Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Last Time I Saw Hamlet

by Pa Rock

It was the evening of Friday, May 28th, 2004, at the famous Old Vic Theatre in London's West End. A new version of Shakespeare's classic tragedy, Hamlet, was being staged in the same theatre where Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud had once introduced the world to their versions of the deeply troubled Prince of Denmark.

I was in the audience that night with my niece and her husband, Heidi and Jason Pfetcher. I had seen several wonderful plays that week and really did not have a strong desire to see Hamlet, a play that I have seen staged many times, but I did want to see the Old Vic. It is one of the oldest theatres in London, originally built in the early 19th century and named in honor of Princess Victoria. American actor, Kevin Spacey, was serving as the artistic director (and still is, I believe), and the board of trustees included such notables as Sir Elton John and Dame Judi Dench.

And I wasn't disappointed. The Old Vic was regal in every sense of the word. Heidi and I got there early, and Jason came in from work, snarfing down an order of fish and chips, just before the curtain went up. I used my early arrival to explore the building and peer into all of its historical nooks and crannies. The walls were lined with pictures of earlier productions, featuring a who's who of theatre royalty extending back generations. It was everything that I had imagined it would be.

The surprise came when the curtain went up, revealing the unkempt room of a modern teen. Hamlet entered, a skinny lad dressed entirely in black and looking very much the disaffected youth that we have all known. I noticed several people in the audience nodding their heads in recognition. The contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's masterwork held true to the tragic story, but it played out among people who could be ourselves and our children. It was a powerful experience, one that I had not anticipated encountering.

Hamlet was given life by a young actor named Ben Whishaw. I had never heard of him, and, indeed, his credits (stage, screen, and television) were scant. But he proved to be an astounding talent, and I left the performance knowing that I would encounter this young man's work again in the future. As young Hamlet lay dying, Mr. Whishaw's star was rising.

I have told this brief tale for a reason. More to follow.


Rev Stan said...

I read with interest your experience watching Hamlet with Ben Whishaw. I have only in recent years started to go to the theatre again and it is a performance I would dearly have loved to have seen. I have seen him in a couple of productions in the last year having first noticed his extraordinary talent in the film Perfume.
Hamlet is also one of my favourite plays and I'm curious to see what the RSC has done with the production it currently has running in Stratford as the stage photo's depict a contemporary working. Luckily I will get a chance to see that and very soon!
Thanks again.

Pa Rock's Ramble said...

Rev Stan, I hope that you read the post on Brideshead Revisited that I put up later last night. Young Mr. Whishaw is quite a talent. His character was easily the most sympathetic in the movie.

I envy your trip to Stratford. I did a day there in 2004, but didn't see any plays. I did make it to the Globe - that was a nice experience.

Write to me direct and we can talk plays: