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The Role To Die For

As David Tennant prepares to take on Hamlet, Michael Billington picks the 10 greatest performances of the part that celebrates - and defines - the art of acting.

Oscar Wilde famously said that "there is no such thing as Shakespeare's Hamlet ... there are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies". One sees his point: there is something elusive and unpindownable about the role and, of all the great parts, this is the one that most encompasses an actor's individuality. David Tennant's Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon next week will doubtless by very different from Jude Law's in London next year. For this reason the role will continue to attract actors of all ages, races and genders for as long as theatre survives.

But, in considering the best Hamlets I've seen in 50 years of theatre- (and cinema-) going, I am struck by several facts. One is that the romantic tradition of Hamlet as a figure of introspective melancholy - "the gloomy Dane" - has long been supplanted by an emphasis on a host of other qualities: his wit, irony, intellectual agility, sexual confusion and frequent brutality. This, after all, is a man capable of murdering any number of people except the one who really matters: his uncle Claudius.

The restoration of the full text, and the rise of the director, have also led to a decisive shift in attitudes. We no longer shred the play, so that it becomes a succession of solo arias with all the other characters reduced to figures in Hamlet's dream. Directors and designers are also expected to give us a portrait of Elsinore itself: a political tyranny based on ceaseless eavesdropping. For me, the fullest realisation of this was a 1977 production by the Russian director, Yuri Lyubimov, one that was dominated by a vast, woven curtain, which swung backwards and forwards and reminded us that Elsinore was a police state where the walls had holes as well as ears.

In choosing my 10 favourite Hamlets, I have opted for strict chronology rather than a preferential league table. And, while any consideration of the great Hamlets is also a celebration of the art of acting itself, I hope to shed some light on the way the role has combined self-revelation with a response to the times through which each actor lived.

Michael Redgrave (Stratford, 1958)

Redgrave was 50 when he played his final Hamlet: older, in fact, than Googie Withers, who played his mother. Yet age seems to me irrelevant when it comes to Hamlet. What I recall is the completest interpretation of the role I have ever seen - one that embraced Hamlet's passion, intellect, violence and ultimate resignation. Never have I heard the famous lines beginning "we defy augury" more sweetly delivered. But, if emotional turbulence was the key to Redgrave's Hamlet, it was only in later years that I began to understand why. Redgrave, because of his bisexuality, was a tormented man; and I suspect it was his own deeply divided nature, the conflict between his refined public image and his private self, that made him one of the great Hamlets.

Innokenty Smoktunovsky (Russian film, 1964)

I had, of course, already seen Olivier play Hamlet on film. But, much as I worshipped Olivier, his screen Hamlet was a plodding, funereal affair. This Russian, however, was something else: smouldering, brooding and full of Nureyev-like charisma, as we discovered when he later played Dostoevsky's The Idiot on the London stage. But the real excitement came from Grigori Kozintsev's masterly direction. Tynan wrote that "this was the most convincing Elsinore I have ever witnessed on stage or screen". It was also the first time I realised that Hamlet's anguish has to be seen against the background of a feverishly busy court placed on a war footing.

David Warner (Stratford, 1965)

Gone was the conventionally romantic prince. Tall, angular, frail and bedecked with a long scarf, Warner's mid-twenties Hamlet seemed to epitomise the alienated youth of the day. It was a performance that achieved iconic, pop-star status, with young people crowding the stage door afterwards. It also owed much to Peter Hall's ability to steer the inexperienced Warner through the thickets of the verse. There was something immensely touching about Warner's embodiment of a lost soul, helplessly crying: "I do not know why yet I live to say, 'This thing's to do.'" It was a performance that redefined the role for a generation, an expression of 1960s culture where youth and age were locked in combat.

Derek Jacobi (Elsinore, 1979)

Jacobi has played Hamlet many times, starting with the National Youth Theatre in the 1960s. But I can never dissociate him from the extraordinary performance he gave at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore. It didn't just rain. It pelted down, with the audience sitting wrapped in protective polythene sheets like giant contraceptives. Yet Jacobi and the Old Vic company bravely battled on; and, although he nearly slipped up on "Get thee to a nunnery", Jacobi managed to give us all of Hamlet's confusion, rage and sweetness of soul.

