Hamlet: The hardest part to play, so who is fit to wear the crown?

As Jude Law and David Tennant reveal plans to play Hamlet, Paul Taylor examines why this role remains the ultimate test of an actor – and identifies his six greatest Hamlets

Just as King Lear is the greatest challenge for a senior actor, Hamlet is the supreme test for a performer in the earlier half of his career. He is a hero faced with a dreadful quandary. His father's ghost appears. This turn of events is horrible and too good to be true. All his suspicions about his mother's over-hasty marriage are confirmed, but only if the ghost is not tricking him. At the same time, it's one of those gruelling roles that allow the leading player quite an extensive breathing space off stage.

This respite comes between Hamlet's enforced departure for England and his return to Denmark just before the funeral of Ophelia. In the interim, the character has managed to jump ship and board a pirate vessel home, after sneakily ensuring that his companions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, will meet the grisly fate in England that would otherwise have awaited him.

In this suspended time-out in his dressing room, the actor can have a reviving shower, or a therapeutic weeping fit, or a much-needed rest. But it's not, so to speak, plain sailing off stage, for when Hamlet returns to the gaze of his fellow Danes, he has undergone a sea change. The actor has to come back on, with his character converted to a kind of fatalism ("There is augury in the death of a sparrow") by events that we have not witnessed in the course of the drama.

It's not unlike what in tennis they call a "comfort-break", but it's distinctly double-edged (a breather and a teaser about how to bridge the gap is one of the problems that will shortly confront the film star and stage actor Jude Law and David Tennant, BBC Television's Doctor Who and a rather more prolific stage actor.

Law will play the Black Prince for the Donmar Warehouse, but with the production housed in a West End theatre as part of the Donmar's policy of reaching out to a wider audience than can be accommodated in its Earlham Street premises.

Tennant is due to return to the RSC at Stratford, where he played Romeo in 2000. In his capacity as the current – and brilliant – Doctor Who, it will not have escaped this wryly subversive Scots thespian that there's a certain irony in the way that Hamlet famously begins with the question "Who's there?". With his casting, it invites the musical hall retort: "No, Who isn't here, fathead. He's on the telly, of course."

The difficulty that I have outlined above is daunting, but it's not the worst of the problems rearing up before prospective portrayers of Hamlet. "I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so," wrote the poet Coleridge in a very Romantic perception of the hero as a dreamer who is somehow disconnected from the action. The peculiar thing is that, largely for that very reason, everyone identifies with this hero, although increasingly few of us are on his intellectual altitude.

Why is this so? The answer to that takes us into the brilliant depths of Shakespeare's art and the tricky areas for an actor in communicating generality and singularity.

Hamlet is a role that is defined, to an extraordinary degree, by the ability to deliver the soliloquies ("To be or not to be..." and the like). One cardinal consideration that the reconstructed Globe on Bankside has brought to light is that, for Shakespeare, these soliloquies are not the same as voiceovers in a film. They are directed outwards to an audience that surrounds the actor.

In his excellent introductions to the new RSC Shakespeare: The Complete Works, the scholar Jonathan Bate remarks that when Hamlet says that "conscience must make cowards of us all", for the Elizabethans "conscience" also meant consciousness. "It is Hamlet's extreme self-consciousness that sets him apart from the traditional revenger. When alone on stage, reflecting on his own situation, he seems to embody the very nature of human being."

In other words, he's in a peculiar double bind. The verb "to act" is a rum customer. It means to perform a deed and it means to simulate one. Hamlet, the revenger, is caught between jealousy of the performers in the visiting troupe who can counterfeit the revenge that he, with authentic reasons, cannot duplicate, and a sense of the vertiginous considerations of enacting one in real life. But, as the Globe has shown us, this was not presented to the original audiences as a rarefied mental state. The actor on that stage is sharing his predicament with a public and, from the groundlings to those in the most expensive seats, they are expected to understand the fundamental feelings.

There are productions of Hamlet that lay emphasis on the broad political situation (making the hero, in his entangled inner life, a potential public liability) and there are productions that value his depth of introspection over and above the particular predicament that is of urgent concern to Denmark. Whichever choice a production makes, it's essential that the actor playing Hamlet reaches the audience on that peculiar "you could never be me, and yet you are, even as we speak, essentially me" level. Here we meet what I reckon is the stiffest test of all for an actor playing Hamlet. He has to put himself on the line. I think it was David Hare who once said that acting judgement of character (citing the mature beauty of great performers such as Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson). The role of Hamlet is a similar, heightened, time-foreshortened litmus test. Actors who have gone into the profession to hide behind a disguise are disqualified. And I would argue that the experience of seeing plays at Shakespeare's Globe has intensified our awareness of this phenomenon. All the actors I have loved in the Hamlet role (though all but one have not played at the Globe) – Mark Rylance, Simon Russell-Beale, Stephen Dillane et al – have had the ability to bare their souls to an audience in such a way as to make you see deep into yourself. The bottom line in this greatest of all tragedies is that the preternaturally brilliant hero treats you, through his soliloquies, as an equal. And by the miracle of Shakespeare's art, we accept the compliment, in part because, stunningly, he makes the role of Hamlet a metaphor for the role of the "actor" in general.

