Hamlet is the subject of Jack Thorne’s thoughtful and moving new play, directed by Sam Mendes, at London’s Noel Coward Theatre until the end of March. The context is the 1964 Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy directed by Sir John Gielgud, played here with a touching and uncanny likeness by Mark Gatiss, and starring Richard Burton as the Prince, played with rough but lyrical Welshness by Johnny Flynn. Thorne’s title is a quote from the Bard as Hamlet prepares his actors for the play-within-a-play just as Gatiss’ Gielgud does. We find ourselves watching a play about the preparations for a play which is itself about the preparations for a play!
This avoids confusion through Mendes’ deft handling. Actual excerpts from Hamlet take place in front of the curtain, rehearsals and other scenes, behind. The set, designed by Es Devlin, features back-lit frosted glass windows which allow the cast to freeze-frame poses in silhouette, as if snapped by paparazzi attracted by the celebs on hand. Tuppence Middleton plays with considerable allure an indulgent Liz Taylor. Her presence is a reminder of the other acting world: film – the wealth, the fame, the destructive potential. The show ends with a sequence of facts on the laser-display. Burton’s early death compared with Gielgud’s longevity; Burton’s the longest running Hamlet ever on Broadway; Gielgud having previously played the Dane on this very stage!
The present celeb Mark Gatiss gives a beautiful portrayal of the old ham, his love of theatrical anecdote and his coy suppressed homosexuality, although the comedian’s television aura has the unfortunate effect of provoking titters among the starstruck at lines which aren’t always supposed to be funny. Thorne’s skill as a writer overcomes this tendency by the second half when the two principals finally allay their jealous antagonism, engage the audience and discuss the core of the drama.
At the heart of both Shakespeare’s and Thorne’s text is the father-son relationship. We see this most starkly in the confrontation between the two men alone on the stage in Act Two, the pompous surrogate paterfamilias and the presumptuous upstart. Each reflects on his own progenitor – the ‘deeply average’ Gielgud senior, the drunken brute of papa Burton. What greater motive could there be for Burton’s realisation of the troubled Prince? The cue is the burning passion he feels. This sudden dawning for both characters culminates in Flynn’s not altogether convincing delivery of the ‘To be…’ monologue. Unexplored, or at least unmentioned, is Shakespeare’s own fatherhood and the death of his son Hamnet at the age of eleven, which surely influenced the famous soliloquy. Nonetheless one warms to Flynn’s impulsive youth and his innate charisma and the dialogue with the seasoned Gatiss together with a well-characterised supporting cast under a skillful director is one of the must-sees of the new year.