It is arguably the world’s most famous play. The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark contains all of the elements of great drama: a revenge thriller, a family ripped apart, a tragic love story, political ambition and intrigue, and wondrous poetry and philosophical insights, but most of all a uniquely intelligent, vibrant and sympathetic title character who we see in all his brilliance and frailty. Hamlet’s assignment to avenge his father’s murder wears heavily on his young shoulders, already pressed down by grief and his mother’s o’er hasty marriage. His dangerous and solitary commission is bedevilled by his own moral scruples and his fragile mental stability, and though we know that it cannot go well, we are with him every step of his intense journey.
It is believed that Shakespeare started writing the play in 1599, a miraculously productive year in his career when the Globe theatre was built, and he had already penned Henry V, As You Like It, and Julius Caesar. As the century and Queen Elizabeth’s reign were drawing to an end, the play may have reflected some of the anxiety of the time about the future and the succession in particular. If drama is supposed to be “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time”, as Hamlet councils the travelling players, how does it now “hold a mirror up to” our age?
As we record this episode a new production is on stage at the Young Vic theatre in London, with renowned actress Cush Jumbo winning huge acclaim for her androgynous performance in the eponymous role. I am delighted to be joined in the task of attempting to survey the Everest of plays that is Hamlet, by the director of this production, Greg Hersov. Greg was previously the Artistic Director of the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre for 27 years, and the CV of plays he directed there reads like the dream catalogue for The Play Podcast, with countless classic titles old and new, including at least four Shakespeare plays. In Manchester he also forged a very successful partnership with his current Hamlet, previously directing Cush Jumbo in the lead roles in As You Like It, Pygmalion and A Doll’s House.
Note: Given the sheer length and depth of this mountain of a play, about which more has been written than any other in the history of drama, this episode is longer than our usual one hour. The play as published is never performed in full, as it would run to well over four hours, so every director must edit the text for their production. Likewise Greg and I could have talked for much longer, but edited our conversation down to this our best concise version of the play.
Hamlet at the Young Vic runs until 13th November 2021.