The Danish play lays its curse on princely careers: Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company may not foster continued success. David Lister examines the fates of some of his predecessors

THE Royal Shakespeare Company has taken the biggest advance in its 32-year history - pounds 1.3m for Hamlet, which opened at the Barbican Centre in London last weekend and transfers to Stratford upon Avon in the spring.

Kenneth Branagh has received largely favourable reviews for his performance in the title role in Adrian Noble's production.

However, he might be alarmed to learn that being an RSC Hamlet guarantees neither the status of household name nor a triumphant stage career. The Danish play can be as unlucky as the Scottish play.

The last to play the role in 1988 was Mark Rylance - the pyjama'd Hamlet. After playing it he started up a hippy company, performing Shakespeare in the open air surrounded by stones on ley lines. He was preceded in 1987 by Philip Franks, last seen in television's The Darling Buds Of May.

Indeed it can be said that with a couple of notable exceptions, few of the RSC Hamlets, from Ian Bannen in 1961 through Alan Howard, Ben Kingsley, Michael Pennington and Roger Rees, fulfilled the promise of the glittering stage careers their successes in the role anticipated.

Bannen and Rees deserted the British stage for long periods. Kingsley moved into films. Only Howard and Pennington really maintained theatrical careers.

What happened to one of the RSC's most triumphant princes, David Warner in 1965, whose tortured student with college scarf was described by Ronald Bryden as getting 'more of humanity into the part than any previous Hamlet I've seen'?

Warner made a few lacklustre films, rarely played on the British stage again, has settled in America and was recently seen in Star Trek.

Branagh comes to the part with an unappealing condition - that every mention of him in programmes, on leaflets and posters must point out that he appears by arrangement with Renaissance Theatre Company, the first time in the company's history an actor has been allowed such an agreement. Renaissance is Branagh's own outfit. Branagh, it could be argued, is appearing by arrangement with Branagh. The insistence that a world renowned company like the RSC has to pay tribute to Renaissance has been publicly criticised by the head of the National Theatre, Richard Eyre. Branagh has never been invited to play at the National.

The public's record advance at the box office shows that the curious phenomenon of the Eighties, Branagh-worship, continues. But the critics found it harder to make up their minds than the prince himself, covering the whole spectrum of emotions from 'The great Hamlet of our time' (Jack Tinker, Daily Mail), through a 'slower, more reflective and movingly filial prince' (Paul Taylor, the Independent) to 'Branagh leaves me lukewarm and underwhelmed . . . he has still to prove himself a major Shakespearian. Branagh finds passion or rage daunting' (Nicholas De Jongh, London Evening Standard).

(Photographs omitted)

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