The Genius of Hamlet Has Always Been Its Appeal to the Young; Benedict Cumberbatch Is Just the Latest in a Long Line of Actors to Star in Shakespeare's Compelling, Beautiful Tale

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 7, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Genius of Hamlet Has Always Been Its Appeal to the Young; Benedict Cumberbatch Is Just the Latest in a Long Line of Actors to Star in Shakespeare's Compelling, Beautiful Tale


Byline: Dominic Dromgoole

IT WAS a summer's evening in Sloane Square, 1981. We were all standing outside the Royal Court -- my girlfriend, my sister, my mother and I. Due to some advanced absent-mindedness on somebody's part, there were only three tickets for the evening's show. And there were four of us.

This was the show that everybody in the country felt compelled to see. You had to be there, or you were cast into a cultural void which would immediately deprive you of all credibility. One of us would have to miss it. Nervous glances flickered between us in silence like the gunfight stand-off at the end of a spaghetti western. Who felt most obliged, most generous, most guilty? Out of the silence, a long flurry of energetic politeness erupted -- "No, you must go", "No, you must", "You can't miss it", "I really don't mind", "I'll be fine". They subsided and the issue went unresolved.

The show was Hamlet, and the star was Jonathan Pryce, a rock/rebel/comedy/god figure at that moment. His Hamlet was much discussed since he incarnated the ghost from within his own stomach, a bit of striking Freudianism that had set tongues wagging. But it was also the fact that he belonged to our generation, and that this was Hamlet, the play which has been defining the young for the young for several centuries.

As fever pitch gathers to hysteria before rocketing into mass self-asphyxiation at Benedict Cumberbatch's manifestation of the gloomy Dane, it is useful to remember that generation after generation have trooped out to hear their moment given articulacy since Richard Burbage first put the inky cloak on in 1603. Every great actor in the long daisy chain of history has felt compelled to give Hamlet a go, from Burbage on to Garrick and on to Kean and on to Macready and Irving and Bernhardt. They came thicker and faster in the 20th century, as the baton was passed on to Gielgud and Olivier and Burton and O'Toole; and now we are in the 21st they seem to be popping up with the profligacy of magic mushrooms in an autumn field. We have had in recent years David Tennant, Jude Law, John Simm and now Benedict. Each has packed houses, and exuded that compelling magnetism of the necessary cultural event.

Why does this happen with Hamlet? Because it is endlessly beautiful, living on a high-wire of some of the most exquisitely perfect marriages of fresh thought and fresh expression ever achieved. Because it is mysterious, never offering up any simple solutions to its huge problems, and setting each new age a new task to try to understand its complex dynamics; a seductive fog of confusion, as elusive and as unknowable as a newborn child or an ailing body stuttering on the point of death. Because it is intensely human, and talks to each of us right in our centre. Because it is funny, packed with more wit than many a supposed comedy.

Why does it attract the young in such droves? Well, the presence of stars does it no harm, nor does an actor of such distinctive qualities as BC. Knowing the actor and knowing the play offers the pleasure of imagining how a performance might come into being, and then the doubled pleasure of seeing something more startling and more surprising sprout into life. …

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