Everyone's favourite prince of wails

Hamlet is still the pinnacle of an actor's career. Heather Neill on Shakespeare's top attraction
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The Independent Culture

Enter a young man in black, crest-fallen and holding a skull. He might be part of a comic's routine or in an advertisement. He might even be acting in a play by Shakespeare, but it wouldn't take a theatre buff or a scholar to know who he is. Hamlet has acquired a life of his own outside Shakespeare's most famous play, and when he speaks, even when he is the spit of Tommy Cooper, the words are some of the most famous in the English language including everyone's favourite Shakespeare tag: "To be, or not to be..."

Enter a young man in black, crest-fallen and holding a skull. He might be part of a comic's routine or in an advertisement. He might even be acting in a play by Shakespeare, but it wouldn't take a theatre buff or a scholar to know who he is. Hamlet has acquired a life of his own outside Shakespeare's most famous play, and when he speaks, even when he is the spit of Tommy Cooper, the words are some of the most famous in the English language including everyone's favourite Shakespeare tag: "To be, or not to be..."

Each generation and each individual actor who takes him on expresses something different. Each Hamlet is unique but of his time; he is everything and so can be anything. All the humanity, suffering, playfulness, imagination, intelligence, philosophical acceptance of mortality, love of others, self-disgust, Renaissance humanism, medieval Christianity, cruelty, wit and neurosis that a director or actor wishes to find is there, but the cocktail of his personality will be differently mixed by each interpreter. As Michael Pennington (Hamlet for the RSC in 1980 and Claudius to Stephen Dillane's Prince in 1994) puts it in his book, Hamlet: A User's Guide: "It is like a pane of clear glass disclosing the actor to a greedy audience", adding that acting the role is "like a yapping dog approaching a bear at a stake - you must make your mark and get out of the way". Paul Rhys, a notably emotional and intelligent Hamlet at the Young Vic last year, said of his preparation then: "Whatever I think, it will be filtered through the prism of me."

We appear never to tire of encountering this enigmatic personality in its different guises. The play was a success when Richard Burbage first played the part at the Globe 400 years ago and in 1999 it was voted the "master-work" of the millennium in a newspaper poll. This September alone London will have three Hamlets to choose from (including a two-hour version at the Old Red Lion pub theatre), Birmingham Rep another and Peter Zadek's German production, with Angela Winkler in the title role, has just paid a fleeting visit to the Edinburgh Festival.

In London Mark Rylance is still giving his heart-breaking and hilarious interpretation at Shakespeare's Globe, while Simon Russell Beale is about to open in John Caird's production at the Royal National Theatre. At Birmingham Rep, Bill Alexander is reviving his production with Richard McCabe as the Prince. The last two have excised the whole Fortinbras and Norway sub-plot to concentrate on the domestic tragedy. Caird goes so far as to say that, so painless has been the cutting, he thinks the jettisoned sections were probably added later anyway. Yet removing the external political world beyond the court of Denmark (a "notional" rather than actual place for Caird) would have been unthinkable at one time. In 1964, for instance, in Peter Hall's RSC production, David Warner made Hamlet a disaffected student in a democratic college scarf and, as often, Fortinbras came to restore order to a "rotten" Denmark. The student was a political animal in those days with a perspective that took in European unrest and Vietnam.

We are now perhaps more interested in the individual psyche. Harold Bloom's recent thesis, in Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, that Shakespeare more or less invented the notion of personality as we understand it, especially in his portrayal of Falstaff and Hamlet, has fuelled still further the idea that Hamlet exists as a person in his own right. Directors and actors agree about Hamlet's skill in theatre. The actor playing him is acting a princely actor pretending (when he adopts "an antic disposition") who uses other actors (the players) to prove the true intentions of the Ghost by causing Claudius to react to their play. The man who disdainfully says, "I know not 'seems' " nevertheless finds the truth by adopting a role and coaching others to do so. He even gives us a glimpse of what Shakespeare hoped for from his actors: that they would hold a mirror up to nature. As Bloom says, he is the only one of Shakespeare's characters who could have written the play he appears in - and several of the others, too.

There isn't the same consensus as to whether or not Hamlet's role-playing tips into actual madness. Caird says, "There is no evidence that he is mad. There is plenty of evidence that people say he is mad, even that he thinks he may be going mad. He is under extreme pressure, certainly." For Bill Alexander he is "obviously pretending to be mad. For someone in emotional and intellectual turmoil, with a passion for theatre, it is easy to do." But for Rhys, "his mind is so amazing, so extraordinary, so sensitive, an actor skipping about pretending to be mad - that is mad. It belittles the cost of the tragedy upon him". And Rylance is convinced that by the time Hamlet kills Polonius he is desperate, in the depths of madness.

Mad or not, it's almost a side issue. In the soliloquies Hamlet deals with nothing less than, as Caird says, "what it is to be alive, to be human". One aspect of this, which clarifies the way Hamlet acts like a reflection of every period is the fashion - now almost entirely out of favour - for a hint at incestuous warmth between Hamlet and his mother. Rylance says this seemed an interesting idea when he last played the part in 1988-89, but it doesn't any more. Rhys says that Hamlet's purpose in this scene is not so banal; it is nothing less than to save his mother's soul and Caird and Alexander both find no evidence for an Oedipal relationship at all.

In the age of film - there are said to be 60 cinematic versions of Hamlet - four hours and more in the theatre has come to seem too long, whether or not you are standing in the Globe's yard. (That said, Kenneth Branagh's 1995 film was the equivalent of an airport blockbuster: nothing left out and the most glamorous setting you could hope for - Blenheim Palace.) The text is problematic anyway, existing in two versions, Folio and Quarto, as well as a "bad" Quarto which may have been written down from memory by one or more actors. Most directors take from both respectable versions and almost always cut to an extent.

Modern stage productions tend to be unhampered by scene changing and to cut quickly from scene to scene much as film does. Matthew Warchus even used film projection to give the back-story of Hamlet's childhood for his edited and rearranged RSC version in 1997. We've come a long way since Olivier intoned that we were about to see "the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind" in his much-cut 1948 film with its smell of greasepaint and Brief Encounter vowels. But that too was of its time and Olivier inhabited the Prince of Denmark in a way that 1940s people would expect. Or was it the other way round?

As Rylance, playing Hamlet this summer on a stage as like that of Burbage as we can imagine, puts it: "I do feel he exists; as an actor you hope that he will pour himself into your vessel." Meanwhile, Simon Russell Beale, just back from playing the role at Elsinore Castle, may well be experiencing a similar visitation a little further along the river at the Royal National Theatre.

'Hamlet': Birmingham Rep (0121 236 4455), to 7 October; Old Red Lion, EC1 (020 7837 7816), to 16 September; RNT, SE1 (020 7452 3000), booking to 28 Oct; Shakespeare's Globe, SE1 (020 7401 9919), to 24 Sept

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