On being Hamlet

“To be, or not to be…” The most famous six words in drama are also probably the most anticipated by audiences. When Berlin’s Schaubuhne theatre company brought Hamlet here 10 years ago, the production began with that speech, as if to say, “There. We’ve got that out of the way. Now we can get on with the show.”

Harriet Gordon-Anderson in rehearsal. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Harriet Gordon-Anderson, playing Hamlet in Bell Shakespeare’s new production, admits that even saying them in rehearsal can be intimidating. When we speak, three weeks into a five-week rehearsal period, she still wants to explore different approaches and eliminate the echoes of other voices in her head. Her goal is to just say the words, “and the text will hold you and do it for you”.

While the role was on Gordon-Anderson’s bucket-list, she was hardly expecting it to happen. Now she joins a proud history of women playing the Danish prince, dating back to 1661, and including Sarah Bernhardt and Maxine Peake. She and director Peter Evans briefly considered performing the part as a woman, before deciding that would distort too many relationships. Nor does she mimic a young man, however. “I am really not making any attempt to enact anything gendered in my performance,” she says. “I’m just being there, and just being a Hamlet.”

Even when edited (as in this production), it’s a mammoth role to learn, and Gordon-Anderson began with the soliloquies. What she especially admires in “To be, or not to be…” is Hamlet’s expression of his fear of death, the afterlife and not knowing. “It’s a pretty stunning human articulation that I feel very privileged to explore and to speak,” she says. “That fear is what stops us from just taking away the heartache and taking away the pain with a nice, simple solution, which is incredibly heartbreaking… Within that he speaks about some of the most beautiful things to stay alive for, like love.”

Her other favourite parts of the text include Hamlet’s explanation of his malaise to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, containing, “I have of late, by wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.” “I think it’s a really beautiful expression of acknowledging beauty, but not being able to feel the positive effects of it, which of course we would now understand as a symptom of clinical depression,” says Gordon-Anderson.

Harriet Gordon-Anderson. Photos: Brett Boardman.

She’s also alive to the powerful sense of Hamlet as an actor in his own play. “It’s a big theme: the differentiation between role and self,” she says. “That’s something he’s very interested in. It’s no accident that there’s a play within a play; that that’s the way he chooses to confirm the guilt of his uncle. He has such a love of acting and actors that it really feels to me like Shakespeare’s love for the theatre – that beautiful thing to be a part of.”

When Hamlet returns to Denmark in Act V his need to express internalised thoughts has disappeared. “I think that Hamlet is very distrusting of words, themselves – which is ironic: he uses them so much and so well,” says Gordon-Anderson, “but they’re not enough to express all the things in his heart. And so one of the tracks of the journey that we see him go on is from having nothing but words, to finding they’re not enough.”

She watched some filmed versions last year, reckoning she had time to forget them before starting rehearsals. From these she learned how she didn’t want to do it least as much as how she did. “I guess I take comfort in the fact that I’m just never going to be able to, no matter how hard I try – and if I wanted to! – achieve those Hamlets,” she says. “It’s only ever going to my Hamlet.”

She shares the production with two actors, Robert Menzies and James Lugton, who have played the role before, and therefore know the scale of the task. “I think you just have to be comfortable that you can only chip away at it as best you can,” she says. “Peter [Evans] keeps telling me, ‘Just look after the seconds, and the minutes will look after themselves.’ You cannot take on this whole universe at once. It’s just too big, and it will swallow you whole, so you just have to go scene by scene, line by line, relationship by relationship and let it take you on this sort of roller-coaster.”

Indeed the part’s so vast that some actors have a sense of Hamlet becoming them rather than them becoming Hamlet. Gordon-Anderson agrees: “He really does kind of peer back into you as you peer into him.”

Bell Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet has now been cancelled due to the corona virus.