Yes, that's an oversimplification, but really it's difficult to put into words why I'm writing this without it sounding mildly to maddeningly pretentious. So forgive me if I stray into that territory. Believe me you were lucky. I nearly tried to write this in blank verse.
I was watching a documentary the other night called 'Playing The Dane'. It was from the early nineties and featured the talking heads of a diverse series of actors from Stacey Keach to Kevin Kline to Christopher Walken talking about the time they appeared in a production. The closing To Be Or Not To Be montage is on the BBC website.
There was an excellent moment (a fragment which can be seen in this interview collection) were Sir Ian McKellan talked about the man who bounded in his dressing room at the Cambridge Theatre and said 'Congratulations, you're my sixty-eighth Hamlet, and I remember something about every one of them. When Maurice Evans played it, he had a little hole in his tights here.' McKellan ponders what he remembered about his.
There's something really quite epic about that. What would it have been like to have seen so many actors set out to play the same role. Would they really play it in so many different ways and could you really remember the remarkable performances over the average, and indeed something about all of them? How would you feel at the end of that? Would it put you off drama for life, gain a greater appreciation, or would you at the very least feel as though you understood what the play was actually about?
Being up to a challenge, I've decided to find out. I'm going to see as many productions of Hamlet as I can before I shuffle of this mortal coil. I'll be seeing and hearing him in the theatre, on film, on tv and radio, on cd and even vinyl or cassette. Since that man's sixty-eight is the highest number I've even heard of, I'm going to use that as a guide, a milestone. From there to a hundred and then who knows? There won't be any time limits though, sanity being a premium and money being an object. The only rule being that a performance will only count if I've seen or heard it from start to finish through a whole production. If the actor's going from ghost to jest to death, I'll be there with them. Also I've already seen about ten of them, and although I'll make a point of rewatching as many of those as I can, the theatre productions have come and gone, but I'll include them anyway.
I'll post reviews of each production as proof, and for memory, and keep a running tally.
As Richard Briers said once when asked what Hamlet was about, he said 'It's about four hours.' That's the full text, with a quick intermission between for the actors to take a breather and for the audience to clear their bowels. Most productions are cut down to about two hours and it'll be interesting to see what ends up being cut most often.
Generally the only thing to stay in is the central story which runs thus, as told by the Wikipedia:
"Prince Hamlet, the title character, is the son of the late King of Denmark, who was also named Hamlet. He is charged by the ghost of his father to avenge his murder, which he finally succeeds in doing, but only after the rest of the royal house has been wiped out and he himself has been mortally wounded with a poisoned rapier by Laertes."That's the arc of the character and it gives away the ending. But being a Shakespeare tragedy you knew everyone was going to die anyway so go with it.
What it doesn't do is express what a exciting multi-faceted story, multi-genre, narrative, thing it is. It's a ghost story, revenge drama, a love story, detective story, comedy, psychological study, sports drama, all drowning in the kitchen sink. No one is entirely as they seem and no one walks away clean. No matter who plays him, Hamlet is a gut-wrenching central character who you just have to care for simply because of the number of faces he has to wear for so many people; he's unremittingly human, a man who makes mistakes but keeps bouncing back. None of William Shakespeare's plays pulls in so many direction or is open to so many different interpretations. Some sections can be played as out and out comedy, or deadly serious -- and it can work both ways.
It's also oft quoted but simply because there is so much great language. Time and again, especially if you're listening to the full text, every day phrases and aphorisms will pop up during the play's nuts and bolts dialogue. But there are also some section of heartbreaking poetry. The Yorik speech for example, whilst edging into cliche though over mis-quoting is a perfect evocation of nostalgia but also out existence in the memories of others after death.
It's also flexible -- I've heard it turned into everything from a dance track to a folk song. References appear, well everywhere and it's been translated into a hundred languages including Klingon. There just seems to be so many other things to write about.
Why Hamlet? Because everyone should have a weblog.