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  • Eddie Hewitt

A History of Hamlets

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

August 27, 2018

Past performances galore Many celebrated actors have played this role over the centuries. A host of star names over the past few years. Everyone has their favourites. Strangely, I have only seen two live performances of Hamlet. The first, as an undergraduate on an exciting trip to the National Theatre, with Daniel Day Lewis as the  Prince and Judi Dench as his mother, Gertrude. Some years later, I turned down the chance to see Imogen Stubbs in the lecherous, incestuous role of the Queen, thinking she was not advanced enough for this senior part, wishing she had been cast as Ophelia instead. I have never forgiven myself.

Daniel Day-Lewis with Judi Dench (Gertrude) in 1989 

Ben Whishaw with Imogen Stubbs (Gertrude) in 2004

But, we are talking about princes. In particular, the unhappy prince who finds himself too much in the sun. There have been so many Hamlets. Frequently, several on stage or screen in the same year throughout the decades. Every actor who is anyone seems to need to play the Dane in order to justify his thespian credentials. The earliest on record was Richard Burbage, In Shakespeare’s day.

Richard Burbage, the earliest recorded Hamlet

In modern history, Ben Kingsley and Laurence Olivier took on the challenge. In more recent times, Ken Branagh, Mark Rylance, David Tennant, Ben Whishaw, Jude Law and Benedict Q Cumberbatch, with Q cumber devotees nightly in the front row. Then there was Rory Kinnear; not a patch on his dad in the entertainment circle, but also a fine actor. The biggest name lately has been Tom Hiddleston.

Laurence Olivier, on screen, 1948

Kenneth Branagh, a serial Hamlet performer, seen here on screen with Kate Winslet (Ophelia) in 1996  

Mark Rylance, another frequent Hamlet, with Yorick, at The Globe (1988)

Benedict Cumberbatch, a favourite with his b'*'tches, in 2015 photo: Tristram Kenton 

You will have spotted several knights of the realm in the names above, as well as a few commoners. The next pictures you see will fall into the latter category.

Rory Kinnear in 2010

And Roy Kinnear, with Gene Wilder, in Charlier and the Chocolate Factory, 1971 Well, it's all about the dad. 

There have been many more actors picking up the skull in Yorick’s grave, including actresses. Maxine Peake stands out, but she was not the first female prince, nor the last. Sarah Bernhardt played the part in 1899. Michelle Terry, recently appointed Artistic Director at the Globe Theatre, cherry-picked the lead role for herself in a move demonstrating boldness and outstanding leadership. In this ‘gender-blind’ production, Shubham Saraf played Ophelia.

Maxine Peake in 2014

Sarah Bernhardt in 1899

Michelle Terry with James Garnon (Claudius) at the Globe, 2018

Shubham Saraf as Ophelia at the Globe, 2018 Globe photos: Tristram Kenton

Earlier this year, Paapa Essiedu, my second live Hamlet, reprised his role as the troubled son bound to avenge his father’s most unnatural death. Essiedu appeared on tour, away from the traditional grand Shakespearean venues, but in the finest of companies. He first played the Prince in this RSC production in 2016. As far as I can ascertain, Essiedu is the first black, African Hamlet in a major UK or US production. He is certainly the only black actor in the list of Hamlets below. If anyone knows differently, please email me with details via the Connected Cultures website.    

Paapa Essiedu on tour with the RSC (2018)

photo: Manuel Harlan

Perhaps the most unlikely prince of all was a real prince who, in 2016, performed one line in the BBC celebrations for Shakespeare's 400th birthday. A host of pretend princes led the way on stage, all asking the same existential question. You know the one. And finally, to the apparent annoyance of the proper actors, hahaha!, Bonny Prince Charles strode onto the stage and asked that question his way.

First in line to the throne. A night with the stars at the BBC in 2016

A final note. When Hamlets come they come not single spies….

Especially in 1948, 1980, 1989 and 2000. And often, when the RSC mounts a production, a rival appears on stage at the National. This play really is the thing.

Year   Actor                          Theatre

1601   Richard Burbage          The Globe

1864   Henry Irving

1899   Sarah Bernhardt

1922   John Barrymore

1930   John Gielgud

1948   Laurence Olivier           Movie

1948   Paul Scofield                RSC

1948   Robert Helpman           RSC

1953   Maurice Evans             TV movie

1958   Michael Redgrave

1961   Ian Bannen                  RSC

1964   Richard Burton             Broadway

1964   Christopher Plummer    BBC TV

1965   David Warner               RSC

1970   Alan Howard                 RSC

1970   Richard Chamberlain     ITV

1970   Ian McKellen                TV movie

1975   Ben Kingsley                RSC

1980   Jonathan Pryce             Royal Court

1980   Michael Pennington       RSC

1980   Derek Jacobi                TV movie

1980   Eric Morecambe            TV Special

1984   Roger Rees                   RSC

1988   Kenneth Branagh          Phoenix

1989   Daniel Day-Lewis          National

1989   Ian Charleson               National Theatre

1989   Mark Rylance                RSC

1982   Christopher Walken       American

1990   Mel Gibson                   Movie

1990   Kevin Kline                   New York

1992   Kenneth Branagh          RSC

1994   Stephen Dillane            Gielgud

1995   Keanu Reeves               Manitoba

1995   Ralph Fiennes               Broadway

1996   Kenneth Branagh          Movie

1997   Alex Jennings                RSC

2000   Ethan Hawke                 Movie

2000   Mark Rylance                The Globe

2000   Simon Russell Beale       National

2000   Campbell Scott              TV movie

2001   Samuel West                 RSC

2004   Toby Stephens               RSC

2004   Ben Whishaw                 Old Vic

2008   David Tennant               RSC

2009   Jude Law                      Wyndham’s

2010   Rory Kinnear                 National

2011   Michael Sheen               Young Vic

2013   Jonathan Slinger            RSC

2014   Maxine Peake                Royal Court

2015   Benedict Cumberbatch   National

2016   Prince Charles et al        BBC

2016   Paapa Essiedu               RSC

2017   Tom Hiddleston             Vanbrugh

2017   Andrew Scott                 Almeida

2018   Paapa Essiedu               RSC

2018   Michelle Terry               The Globe

Penultimate knight:

John Gielgud in 1930

Last knight:

Ben Kingsley in 1975

© Eddie Hewitt 2018

Links: The Connected Cultures Hamlet special: Review of the RSC’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire The African Hamlet Words Words Words: favourite lines from Hamlet In a Nutshell: Hamlet - the Story The RSC: Hamlet Hackney Empire: Hamlet The Globe: Hamlet


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