Happy families

Like father, like mother, like son: the Glover clan - Julian, Isla and Jamie - explain how to make `Hamlet' a family affair
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The Independent Culture
Hamlet is, perhaps, the ultimate family tragedy. So it will be interesting to see what new dynamic is brought to Shakespeare's dysfunctional Danish dynasty by having it played by one of this country's most distinguished acting families - the Glovers.

Father Julian, who also directs Norwich Playhouse's new production, is to take the part of Hamlet's father's ghost ("It was suggested that I play Hamlet's uncle, Claudius - a bigger part - but I wanted to keep the family relationships as they are"), his wife Isla Blair that of Hamlet's mother Gertrude, while their son Jamie will play the melancholy prince.

"It's not been done in living memory," claims Henry Burke, the Norwich Playhouse's artistic director and chief instigator of the "Glover family" Hamlet. "Although I've no doubt some Barrymores attempted it, and probably also the Fisher family, who used to trawl around the Norwich area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries."

It was while trawling around the Norwich area himself - or, more precisely, while filming The Chief for TV - that Julian Glover first stumbled across the Playhouse. Opened only last December in a converted malthouse, the Playhouse is the result of Henry Burke's determination to provide his home city with a repertory theatre in addition to the regular diet of visiting productions passing through the Theatre Royal. While receiving absolutely "no support with running costs from any grant body", the Playhouse has, however, met with copious support from the acting community. Glover himself was so smitten that he performed his own one-man Beowulf in the unfinished shell to help with the fund-raising.

The admiration was mutual. Burke wrote - separate letters, they stress - to Julian, Isla and Jamie to suggest the Hamlet project.

"We'd never have been presumptuous enough to have thought of it ourselves," insists Julian, who has been getting the production together on a shoestring budget, with all actors on the Equity minimum of pounds 171.95 a week, and costumes and expertise begged and borrowed from the Royal Shakespeare Company (with which both he and his wife have long been associated) and other sympathetic supporters. "The list of acknowledgements in the programme will be huge," he promises.

It's clearly a true labour of love. "Theatre should be about risk and danger," declares Isla Blair, her hazel eyes blazing - "sticking your head above the parapet and saying, `If I get shot at, at least I've tried!' "

Critics might well say that Jamie Glover, at 27, and not long out of the Central School of Speech and Drama, is too inexperienced (despite an impressive cv so far) to tackle the top role, one which Kenneth Branagh has been grappling with in his mid-thirties, Olivier filmed at 40, Michael Redgrave attempted in his fifties and Sarah Bernhardt limped through in old age with one leg. But Isla Blair has this response: "I feel Hamlet is a young man's play. There's a lot of adolescent angst in Hamlet. If the actor is 40 or 45, you feel he really should have sorted out some of his dilemmas by now." But maybe she'll feel differently, she laughingly admits, if Jamie is still playing the part at 40, as he says he hopes to do.

"Some people might think I'm a bit young now," Jamie acknowledges, and indeed he looks even more youthful than his years. "But there are some chances I think you'd be a lesser person if you didn't take" - the "tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune" perhaps.

Emotions are clearly running high in the Glover family as they eat, sleep, breathe and speak nothing but Hamlet. "But then we've always talked about our work all the time, the three of us," Jamie points out. "Not obsessively so, because we all enjoy it, but maybe excessively!"

They are an extremely close family and always have been - perhaps partly because Jamie was the surprise son his parents thought they couldn't have. "But if our rehearsal process sounds at all cosy, that's the last thing it is," Isla interjects. "We argue, we have rows - not acrimoniously, but the way actors do." "Yes, last night I almost put the phone down on Isla," Julian ruefully recalls, "which is not something I like to do."

Although not his debut on the other side of the footlights, Julian's past experience of directing has been pretty much limited to "half a dozen chamber plays", as he puts it. "That's one of the reasons Hamlet seems approachable to me," he says, "because it is a series of chamber plays."

As for Jamie, he first stepped on stage at the age of eight, playing young Marcius to Alan Howard's Coriolanus at Stratford. There followed several other juvenile appearances, but his parents tried to keep him from becoming a child actor, despite tempting offers of some "quite major" films. "We wanted him to be able to make the choice when he was ready," his mother explains. "We both felt very strongly about that."

So strongly that they didn't send him to stage school. Not that they were exactly devastated, though, to discover, on attending the Frencham Heights school play, that their son possessed a natural acting talent after all. "We went to see him playing Billy Liar," Isla recalls. "After 10 minutes, Julian and I just looked at each other and thought, `Thank God.' It's not something you could ever have given him with any amount of wishing, but then we knew he had it."

The family chemistry will, they feel, work to their advantage on stage. "I knew I could manhandle my mother," says Jamie, "or spit in her face, and I didn't have to feel self-conscious in the way I certainly would have if I was doing that in the first week of rehearsal with, say, Judi Dench."

Has the father-son relationship brought any illumination? "There's a story about Daniel Day-Lewis running out of a performance of Hamlet because he'd seen his father who had recently died," Jamie recalls. "Now I understand it, because there is something very peculiar about looking up and suddenly seeing a man before you who is your father, and you know he's dead. It is very chilling."

"I watched you the first time you did that scene," Isla adds softly. "I noticed that you were shaking and started to cry."

One of the things that struck Glovers Senior and Junior after rehearsing that scene, with a force like a slap in the face, is that, as Jamie says, "All the Ghost does is dispense confusion and pain. No wonder Hamlet is confused!"

"We're not playing up the incest idea," Isla says firmly, "because I don't feel that way about Jamie, he doesn't feel that way about me, and I don't think we could play it. It's also not in the text. But I think Hamlet probably thinks it's disgusting that his middle-aged mother has started acting like a lovestruck girl!"

So does Jamie ever remember feeling "disgusted" by some of his mother's sexy on-screen roles, from The History Man, when he was a child, to the recent Final Cut, in which she did a topless bedroom scene? "No," he laughs. "I've always know that `it ain't real'!"

The best thing about working together, suggests Julian - who has only ever played opposite Isla once before, when they met in the cast of Boswell's Life of Johnson - is "the shortcuts you can take... Isla will say to me `Don't do that mouth, Julian,' and I know exactly what she's talking about."

So might this "family" Hamlet live on after Norwich - on tour or in the West End? The Glovers are prepared for anything, and have given up other more potentially lucrative opportunities to realise their dream. "We all know that this experience will never come again," Isla says. "We've been asked to do various things together in the past - Jamie and I to do the mother and son in Ghosts, for example - but Jamie always felt, I think rightly, that he had to forge his own path first."

Jamie says he'll be happy with his performance if his parents are happy with it, whatever the critics say. "Gielgud didn't please everybody, Olivier didn't, so I accept that I can't," he says. "But you always want to do the best for your parents"

Opens 7.30pm tonight, ends 23 November, Norwich Playhouse (booking: 01603 766466)