Fellow of infinite jest?

Every clown is said to want to play Hamlet. But it's a funny actor (or just a peculiar one?) who wants to play Hamlet for laughs. Robert Hanks meets Alex Jennings
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The Independent Culture
I n a taxi on the way home from the station, the driver asks me what I've been doing today, so I tell him I've been in Stratford interviewing Alex Jennings. He shakes his head: "Sorry," he says, "Never 'eard of 'im."

This is the worrying thing about Alex Jennings: he's not nearly as famous as he ought to be. In the theatre, everybody knows how good he is. His electrifyingly lopsided performance in Richard Jones's production of Ostrovsky's comedy Too Clever By Half, at the Old Vic in 1988, scooped the pool for comedy awards, and people who saw it still talk about it. He was an extraordinary Peer Gynt for the Royal Shakespeare Company two years ago, conjuring from Ibsen's collection of apparently ill-assorted episodes the sense of an entire, real personality on display; for this he won the Olivier Award for best actor. Now he's back at the RSC playing Hamlet - traditionally the apotheosis of a young actor's career.

The thing is, he's never done a lot of film or television. He has had any number of minor roles - you may remember him in Smiley's People, where he was a policeman vomiting on Hampstead Heath after turning over a corpse with its face blown off - but his only really big part was the title character in Ashenden the Spy: a big, glossy ITV costume drama, drawn from the stories of Somerset Maugham - "which I thought was going to change my life, and didn't..." Ashenden flopped badly over here (though it did rather better in America). That may have been because of the nature of the stories - Ashenden listens and observes, he doesn't really do very much. But Jennings thinks it's also the case that "whatever it is I do on the stage, I've not had the opportunity to do on camera. Or maybe, what I do on the stage just doesn't work on camera... I'd like to think that it's not a complete dead-end, because I would like to learn more about it, but I don't feel very confident. I think I'm a bit peculiar in some ways."

This is probably true. Superficially Jennings has conventional good looks - rather tall, blue eyes, curly hair - but his face is strangely elastic: his smile, for instance, is practically an ear-to-ear gash. He isn't one of those chameleon actors who can change utterly from one part to another; you always know it's Jennings. But within a part he can be transformed from moment to moment; a mad clown will pop up suddenly from inside the debonair leading man.

Perhaps that makes him more at home in those plays, like Peer Gynt and Much Ado about Nothing - he's currently playing Benedick in Michael Boyd's thoughtful, critically reviled production at Stratford - that seesaw between comedy and tragedy. It's certainly the case that he is one of the few really impressive straight actors for whom getting laughs comes naturally, and he admits to being greedy for laughs, to having an "end-of-the-pier" tendency. Will he, I wonder, be playing Hamlet for laughs?

Jennings doesn't think this is such a stupid idea. He recalls how, after the breakthrough of Too Clever By Half, he made what he thinks of as his bid for serious consideration, playing Richard II at Stratford and appearing in Joshua Sobol's Holocaust drama Ghetto at the National: "Terry Hands, on the first night of Richard II, told me I should have got more laughs." With Hamlet, "when Matthew Warchus was approached to direct it, he said, 'Oh yeah, it will be like going clubbing.' I don't quite know what he meant... but there is an element of the fool in it, there in the madness."

Warchus himself says that he wasn't interested in doing Hamlet until he was offered the chance of directing Jennings, whom he had seen in Peer Gynt. Jennings himself says that he had never really hankered after the part and, approaching 40, he thought he'd missed his chance: "But it would be churlish to say no, really." Now he says that he is more excited by this production than by anything since Too Clever By Half - this despite the shake-up in the middle of rehearsals when Susannah York, the original Gertrude, was injured and Diana Quick had to step in to take her place.

Whether audiences will be as thrilled is difficult to say. There are some warning signs. For one thing, this is a modern-dress Hamlet - "Modern modern," Jennings clarifies (Does he mean it's the sort of thing you'd wear in the streets? "Yeah, if you were royal. And Danish"). He is happy with that: "I could never have played Hamlet in a blouse and tights."

The other, potentially more serious barrier to popular appreciation is that Warchus has cut the text fairly drastically - not so much in terms of length (it's expected to run at slightly under three hours, so it won't be the shortest Hamlet ever, by a long chalk), but in terms of plot and language: Fortinbras and all the political context go, leaving behind the central family drama, and "a few scenes are jigged around. 'To be or not to be' is a movable feast...

"It will piss people off, probably. It is such a familiar play, it will be a shock to people that I'm not saying, 'Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt.' But hopefully it will excite a lot of people as well, because the play will still be there in four years' time for somebody to do the full-length version again."

Jennings himself is confident that the cut version will make dramatic sense - "I don't feel that this is being perverse" - but rumbles of discontent from elsewhere are already audible. "We've already had our first letter of complaint... from a Stratford head of English saying that it sounds like it's going to be a disaster before it's even started and could he see the script. What do you do?"

He's unwilling to say much specifically about his own approach to the part, "because people can say, 'You said you were doing that with it, but you're not.' " But as Hamlets go, he seems remarkably unworried: "Because one of the joys of doing fantastic plays like this, by people who are cleverer than you are, is that you're never going to get them right. So there's always more work to be done." And perhaps that's really why he's in the theatre: nothing is ever final, there's always room for improvement. Ah well, television's loss... n

'Hamlet' previews at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford on Friday, running to 23 Aug (01789 295623)