My Funny Valid Dane

Simon Russell Beale makes his wry, melancholy prince work surprisingly well in the Royal National Theatre's Hamlet

To say that no actor creates a perfect Hamlet is no more than saying that no person leads a perfect life. It's the richest part in English-language drama, maybe in Western drama, and every actor lucky enough to get a crack at it can hope only to grab an aspect or two of it, illuminate that, and leave the rest alone.

Simon Russell Beale, star of the Royal National Theatre's acclaimed Hamlet, now passing through the Valley, is no exception. His Dane doesn't have the commanding iciness of Sir Laurence Olivier (a "goddam general" in Holden Caulfield's phrase), the delicacy of John Gielgud, the near-madness of Nicol Williamson, the histrionic dash of Derek Jacobi or Kevin Kline, the genial swagger of Kenneth Branagh. He's not an antic rebel, like the young Martin Sheen in Joseph Papp's notorious version of the '60s. Nor is he a stud muffin, like Richard Burton.

But, just as all of these are valid and necessary interpretations, so too is Beale's. His is Hamlet in extremis -- utterly bereaved and perplexed, so paralyzed by grief that he looks like he just got out of bed.

Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet.
Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet.

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It seems like a ridiculously simple approach, and initially it also seems wrong-headed. When Beale -- whom Valley audiences may remember for his superb Iago four years ago at the UK/AZ Festival -- speaks his first lines here, the "Seems, Madam?" speech, it's not a cool reproach but a plea for understanding, and it comes off a little whiny. You may find yourself thinking, "Jesus, three hours listening to this guy bellyache?"

Don't panic. As the evening progresses, the emotional rawness of Beale's line readings accumulates power, and it eventually seems like there's nothing between the man's pain -- and, late in the play, his transcendence -- and us. Not even the text: I can't remember a Hamlet who, when tossing off the famous lines, made them seem less like obligatory set pieces and more like natural speech.

The text is cut accordingly to accommodate this take on the role. There's no Fortinbras, no talk of Old Norway, almost no political aspect to the play at all. Hamlet no longer engages in theatrical gossip with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and his delight at the arrival of the players is more subdued than one expects. Nor is his potential for violence or rage or lust much emphasized. There's not even much sense of his sociability -- this version's Horatio (Simon Day) is more spectral observer than friend. But a political or aesthetic-minded or dangerous Hamlet is not what Beale and director John Caird are after -- indeed, this Prince could almost be more easily defined by what he isn't. Fear and desperation have left him bereft of spirit. Surprisingly, though, this most melancholy of Danes is also, I think, the most genuinely and likably funny Hamlet I've ever seen. He even pats himself sadly on the paunch when he notes that he has "forgone all custom of exercises." Beale's comic timing is razor-sharp, yet he makes Hamlet's jokes bubble up from his agony, so they aren't just jocularity -- as with many actors -- but wry, rueful gallows humor. He's Hamlet as Charlie Brown.

Caird's overall staging is basically a frame for his lead actor. In general, Caird seems to have approached the play as a liturgy, with Latin chants under many scenes, and ritualistic movements by the whole company around Tim Hatley's effective stage design, which consists mainly of dozens of steamer trunks, shuffled and restacked to create different settings. This leads to some cluttered moments -- especially in the very opening scene, which is robbed of its tension and atmosphere by the presence of a milling crowd onstage -- but it also creates an air of fatalism and a sense of high ceremony.

Though the conception here keeps them subordinate to Beale, the rest of the cast do strong, unpretentious turns. Two members stand out enough to warrant particular mention. Peter Blythe is first-rate in the difficult role of Polonius, beautifully balancing the comic bustle with the odiousness, and he's equally terrific as the gravedigger, whom he plays as a classic-style comedy drunk. And while Sylvester Morand is, disappointingly, a bit on the Jacob Marley side as the Ghost, he's riveting later on, as the First Player.

This scene contains what may be Caird's best directorial touch. When the Player recites his "Rugged Pyrrhus" speech, Hamlet, caught up in the performance, brandishes a wooden stage sword himself, and as the Player describes how "his sword/Which was declining on the milky head/Of reverend Priam, seemed i' th' air to stick . . ." Hamlet freezes, and there it is: A play within a play within a play.

 
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