The difficulty for the actor is pulling us into a sense of inclusiveness at the same time as indicating that the character is someone to whom we may not even want to aspire. And this last consideration depends upon whether the production opts for making us feel that Elsinore is out of step with Hamlet or that Hamlet is a misfit and that, with his dubious gifts, he would be better pushed out of the picture. Jude Law's last foray on to the stage (as Faustus in a Young Vic production of Marlowe's play) was underrated by many critics. He has the cocky ability to half-inhabit and, with his almost satirically superior beauty, half- descant upon a role – a trick that will serve him well in that treacherous area in the middle of the play where the protagonist has to bamboozle the court with his display of mock madness.

In that respect, Law is lucky in his director, Kenneth Branagh, whose mordant mock levity was one of the best things in his performance of the role for Adrian Noble and the RSC in 1991.

Gielgud and Laurence Olivier were the greatest Hamlets of the earlier part of the 20th century. Rylance and Russell-Beale are their equivalents afterwards. They demonstrate how personally exposing the part is and how the best performers are more than equal to these more-than-technical demands. Rylance, in his soiled institutional pyjamas, portrayed a sweet-natured character radically unhinged by the appearance of his father's ghost. Russell-Beale played a meditative scholar, never happier than when, in the closet-scene, he and his distraught mother and spook of a father joined hands in a gesture meaningful to only him. Both of them, in the soliloquies, created the illusion that they were talking intimately to you alone.

I look forward to both Law's and Tennant's performances, although one point is worth noting: just as Hamlet's Fourth Act "rest" is somewhat illusory, so his final words,"the rest is silence", are not quite accurate. After thesilence, there are the reviews.


Laurence Olivier

He bleached his hair blond (which seems a bit literalist) for the 1948 film and he leapt at his prey from the battlements in a bravura gesture that was reminiscent of his dying fall from the rock as Coriolanus. No performer has equalled the animal magnetism of Olivier and it's a mark of his protean power that he was able to combine this with a melancholy meditativeness in this Oedipal reading of the role.

What the critics said: "Beautiful acting and inspired interpretations all the way" Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Simon Russell-Beale

For some, the greatest Hamlet of recent years. He gave us, in John Caird's 2000 production at the National, a Hamlet whose scholarliness and spirituality seemed to go hand-in-hand and wrap the audience in their embrace.

What the critics said:: "His performance flows in such a natural rush of ambivalence you don't even think of the soliloquies as free-standing speeches." Ben Brantley, The New York Times

Mark Rylance

For just as many, the supreme Hamlet of our times. It's a huge tribute to his 1989 RSC performance that, when the production was taken on a visitto Broadmoor, one of the inmates accosted him at the end and said: "You're really mad, aren't you?." But there was also enormous sweetness, intellectual range and a desperate sense of a great spirit cut off before its prime in this portrayal.

What the critics said:: "A child-like, pyjama-clad neurotic" Michael Coveney, The Observer.

John Gielgud

He was criticised for having the most useless legs imaginable on an actor. But acting-from-the-head-up is not the liability in Hamlet that it can be in some roles. Gielgud's lyrical introspection in the part in the 1929 Old Vic production demonstrates its kinship (and its differences) from another part he made his own, that other conscious "actor" Richard II.

What the critics said:: "Utterly compelling, crystal clear, absorbing, with a classic quality that reflects the utter rightness of the interpretation." Christina Hardyment, The Times

Stephen Dillane

This actor has the most wonderful capacity for gentle, understated, yet savagely ironic self-criticism, a kind of turbulent passivity that suits a certain conception of Hamlet. In Peter Hall's 1994 production, he also stripped to the buff – a gesture casually revealing rather than gratuitous in his sveltely subversive performance.

What the critics said: "His intelligence sets him apart, Thinking and private feeling are the natural mode of being for Dillane's Hamlet: life disrupts this and destroys him." John Peter, The Sunday Times

David Warner

Student unrest was slowly simmering when this disaffected Hamlet in a university scarf hit Stratford in Peter Hall's 1965 production. For the audiences of the period, his performance as the perpetual undergraduate seems to have had a similarly rousing effect to the advent of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger a decade earlier.

What the critics said: "His performance is a lot more touching than tragic." Penelope Gilliat, The Observer

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