BBC Radio 4, 23 October 2010
Presented by Michael Sheen - who will himself essay the role at the Young
Vic in 2011 - this programme from the Archive Hour series looked at Hamlets past and present. He gave us a guide
to the main incidents in Shakespeare's play, illustrating them with archive recordings and interviews of great Hamlets
of the past - Gielgud, Richardson, Burton, Jacobi, Branagh, John Barrymore, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Sir Herbert Beerbohm
Tree and more recently David Tennant and John Simm. We learned - if we did not know already - that Hamlet is the
supreme test for an actor; not only is it Shakespeare's longest play, but the central role provides a test of technique as
well as vocal ability. Most of the interviewees agreed that playing the Dane helped them explore their own personalities:
for example, Burton recalled that he could never give the same performance twice. He needed to be given the freedom to develop
his instincts, and hence mould the role to his own maverick personality.
Some of the archive recordings - especially of the early Hamlets - proved fascinating,
reminding us of the extent to which verse-speaking has changed over the last century or so. Paul Prescott from the University
of Warwick offered some illuminating commentaries - even though they contained one or two inaccuracies. He claimed quite wrongly
that Tree was the last of the great actor/ managers: over over two decades after Tree had retired, Donald Wolfit took his
troupe of players all over the country with an extensive repertoire of six, or even Shakespearean productions, often performing
under the most extreme conditions during wartime. In the 1980s both Branagh and the two Michaels (Bogdanov and Pennington)
revived the actor/ manager tradition by touring all over Britain, as well as giving London seasons. Such omissions reflected
the programme's metropolitan bias: the so-called 'unfashionable' Hamlets of the provincial theatre were overlooked.
Nonetheless, it was heartening to understand how Hamlet can be
interpreted in a seemingly endless variety of ways, and still retain its status as a great play. To paraphrase Patsy in Absolutely
Fabulous, you can never have enough Ha(mle)ts.