Simon Russell Bealein Hamlet
Simon Russell Beale
in Hamlet
Short and stocky, the English actor Simon Russell Beale is physically right for character roles. Someday, he'll undoubtedly make theater history in the greatest character role of them all: Falstaff. At first glance, however, he doesn't look appropriate for many of the parts in which he's distinguished himself on the London stage. Over the course of the past two decades, he has seemed perfect as the affluent burgher in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Money and was sublime as Sir Foppington Flutter in The Man of Mode, but who would have thought Beale would have made such a remarkable Konstantin in The Seagull 15 years or so ago? He has been an admirably grave yet nimble Pangloss in the Leonard Bernstein Candide, but would Iago have seemed to fit him so seamlessly, before he proved that it did just a few seasons past? In short, as one of our greatest living English-speaking actors, Beale typically shines no matter what he takes on.

Now he's taken on Hamlet and, in so doing, has come to the States for the second time. In many ways, he's an ideal Hamlet; in one crucial way, he isn't. Alas, Beale seems too old for the part. Hamlet's age has always been something of a question mark; the conflicted lad is usually thought to be somewhere between 18 and 30. Harold Bloom's theory is that when Shakespeare first tackled the play in (it's estimated) 1589, he was still only 25 and still thinking a young man's thoughts. But, when he went back to the manuscript a dozen years later, he was in a more mature frame of mind--and, therefore, Hamlet was as well.

Not a bad hunch. But whether a hotspur of a boy or a cooler spur of a man, Hamlet is certainly not meant to look middle-aged. Beale, with his grizzled beard and thick waist, looks as if he's on the shady side of 40--which, in the 16th century, was past middle age. In John Caird's production, for which Tim Hatley has designed a cathedral-like set and sumptuous period costumes, Beale suffers the prince's crescendoing troubles while wearing a doublet, etc. under a loose, floor-length coat. It's the sort of schmatte Bea Arthur used to effect for the purpose of minimizing her girth and, as such, it's a giveaway.

In fact, it might do unnecessary harm. In the final act, Beale takes the jacket off so that he can attend more felicitously to the fatal duel with Laertes. Thus accoutered, he appears to be in fighting trim. Beale has always been able to cross a stage with the ease of an ice skater executing figure eights, and could likely have done so here had the jacket not been so hampering. Because he does move with such grace, he can convey with his body the same forcible character he conveys with his voice and his obvious intellect. Perhaps he should have been allowed to.

Maybe, however, Beale's Hamlet is in part as effective as it is because of what seems initially to be a drawback. Through this more mature characterization, what the actor suggests quite resolutely is how great a king Hamlet might have become had he lived to succeed his uncle/step-father, Claudius. Hamlet's judgments and his advice (this is a play in which advice is ladled incessantly) are unfailingly sound, whereas some of the advice handed out liberally by Claudius and Polonius is so much hoo-hah. Shakespeare, needless to say, has given Hamlet the best lines in the play, the best poetry and prose, for the very reason that Hamlet has the best mind in this or any of the Bard's plays. That's why Hamlet is Shakespeare's greatest character, Hamlet Shakespeare's single greatest work.

Hamlet thinking through his actions--or, as the conventional attitudes have it, his lack of actions--is in every detail the superior example of a man that his adoring friend Horatio says he is. And Beale, who has a resonating, middle-range voice that seems to carry its own echo chamber, speaks the speeches not only trippingly on the tongue but also with the fervor of the constantly ticking brain behind it. He makes the famous soliloquies models of rational thought. In the "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I" aria, the disappointment and frustration Hamlet feels is so profound, so heartfelt, that the opening night BAM audience seemed in response to be breathing as one.

In delineating Hamlet's determination to avenge his father's murder, Beale also is spot-on in his reaction to the betrayals of those around him. It's immediately clear when this Hamlet realizes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been called home from Wittenberg to spy on him, and the exact moment when he comprehends that Ophelia has been sent to cross his path so the King and Claudius can observe him is equally well defined. Beale makes plain not only Hamlet's expressed fury, but his inner fire as well. This is a Hamlet who, while feigning madness, becomes increasingly mad at how he's being treated. It's a thinking-man's Hamlet, and the thinking is on an extremely high plane, indeed. When Beale's Hamlet dies, not only does a noble heart crack, but the world is also robbed of a uniquely refined mind.

Beale's accomplishments in the role have got to be part of a collaboration with Caird, whose mounting of this Hamlet has numerous distinguishing aspects, not all of them successful. Possibly the production's most prominent feature is its religious air: This may be the most Catholic interpretation of Hamlet ever seen. In the cathedral where, at the play's opening, a cross hangs, the characters frequently cross themselves in costume that hint at the clerical. (Even the wielded daggers are shaped like crosses.) Liturgical music by John Cameron, sounding authentic to time and place, plays almost non-stop. When Hamlet curses the time's being out of joint, it is God's time being abused and in need of putting right. As the tragedy ends--without, incidentally, Fortinbras arriving--the players slowly collect and walk into niches where their faces are lit like so many statues on a cathedral facade.

Caird does marvelously well with many of the set pieces. For instance, when Hamlet tells Ophelia (well-played, even underplayed, by Cathryn Bradshaw) that she should get herself to a nunnery and why, Caird has seen to it that Hamlet's reasons are valid and not just antic prancing. When the traveling players arrive and enact Priam's death and Hecuba's subsequent grieving, Caird stages the theatrical as well as it could be staged; equally well done is the provocative murder of Gonzago with which Hamlet hopes to catch Claudius out. Caird has also come up with a number of shrewd nuances. For example: Polonius, delivering his "to thine own self be true" advice, reads from a slate on which he's already written out his bromides.

But Caird has made a few perplexing decisions here. When the play begins, all the actors enter and sit on trunks arranged in a circle. As the first words ("Who is there?") are uttered and Hamlet's ghost appears to Bernardo, Francisco, Marcellus, and Horatio, the other actors rise and leave. The trunks remain--and although they are moved every so often, arranged into different configurations, they are there throughout. Maybe there's a line somewhere in the text that Caird is playing on metaphorically, but if so, it's an obscure reference. The trunks are just so much extra baggage. Kings, queens and princes don't normally sit on their steamers, but they do here. The result is that much of this Hamlet is awkward, stopped in its tracks by clumsy stage pictures.

Caird has good luck and less good luck with his actors. Peter Blythe, who doubles as Polonius and the gravedigger, shows the former to be somewhat more likeable a windbag than usual and the latter as whimsical as ever; Guy Lankester's Laertes is powerful and strong; Simon Day's Horatio is staunchly mild; Peter McEnery makes Claudius a rational man whose ambition led him to make a mistake he can never right; Sylvester Morand makes much of both Hamlet's Ghost (a quite tangible one, as Caird sees him) and the Player King. Sara Kestelman, ordinarily outstanding at whatever she does, is a regal Gertrude but demonstrates only the outer show of emotional turmoil when Hamlet confronts her in her boudoir. Christopher Staines and Paul Bazely as, respectively, the interchangeable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unprepossessing to a fault.

Because of the economics involved--and maybe also because this is the second Hamlet at BAM in as many months--the Royal National Theatre production is only passing through. So theater lovers who want to see what transcendent acting is are encouraged to get off their duffs and catch Simon Russell Beale, even if not perfectly cast, while they have the rare chance to do so on this side of the Atlantic.