Albert Finney playing a burly, athletic, Lancashire-accented, unprincely, modern, hard-bitten young man, racing through his poetic speeches sporting a Samurai headband.

In 1979, while Derek Jacobi was scoring a hit at the Old Vic, Steven Berkoff sold his mother's premium bonds to finance his Edinburgh production in which he directed himself. It is said that when the Guardian's theatre critic, Nicholas de Jongh, wrote that he was 'fatally miscast' and the actor later chanced upon him in a restaurant and half-jokingly threatened to kill him, the credulous critic's editor call in police protection. Berkoff later wrote in his production journal I am Hamlet:

'Since Hamlet touches the complete alphabet of human experience every actor feels he is born to play it. The bold extrovert will dazzle and play with the word power... The introvert will see every line pointed at him, the outsider, the loner, the watcher, he... The wit will play for laughs and the lunatic for madness. The romantic for ideals. So you cannot be miscast for Hamlet 'fatally miscast' as one critic called me in fact since he too had his version of Hamlet fixed in his head.'
(Steven Berkoff, I am Hamlet, 1989, Faber & Faber).


This article first appeared in the programme for George Dillon's production of Hamlet in 1995. Other pages from that programme are also available:

Interpretation of Hamlet
Quotes on Hamlet
Hamlet - Story, Dates, Sources, Texts, Cuts
William Shakespeare

© George Dillon, 1995

George Dillon's Tour Dates

(as of Tuesday, 07 April 2020)

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Hamlet - Programme - Hamlet's Stage History
[Updated - 19 March 2006]
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