For anyone attempting to play Hamlet, the pressure’s on. Not just because William Shakespeare’s master of melancholy is a bundle of complicated emotions, but because the part is so well known.
Know the next four words, right?
By the time an actor gets to “ . . . or not to be,” he (or she) has the weight of centuries of actors on their shoulders.
“There’s tremendous pressure,” says Christopher Dippel, an assistant professor of theater at Hofstra University in Hempstead, who directed “Hamlet” last year for the opening of the school's annual Shakespeare Festival.
“It’s one of the most famous speeches in the world — if not the most famous — so you know many people in the audience will be mouthing the words as you speak it,” he says.
For acclaimed British actress Janet McTeer, there’s added pressure. As the star of Theresa Rebeck’s new play, “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a Roundabout Theatre Company production that opens Tuesday, Sept. 25, at the American Airlines Theatre, she’s not just playing Hamlet. She’s playing Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet.
Bernhardt, once the most famed actor of her day, is now largely forgotten. But Hamlet, more than four centuries old, remains as popular as ever. So what is it about this role that actors crave?
PERCHANCE TO DREAM
There are plenty of roles actors dream of, but the holy grail — make that grails — arguably comes down to two: Hamlet and King Lear.
“Those are the two that people covet,” says Dippel. “Hamlet when you’re younger, Lear when older.”
The list of actors who’ve tackled Hamlet, the Danish prince haunted by his late father and out to avenge his death, is legendary — Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, to name a few.
And Bernhardt, a French international superstar, back in 1899. Inspired by true events, “Bernhardt/Hamlet” imagines what it must’ve been like for the diva to buck tradition while juggling a married lover (Jason Butler Harner), devoted co-star (Dylan Baker), and skeptical critic (Tony Carlin).
“I was interested in the power of a really mighty figure taking on something that was ceiling-breaking — and dangerous,” says Rebeck.
Before writing the script, Rebeck researched the tale for about a decade. Curious what happens to a person while playing Hamlet, she surveyed actors. Hamlet keeps you up nights, one actor explained. Your average character? “You play him, you go home, you go to bed.”
Rebeck loved it — and that line went verbatim into her script.
TRACING HAMLET'S APPEAL
The love for “Hamlet,” like any of Shakespeare’s plays, starts with the language.
“It’s some of the most beautiful writing ever written,” says McTeer, a Tony winner recently seen on TV’s “Ozark” and “Jessica Jones.”
Besides the overall rhythm and flow, which just feels good in an actor’s mouth, the dialogue resonates. Hamlet, for instance, in the wake of his father’s death, is consumed by grief, an emotion everyone has experienced.
That’s what drew in Dylan Baker, who plays Bernhardt’s co-star, Benoît-Constant Coquelin. Baker has never played Hamlet in a full production, but while attending the Yale School of Drama in the 1980s, his father died, and so he began studying and performing Hamlet’s speeches to help sort things out.
“It really opened me up and got me thinking about my relationship with my dad and what it is to be a son,” he says.
Hamlet speaks to actors in a direct, intimate way. For many, it’s like talking to Shakespeare himself.
“Hamlet is Shakespeare,” says Rebeck. “People yearn to do it because they think they’ll meet him . . . soul to soul.”
Playing the part, she says, “feels so personal . . . it’s just extraordinary.”
Audiences find a connection, too.
“Most protagonists in most plays see what they want and go for it,” says Hofstra’s Dippel. “But Hamlet is grieving, terrified. Imagine being visited by the ghost of your father, who’s encouraging you to kill someone. If you were in that situation you wouldn’t be an action hero — you’d sit around just like Hamlet, weighing every side of every argument.
“We do that in the smallest situations,” Dippel continues. “Like asking someone out — we look for signs whether we should ask or not, we wrestle with it. So Hamlet is easy to relate to, he’s very human.”
TWO PARTS IN ONE
For McTeer, of course, the challenge is doubled — having to take on Hamlet and Bernhardt. (In addition to memorizing Rebeck’s script, McTeer spent about three weeks before rehearsals committing most of Hamlet’s speeches to memory, just so they’d be “floating around in my head” as they would’ve been in Bernhardt’s, she says.)
“You gotta be ready with Janet,” says Baker, “She’ll come in one day and say, ‘Hey, let’s try this,’ and [the scene] goes off in a whole different direction. And it’s always worth exploring.”
Bernhardt would surely approve. Though she might be chagrined to learn her historic performance is little known today.
As with Hamlet, players come and go. The role endures.
“We have real reverence for her,” says Rebeck. “Every time she says at the end [of the play], ‘I am Sarah Bernhardt — like all actors, I am air,’ I’m so moved. But that’s the deal we make in the theater. When it’s there, it’s so vital and interesting — and then it’s gone.”
Scores of actors have played Hamlet. Here are a few standouts.
Sarah Bernhardt (1899) She played Hamlet as a man of action, not a mope, in a gender-bending Paris stage production.
Laurence Olivier (1948) Hailed as “virile” — even in tights and puffy shirt — Olivier won an Oscar for this film version, which he also directed.
Derek Jacobi (1980) He’s played the role some 400 performances over his lifetime, including this BBC TV version. “The first time [in high school], what I lacked in technique and finesse I made up for in volume,” Jacobi once said. He got better.
Mel Gibson (1990) This is Hamlet “Lethal Weapon”-style — exuberant, angry and heavily edited (so not for purists).
Kenneth Branagh (1996) "Hamlet [isn’t] predisposed to be melancholy,” said Branagh, who also directed and adapted the screenplay. “Brooding, yes. Excitable, yes. Volatile, yes.” And chatty — this unabridged film lasts four hours.
Ethan Hawke (2000) In this modern-day urban take, Hawke delivers his “To be or not to be” speech in the aisles of a Blockbuster video store. Remember those?
David Tennant (2009) Another modern take (this from the Royal Shakespeare Company), with Tennant a soulful, sexy prince.
William Ketter (2017) A junior in this Hofstra University stage production, Ketter “embraced the comedy,” says director Christopher Dippel, and “tried to get away from the fear of what you’re supposed to do — he just spoke it.” Ketter graduated this year, and is pursuing an acting career.
— Joseph V. Amodio