You could play the same game of antitheses with the character of Hamlet and Burton: weak / strong, nervous / confident, reflective / active, neurotic / untroubled, fearful / ferocious, and find that the only characteristics which appear to unite the two are a lucid intelligence and a wild poetry, a love of language indulged with the appetite of an addict.
On the face of it, all Burton's characteristics made him ideal casting not for Hamlet but for his uncle, Claudius; one of the many regrets that I have about his career is that he was never persuaded to play that part. He had all the charm, the bravura, the authority, the plausibility and the dissipation to play Hamlet's uncle, who could 'smile, and smile, and be a villain'; but what audience would not have been blinded by the incandescence of the uncle, and what Hamlet would not have withered beside his nuclear energy?
Burton first played Hamlet at the age of 27, at the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Festival. It was a performance much influenced by his adoptive father, Philip: not a delicate, over-sensitive, courtly scholar, but a man of action - a revenger, held back only by fear of becoming, like his uncle, a murderer. By all accounts, it was a performance that was possessed by a furious energy, banishing languor, introspection and inactivity from the part - and, for some people, poetry as well. (I directed a production of the play at the Royal Court in 1980, with another Welsh actor, Jonathan Pryce. He was accused of making the lines sound as if he'd made them up.) Gielgud came to see the performance and committed one of his - not so accidental - faux pas. He came backstage to see Burton and, finding the dressing room full of people, said: 'Shall I go ahead, or wait until you're better - I mean, ready?'
Gielgud certainly thought that he was ready by 1964, directing him in a production that was conceived as a 'final run-through', stripped of the baggage of production: set, costumes, lighting. By presenting the play with the artlessness of the rehearsal room, they avoided - or at least by-passed - the all too vexed questions of presentation, and, at least in theory, allowed its language and meaning to shine through unencumbered. Of course you can argue that this lack of baggage is just introducing a different sort of baggage, that one stage convention is being replaced by another, but at the time it was welcomed for its refreshingly lucid, uncluttered and uninflected simplicity.
It is that production which played in Toronto, Boston and for 138 performances on Broadway, where it was filmed over three evenings at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. After so long a run, perhaps it's not surprising that Burton developed such a weary diffidence to the role: 'playing Hamlet on the stage one's soul staggers with tedium and one's mind rejects the series of quotations that Hamlet now is'. If what he wrote in his Notebooks years later was true at the time, then it is a tribute to his acting, and to Gielgud's inspiration, that this shrugging indifference does not come through in the performance on film. What is there is tantalising: not a great Hamlet, but unquestionably a great actor, with a savage, beautiful, Celtic face and voice - acrid, tender, melancholic, saturated as much with self-love as self- disgust. He is unquenchably energetic and yet sceptical; unfulfilled, unique, irreplaceable.
Hamlet is a poem of death. It charts one of the great human rites of passage - from immaturity to accommodation with death. In a scene with Horatio prior to the duel, Hamlet talks to him about his premonition of death: 'If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows aught, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.'
'Let be' could be Hamlet's epitaph: don't fuss, don't panic, don't be afraid. It could also have been Burton's. When he died there was a notepad on his bedside table. On it he had written some lines from Shakespeare: from Macbeth, from The Tempest ('Our revels now are ended'), and one line from Hamlet. It was part of a description of the armed ghost of Hamlet's father: 'Cap a pi . . .' he wrote, and then the writing stopped.
'Hamlet' is showing at the National Film Theatre, SE1, on 6 Feb. Tickets are pounds 25 each (081- 994 8287 / 071-267 1361), in aid of the National Council for One Parent Families. This article will appear as part of the programme notes.
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