Undertaking to play Hamlet is an act of unparalleled bravery--some would say folly--for any actor. The ghosts of Hamlets past haunt your every syllable.
The premiere production at Britain's National Theater was Peter O'Toole in "Hamlet," a muscular performance in which the incestuous feelings toward the queen (Eileen Herlie) were almost palpable. At the first intermission, Philip Hope-Wallace, the veteran critic of the Guardian newspaper, was heard to say that O'Toole was the 32nd Hamlet he had seen. That is a whole hive of "To be's or not to be's."
I once mentioned this to Richard Burton during an interview. Burton laughed sardonically and said that the critics always compare the new Hamlet unfavorably to the previous Hamlet, and the new Hamlet is then remembered as having been superior to the one that followed. Olivier was compared unfavorably to Gielgud and Gielgud to whoever preceded him and so back to Richard Burbage in the 17th Century.
"You just have to wait your turn," Burton said. "Meanwhile you stand there with arrows quivering in your flesh."
Mel Gibson, the American-born Australian actor who came Leave room for a caption here to fame with "Mad Max" and has been a smashing success in "Lethal Weapon," has a few arrows quivering in his flesh from daring to depart from his customary outings and play Hamlet for Franco Zeffirelli. But Gibson has won some garlands as well.
The consensus could be said to be that while he may not erase Gielgud, Olivier and Burton from memory, he has done an intense, serious, watchable and commendable performance. And Zeffirelli, casting Gibson as the Dane, has undoubtedly tweaked the interest of a generation of filmgoers who might otherwise contemplate "Hamlet," and Shakespeare's works generally, with an indifference bordering on revulsion.
As he did when he cast a very young and largely unknown pair of actors as "Romeo and Juliet," Zeffirelli has given the play an immediacy that makes it a suspenseful drama rather more than a rhetorical revival--no small feat when, after more than three centuries, "Hamlet" seems like a string of lines from "Bartlett's Quotations."
Gibson himself is having a swell time, arrows notwithstanding. During a stay in Los Angeles last month, he made two visits to a West Los Angeles 10th-grade classroom to talk about the play and tape an hourlong video study guide for schools.
"There's no way you can encapsulate 'Hamlet' in an hour video," Gibson said. "But you can make a start." He made a first visit, what he calls "a dummy episode, so they could get over the shock or whatever it is they do at 15 years of age. They're very honest and very outspoken."
Then he went back and had them do scenes. "They asked me if they should read from the book or what, and I said they could do it in sign language if they wanted to. 'Do it any way they want to, so long as you convey what you think that scene's about.'
"They sent up some of the scenes. Very funny, too. But I thought it took an enormous amount of understanding by these young minds to be able to satirize it."
Gibson remembered being in school at their age and being exposed to Shakespeare, unsuccessfully. "It wasn't administered well. Perhaps that's because my doors were shut; I don't know. Maybe there was a problem on both sides. Anyway, I wanted to go in and give those kids some understanding of the underpinnings of the play."
The students asked Gibson questions about the play. "And I asked them questions. They couldn't answer them but it got them thinking about the play. Some of the questions I couldn't answer myself because Shakespeare doesn't come to any answers. He was just raising the questions; that's what's so intriguing."
Gibson had been in repertory theater in Sydney, but says that there had been only a couple of "meaty things. It was mostly spear-carrying and Burton impersonations--'I take my leave, my liege.' "
"But when Zeffirelli comes to you with the offer on a platter, I mean, what can you do?" Gibson's participation made the financing possible. ("It's not exactly a winner's bet, is it?") He and the other stars--Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Ian Holm, Paul Scofield, Helena Bonham-Carter--agreed to cuts in their normal salaries to make the project work.
Gibson and Zeffirelli were agreed that it should be a real story taking place in a real environment. "He wanted to see the castle as an open place where everybody was spying on everybody else." Other Shakespeare films, Gibson says, look like stage plays on film, enclosed and declamatory. "One strives not to be declamatory," he says with a grin.
It's a challenge, he says, trying to bring freshness to such familiar lines. "You can just feel people lying in wait for you. You have to beat 'em off the starting blocks a little."