You may miss Fortinbras, since he doesn’t appear in John Caird’s new National Theater production of “Hamlet,” but no one who cares about seismic shifts in the British theater is going to want to miss Simon Russell Beale’s performance in the title role.
It’s one of the pleasures of the British stage that one can speak of dates with destiny, and so it has long seemed with Beale and dramatic literature’s greatest Dane in the many years since the project was first floated — on two separate occasions — as a collaboration between the actor and his longtime director, Sam Mendes. But Caird has a long (if less frequently glimpsed) history with this performer, dating back to Beale’s formative years at the Royal Shakespeare Co. in the mid-1980s, and he understands the salient fact that makes Beale’s Hamlet sing. Now pushing 40, the actor possesses what acting school can’t buy — namely, soul, which may explain why his Hamlet speaks so balefully to the heart.
That’s to place Beale in direct antithesis to the dry, desiccated approach to this part that has marked out otherwise distinctive portrayals from Kenneth Branagh and Roger Rees, who were tedious in it, and Stephen Dillane, who was quirkily inventive and wry. His physiognomy apart — as a physical specimen, the squat, fleshy Beale couldn’t less resemble Daniel Day Lewis or Ralph Fiennes — Beale is actually closer in affect to those two film stars’ Hamlets, as well as to Mark Rylance’s concurrent (and tremulous) turn at the Globe. Like theirs, Beale’s is a Hamlet unafraid of emotionalism and tears, for whom wit is a weapon that exists to parry what matters most: a deep, abiding pain allayed only by — as “to be or not to be” reminds us — sleep.
Beale’s delivery of that defining speech is just one of many surprises in a performance whose overriding arc, perhaps paradoxically, won’t surprise his admirers. Sure, he can still turn on the camp with which he first made his mark, here cackling “buzz, buzz,” for instance, at the arrival of the Players. But for a onetime show-off, Beale long ago learned not just how to stop a show but how to still a house. One could argue that this actor has been preparing for Hamlet ever since his extraordinary RSC Konstantin in “The Seagull” a decade ago, a perf very nearly subsequently matched by his RSC Oswald in “Ghosts,” a no less Hamlet-ian role. It’s of a piece, then, with those two roles that Beale’s Hamlet here invokes the need “to sleep, to sleep” (the repetition is key) as if embarked upon an alternately poetic and pained journey toward the grave — that “undiscovered country” no doubt preferable to a world disinclined toward warmth.
To that end, Beale’s most notable achievement is to embody the “sweet” Hamlet whom Horatio (Simon Day) often exalts, including the celebrated “goodnight, sweet prince” farewell with which — since Fortinbras doesn’t figure in this scenario — Caird’s production concludes. The result is to be more aware than ever of the strength of Hamlet’s kinship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (both Christopher Staines and Paul Bazely are unusually good in the roles) even as one notices Hamlet’s occasional desire to rescue the royals around him from the chaos he must cause. For once, “get thee to a nunnery” isn’t some abusive act of violence but the genuine admonition of a man trying to protect his onetime lover, on this occasion Cathryn Bradshaw’s Betty Boop-like Ophelia, from a wayward world. By the time Hamlet tells Gertrude (a starchy Sara Kestelman) that “I must be cruel only to be kind,” the full extent of Hamlet’s decline is clear: His first option, in better times, might have been kindness.
Caird’s staging, accordingly, treats the text as requiem, religious music consistently reinforcing the sense of threnody at court. (Near the finish, the back wall parts to form a cross.) Tim Hatley’s attractive set — largely Eastern European in style, in keeping with Beale’s almost Slavic intensity — is a high-walled prison containing a flotilla of moving chandeliers, while the shifting about the stage of numerous trunks provides a visual echo of Caird’s recent NT “Candide,” for which Beale won his second Olivier Award. At the same time, Paul Pyant’s lighting heightens the sad, sepulchral waltz of this mating dance with death. Why else would Caird frame the show with the characters moving from and towards a line of coffins? Think of this as “Hamlet” for “The Sixth Sense” era: “I see dead people” indeed, as Hamlet pretty much does when — at one point — Gertrude and his murdered father rest a competing hand on each of his shoulders.
It’s the blight of the production not to field a cast fully capable of matching Beale for inner life (Sylvester Morand’s discolored Ghost is singularly phony), though Peter McEnery goes some way toward humanizing Claudius until the perf turns shout-heavy late on. More impressive is Denis Quilley as an atypically humane Polonius — a blowhard seemingly aware of the absurdity of his own vanity — who reappears as the Gravedigger in time to share a brief, and heartstopping, snippet of song with Hamlet. Beale is at his absolute best in this scene, dressing Yorick in a cap lest the skull get cold: the dead and the living merged into one. (The double-casting of Quilley and others confirms as much, while allowing for a more economical world tour for the production into 2001.)
Some will mourn the absence from the stage of any invading Norwegian prince, though Fortinbras, in my experience of “Hamlet,” has mostly prompted snickers. Besides, there’s something very American not just in the staging’s unembarrassed embrace of emotion but in its ability to root the political in the personal (something Matthew Warchus’ similarly domestic-minded “Hamlet” attempted, to less success, at the RSC several years back). At the same time, only in England, or so it regrettably seems, can a classical actor forge a career like Beale’s, which began in foppery and fun only to have deepened over time into outright brilliance.