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Hamlet and Gertrude in Brooklyn

Talking with Simon Russell Beale and Sara Kestelman of the Royal National Theatre's Hamlet, now playing at BAM. logo
Simon Russell Beale in Hamlet
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Simon Russell Beale's performance in the title role of the Royal National Theatre production of Hamlet has won him The London Evening Standard Theater Award for Best Actor, the London Critics Circle Award for Best Shakespearean Performance, and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best Actor. As a leading member of the Royal National Theatre's Ensemble Company in 1999, he appeared as Voltaire/Pangloss in Candide (winning the Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical) and in Money, Battle Royal, and Summerfolk. In 1997/98, he played Iago in the Royal Shakespeare Company's world tour of Othello. Other credits with the RSC include the title roles in Edward II and Richard III, Edgar in King Lear, Konstantin in The Seagull, and Oswald in Ghosts.

Beale's Gertrude in the Royal National's Hamlet is Sara Kestelman, who trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. She has appeared for the RNT in such diverse works as Copenhagen, Bedroom Farce, and The Threepenny Opera. For the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has portrayed almost all of Shakespeare's women, including Titania and Hippolyta in Peter Brook's landmark production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Stratford, in London, and on Broadway. Among her extensive West End credits are Three Tall Women (with Maggie Smith), I Claudius, and The Three Sisters, while her musical theater endeavors include Fiddler on the Roof at the London Palladium and Cabaret at the Donmar Warehouse. Her one-woman show, All About Me, based on a published collection of poems written in collaboration with Susan Penhaligon, has been performed as part of National Poetry Day at the National and at the Firebird Café in New York City.

Now Beale, Kestelman, and their colleagues have brought the RNT Hamlet to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for an all-too-short run, as part of a U.S. tour. TheaterMania's Lynda Sturner spoke separately with the stars prior to their arrival in New York.


THEATERMANIA: What questions did you ask to find your Hamlet?

SIMON RUSSELL BEALE: When I started, it was a fairly blank sheet of paper. I began reading it very slowly with John [Caird, the director of this production] about five weeks before rehearsals. We read an act a week and discussed it; so, by the time I actually hit the rehearsal floor, I did have a few ideas. I knew I didn't want to physically assault my mother, but that was about it! I learned with Iago, with fantastically complicated parts of this size, that you can just build it up little by little rather than saying that you've got to do something highly defined; to relax into it rather than impose yourself on it. What came out surprised me. I didn't expect him to be so gentle, actually.

TM: Did you always want to be an actor?

BEALE: No. I went to University (Cambridge) and read English, which is a sort of a classic actor's start in England. I was at University on choral scholarship, which meant I had to sing at church services. I was a tenor then, but I don't think I was a natural tenor; I was a high baritone, and that isn't very useful, really. I wasn't top flight, either. So I think it was good for me that I gave it up.

TM: How did you turn to acting?

BEALE: I suppose it was always at the back of my mind. I didn't wake up one morning and say, "I want to be an actor." It just sort of crept up on me. A lot of the people I was at University with had gone on to act, contempories like Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. I suppose I looked at them and said, "I should be in that camp."

TM: Did you go to drama school?

BEALE: I was there for a year. I left early because Stephen Fry had written a play and asked me to do it.

TM: What was Drama School like? Were you instantly recognized as a talent?

BEALE: God, no. In the first year, that's not the way it works. You're all starting from scratch. I don't know what they thought about me.

TM: Did you always want to play Hamlet?

BEALE: I wouldn't have thought of myself as a Hamlet in the beginning. About 10 years ago, I was doing lots of comic parts at the RSC and Terry Hands, who was the artistic director at the time, gave me the part of Konstantin in The Sea Gull--which is very radical casting. I'm eternally grateful to Terry for doing that, because it allowed me to do serious parts.

TM: Has your performance changed since you began playing Hamlet?

BEALE: It changes every night. There are certain areas that are very loose. I love the freedom of all that. I know where Sara [Kestelman] and Cathy [Cathryn Bradshaw, who plays Ophelia] are going to end up and where we start in our scenes--but, in the middle, who knows? It's a tribute to them that we trust each other.

TM: How did John Caird help you?

