Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies

Mary Maher as Hamlet

Photo by Brad Eastburn

I have two favorite stories about this book. The first is about me going into Waterstone’s in Stratford-upon-Avon and showing off to the clerk as I viewed it on its own special bookstand inside. As I gassed on, an arm reached around my shoulder, smelling strongly of tobacco, and Tom Stoppard said, “I’ll have one of those,” as he grabbed a copy! Then there was the young instructor at the University of Richmond who interrupted my workshop and asked me to sign his copy. When it fell open, I saw that it was interlined with yellow marker. He said, “I’ve played Hamlet 3 times and this book is my bible.” Talk about validation—I simply beamed.

As a student I kept hearing—“We will never know what the acting was like in Shakespeare’s time.” Guess what--we have few records for our own era! The Hamlets interviewed here are John Gielgud, David Warner, Ben Kingsley, Derek Jacobi, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Simon Russell Beale, Anton Lesser, David Rintoul, and Randall Duk Kim. There is also a chapter about Hamlet’s soliloquies on screen--Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, and Alec Guinness.  

One of the particular pleasures in interviewing the actors was that each one was so proud of his performance of this famous role and so eager to have it documented for others to read. Very, very few stage productions of Hamlet are filmed for posterity, so I was driven to get the information written down—the impulses each actor felt, the mountains they climbed, and the details and context of the production process. The actors teach us about the artistry in that famous personality role referred to as “the Everest of Acting.”

Cover of Modern Hamlets and Their SoliloquiesWorking with actors is sometimes an adventure. Ben Kingsley and I plotted to have our interview in the lobby of the Lyric Hammersmith on a Saturday morning, hoping for total quiet. To my horror, 100 school children marched in, chattering about their upcoming theater class. Kingsley was unflappable and arranged menus around the tape recorder as he launched into one of the finest interviews I’ve ever gotten. The chapter wrote itself.

Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies
University of Iowa Press, 2003

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