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The Universal Appeal of a Danish Prince

June 27, 1989

LONDON (AP) _ When it comes to Shakespeare, ″Hamlet″ is still very much the thing.

In recent months, Britain’s two large government-subsidized theaters have tackled the Prince of Denmark, and two other London plays are now on using Hamlet as a central character.

It remains one of the world’s favorite plays, and Hamlet’s celebrated soliloquy has become universal, whether in Chinese (″si hai shi huo″), Swedish (″Att vara eller icke vara″) or English (″To be or not to be″).

In Paris, Patrice Chereau’s production recently swept the Moliere Awards, the French equivalent of Broadway’s Tony. Britain has averaged eight major ″Hamlet″ productions every year for the past three years. New York’s Public Theater presented it in 1986 with Kevin Kline as the prince.

Women have played him, too, notably the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt a century ago, Dame Judith Andersonand more recently Diane Venora at the Public in 1982.

Laurence Olivier called it ″the best play ever written,″ and his 1948 film portrayal was the only Shakespeare work ever to win Academy Awards for best film and best actor.

Others have tried to shape it to the times. The great 18th-century actor David Garrick hated the graveyard scene. ″I swore,″ he said, ″that I would not leave the stage ’till I had rescued that noble play from all the rubbish of the fifth act.″

The Victorians left out Hamlet’s lapses into vernacular, along with anything else that might portray him as less than a perfect prince. Nowadays, producers are more apt to drop the subplot involving the agents and friends of Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a trend which in itself inspired a whole, much-applauded play by British dramatist Tom Stoppard about two characters who find they do not exist outside the play.

In 1987, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s acclaimed production with his Royal Dramatic Theater of Stockholm had a week-long run in Britain, and in September Russian director Yuri Lyubimov will stage ″Hamlet″ with a British company at the Leicester Haymarket Theater.

Drawn from Scandinavian legend, ″Hamlet″ is about a prince who comes home from university to discover that his father has been murdered by his brother who has usurped the throne and married the queen he has widowed.

Setting out to clean up the rot in the kingdom of Denmark, Hamlet plunges into a jungle of intrigue, thwarted passion and switched poisons. He emerges triumphant, only to complete the tragedy by dying in a sword fight.

At its most basic, Hamlet is a rattling good revenge yarn. But it is also that rare play whose significance can continually be reshaped to meet a society’s preconceptions. Thus, audiences over the ages have seen Hamlet as Marxist, capitalist, pacifist, militarist, aristocrat, populist, Freudian obsessive and man of action.

This troubles some actors including Jonathan Pryce, who derides what he calls the ″Hamlet industry.″ They wonder whether the play’s appeal is also its weakness: whether by applying to everything and everyone, ″Hamlet″ risks being about nothing in particular.

″Is Hamlet really such a difficult part to get right?″ asks Lynne Truss in The Listener magazine. ″The answer seems to be that, on the contrary, it is awfully hard to get it wrong, since any interpretation seems to be valid.″

In recent years Londoners have been treated to Roger Rees’ dry, intensely cerebral Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company; Peter Stormare’s manic, military Hamlet for Ingmar Bergman; and now Daniel Day-Lewis’ highly emotional and impetuous Hamlet at the National.

Richard Eyre’s production continues the National’s tradition of doing a ″Hamlet″ near the start of each artistic director’s tenure. Day-Lewis, best known for the films ″The Unbearable Lightness of Being,″ ″My Beautiful Laundrette″ and ″A Room With a View,″ has inherited a part played in 1963 by Peter O’Toole and in 1976 by Albert Finney.

Also on show are Iris Murdoch’s ″The Black Prince,″ adapted from her 1973 novel, and the revival of Anton Chekhov’s 1887 ″Ivanov,″ with Alan Bates as a penniless landowner who sees himself as a failed Hamlet figure.

Murdoch, 69, first encountered Hamlet as a school text when she was 15. She ″an insane passion″ for the work, similar to that of Bradley Pearson, the sardonic tax inspector of ″The Black Prince″ who comes alive when thinking or speaking of Hamlet.

″I became absolutely entranced by it and by Shakespeare generally,″ she recalled in an interview. ″He’s very good on politics and power ... a great source of inspiration to novelists.″

From Garrick and Henry Irving through John Barrymore, Olivier and John Gielgud to today’s acting generation, Hamlet remains the hurdle every classical actor must overcome to attain true celebrity. And they rarely agree on whether Hamlet is an easy role or a difficult one.

″It’s quite easy, because it’s such an accommodating part which adapts itself to the personality of the actor,″ argues Michael Pennington, who played the role in 1980 at Stratford.

But Mark Rylance, who plays ″Hamlet″ in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current Stratford production, disagrees.

″I find it utterly enigmatic; as soon as one locates the role, it changes,″ the 29-year-old actor said in an interview. ″The challenge is to bring your own jumble of brain cells to the feminine and masculine qualities which are in conflict in the part. ... A lot of people cop out of that.″

Eyre, 46, first directed ″Hamlet″ in an acclaimed London production in 1980, then returned to the play intrigued by its elasticity.

″I came more and more to see the play as an archetype of growing up, the model for a whole genre of storytelling which has taken over the novel and films, too,″ he said.

″It’s about a man trying to accommodate, to come to terms with, a completely alien political and social world. When he starts off, Hamlet is Everyman, but for the fact that he’s a prince.

″This panders to our various fantasy aspirations while at the same time it concurs with our sense of not wanting to grow up, not wanting to be absorbed by an essentially alien world of Realpolitik.″

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