BEALE: John has a faith in human nature which is rather wonderful. He wanted to see the good in all these characters. The most fascinating is Claudius, actually. Claudius is not a dyed-in-the-wool monster; he is a man who feels the need to repent and has done something dreadful, but he's not essentially bad. John said in rehearsal, "Claudius wants to be his brother. That requires him to have the crown, the wife and the son. Therefore, that desire to be Hamlet's father is absolutely genuine. It's not a political move. It's a genuine desire that everything should be all right." I find that psychologically plausible: Having done this dreadful thing, let's sweep it under the carpet and make it work. It's devastating for Hamlet that he sees the need in Claudius as well; if Claudius is just simply a bastard, then there is nowhere to go. John said that so much of the play is about the potential for love that is destroyed. The one relationship that survives absolutely undamaged is between Horatio and Hamlet, but the rest of them are betrayed in some sort of way. So that's where the gentler Hamlet came from: John. If it had been another director, it would have gone in another direction. Intellectually, Hamlet is amazing. His sense of humor is wonderful, and his sense of the irony of his position is fantastic. But he is an innocent. He doesn't really understand sex and certainly is dreadful about women. Emotionally, he's a boy.

TM: Does the intellectual analysis of the play stimulate you?

BEALE: I think the analysis is an emotional journey. The thing about Shakespeare is that the mind works with the heart at exactly the same time. I don't think there is any disparity between feeling something and expressing it well. Stephen Fry said, "Just because I can articulate my feelings doesn't mean I can't feel them." That is sort of the same with Shakespeare plays.

TM: Would you consider doing another Hamlet with a different director?

BEALE: I'm far too old! God knows I'm borderline already, slipped under the wire. I've had one stab at it, and that's enough.


Sara Kestelman
THEATERMANIA: Is this the first time you've played Gertrude?

SARA KESTELMAN: I understudied Gertrude years ago at Stratford, directed by Trevor Nunn. Alan Howard played Hamlet. Understudying was a different thing, because you have to really follow the way in which the principal person is playing it. It's no good having ideas of your own; no one thanks you too much for putting them in. I never had an opportunity to go on, and I didn't want to, actually. I was always a very fearful understudy. When I was asked to do the role [in the RNT production], I looked at it in a completely fresh way, having in the meantime seen many other Hamlets.

TM: Are there any other Gertrudes who made an impact on you?

KESTELMAN: I saw a production many years ago in which Faith Brook played Gertrude. The character had a serenity and a beauty, but she also had a drinking problem: She got drunker and drunker and drunker as the story unfolded. It was terribly moving. Somebody asked me, "Did you see that performance of Faith Brook's?" and before I had an opportunity to say how I admired it, he said to me, "Wasn't it terrible?" Perhaps it was a puritanical idea that you shouldn't introduce another element. I always used to be very puritanical about acting: You do what's set on the page and don't mess about with it. I've changed my mind completely about that. There was a wonderful production that John Caird did of A Midsummer Night's Dream with all the fairies in Doc Martins. It was absolutely magical, and it couldn't have been more different than the one I did.

TM: What was it like working with Peter Brook in his landmark production of Midsummer?

KESTELMAN: No one knew how successful it was going to be. Brook himself was very worried. No one was feeling confident. We put it in front of that first night audience and everybody stayed on that tightrope--nobody fell off. I don't know what we did but, whatever it was, it was brilliant. For some people, it changed their theatrical lives, their perceptions. It was an extraordinary piece of theatrical history, and I'm proud that I happened to be part of it.

TM: Did you know at the time that you were making theater history?

KESTELMAN: Not at all. Neither did Peter. When it opened, I think he realized it. When we were coming to New York, I remember him saying, "Don't be complacent. I've done this Broadway thing before. It only needs the tiniest change of anything--a piece of scenery, a costume, an actor--and those same critics who thought it was wonderful in London could turn around and say, 'They changed it all. They've ruined it.' " He was urging us to be really vigilant.

TM: How did you develop your Gertrude?

KESTELMAN: I had just read John Updike's book Claudius and Gertrude, so I was buzzing with all of Updike's speculations. He let his imagination run. "Why does this woman have only one child, and how did Gertrude and Claudius come together?" It's about middle-age passion. It made me think about a woman completely on her own in an arranged marriage to Hamlet's father. From what the ghost of Hamlet's father tells us, it seems that some kind of relationship had begun between Claudius and Gertrude before the murder. It may have been the source of the murder, but there is no evidence that Gertrude knows anything about that. If Shakespeare had meant there to be a real link with it, he would have thrown it in. When he writes women who have very little to say, he's making the point that society constrains them. All Gertrude is able to do is observe, to stand and watch.

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