Michael Pennington (Stratford, 1980)

Pennington must be the only actor who has not just played Hamlet, but written an illuminating book about the play. He is an intellectual who arguably has as great an understanding of the text as any scholar. At a time when lesser actors were starting to treat Hamlet as a nerdy slob, Pennington gave us the full Monty: a Hamlet who was both passion's slave and capable of dissecting the speeches with a postgraduate intelligence. The one thing Hamlet can never be is stupid. Pennington gave us not only the character's quicksilver mind but, in John Barton's Pirandellian production, the sense that he was digging for essential truth in a world where everyone was caught up in theatrical role-playing.

Jonathan Pryce (Royal Court, 1980)

This will go down in history as the Hamlet where the prince, instead of seeing the Ghost, was actually possessed by it and spoke its lines. (I still think it's a dubious device: for me the best Ghost ever was Greg Hicks, in a recent Michael Boyd production, where he was a tormented, unshriven figure torn from the mouth of purgatory.) But Pryce carried off his spiritual occupation with tremendous skill. He also restored a quality often missing in more melodious Hamlets - a genuine sense of danger. There was something about Pryce's razor-sharp intensity and built-in bullshit-detector that made you feel that any moment he might actually overcome his scruples and kill Claudius.

Stephen Dillane (Gielgud theatre, 1994)

If Pryce was the first ventriloquial Hamlet, Dillane was the first I saw strip to the buff: a symbol, I guess, of sexual confusion. But the real key to this fine performance was the use of mockery as a mask for disillusion. Dillane's Hamlet, in Peter Hall's production, was a sardonic, hawk-faced joker who could have been editor of Wittenberg's Private Eye. One minute he was sending up Donald Sinden's Polonius; the next he was telling us that "conscience doth make cowards of us all" with wry resignation. His flash of nudity signalled, if nothing else, the final death of the romantic tradition.

Kenneth Branagh (film, 1996)

Branagh has laid as strong a claim to the part as any recent actor. He has played it for his own Renaissance Theatre Company, for the RSC and finally in his self-directed, star-studded film. Some have accused him of chutzpah, but he seems to understand the part inside out. On screen, invested the role with his own impish humour and buoyant athleticism. Wilde may have said there was no such thing as Shakespeare's Hamlet. But Branagh confirmed the opposite: that the play survives because there is something of all of us in the multi-dimensional hero.

Angela Winkler (Edinburgh, 2000)

There has been a long line of female Hamlets. Sarah Bernhardt, in 1899, was described as "très grande dame"; Bandmann Palmer, because of rheumatism, was said to "have trouble rising from her knees"; and Frances de la Tour cut quite a dash. But Angela Winkler, in Peter Zadek's German production, was mesmerising. In tights and long black smock, she made no attempt to simulate maleness. Instead she absorbed Hamlet into her own personality and brought out something little noticed: Hamlet's enormous capacity for love. With the Ghost, she was all filial devotion; with Ophelia she was full of palpable, caressing tenderness. Maybe it wasn't the whole of Hamlet, but it proved that this is a role that transcends gender.

Simon Russell Beale (National Theatre, 2000)

Another smack in the face of tradition. Down the ages Hamlet has been a lean machine: Russell Beale mockingly patted his capacious stomach when announcing he had "foregone all custom of exercises". But Russell Beale's great quality was an endless capacity for moral disgust at the surrounding depravity. He seemed genuinely shocked at the realisation that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had been sent for, or that Ophelia was being used as a tactical decoy. His was also a perfect Hamlet for the age of irony. As Russell Beale declared that "this fell sergeant, Death, is strict in his arrest" he gave a brief smile at the imperative nature of mortality.

Hamlet is at the Courtyard theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, until November 15. Box office: 0844 800 1110

Source: The Guardian. 31st July 2008