x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Hamlet from screen to stage

Michael Sheen will be the third famous movie actor in as many years to play Hamlet in a stage production.

He's taken on Tony Blair, grappled with David Frost and tackled Brian Clough, but now Michael Sheen takes on perhaps the most famous of all roles, as William Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark, Hamlet. The Welsh actor, critically acclaimed for his portrayal of well-known public figures, will become the latest in a long line of high-profile actors to make their mark on the prince. Over the centuries, Hamlet has emerged as something of a benchmark for acting skill. His age, however, has always been a subject of lively discussion, with estimates ranging from mid-teens to early 30s. Actors who take on the role are frequently older, perhaps as a consequence of the fact that playing Hamlet has often been seen as the culmination of a dramatic career rather than a job for a novice.

The original Hamlet was Richard Burbage, star of Shakespeare's theatre company and the man Shakespeare probably had in mind when he wrote the part. Burbage would have been in his mid-30s when he played the prince in the early 17th century, but both he and Sheen, 41, are towards the younger end of the scale, historically. In the early 18th century, for example, Sir Thomas Betterton played the role until he was 74. The renowned and hugely influential actor David Garrick, another significant 18th century Hamlet, continued to play the role until he was 59. Of course, many of the great tragedians of past times would play the role repeatedly throughout their careers, beginning as young men. Edmund Kean, for example, first played the role in 1803 at the age of 14, and continued to appear as Hamlet until his death in 1833 at the age of 44. Sir Henry Irving was another notable 19th century Hamlet. The merits of different actors' versions of the role were hotly discussed in their lifetimes.

In the 20th century, actors ranging from Laurence Olivier to Mel Gibson tackled the part. Olivier, directed and starred in Hamlet in 1948, in a film that marked the first time the actor had worked behind the camera. The result was the first British feature to win the Best Picture statuette at the Oscars, and it earned Olivier the award for Best Actor. It also won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It remains acclaimed by many, although the cuts Olivier made to bring down the running time, which include the omission of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are unpopular with some. Kenneth Branagh brought an unabridged version of the play to the screen in 1996 with himself in the title role. It ran at just over four hours and received largely positive reviews.

Gibson, in Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film version, won perhaps surprisingly positive reviews. Less well received was Michael Almereyda's updated version of the play in 2000, which starred Ethan Hawke as a film student who, after the death of his father, fights Bill Murray's Polonius for control of Denmark Corporation. On stage, the role has been taken on by Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, William Hurt, Jon Voight and Christopher Walken.

In recent years, there have been a series of high-profile stage versions. When the Doctor Who star David Tennant appeared in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2008, tickets for the London run sold out in under three hours. Jude Law starred in a Donmar Warehouse production that started life at Wyndham's Theatre in London before a short run at Elsinore Castle in Denmark and a transfer to Broadway. In both cases - particularly Law's- the casting of actors principally famous for television and film work attracted criticism and accusations that the decisions had been made with one eye on headlines and box office receipts. Both actors, however, won largely favourable reviews.

As for Sheen? Only time will tell whether he will live up to his predecessors. But, given his previous track record, we doubt that there will be anything rotten in his performance.