By William Shakespeare (c1600)
‘I believe kids shouldn’t be taught Shakespeare,’ Helen Mirren told the Guardian in an interview last year. ‘They should experience it first by seeing a great production.’ Her own first experience probably wasn’t a great production. It was an amateur Hamlet in Southend-on-Sea, not far from Westcliff-on-Sea where she grew up. Nonetheless, she ‘walked out of that theatre at the end in another world.’ Nowadays, as I’ve often had cause to remark in this blog, she regrets how few parts there are in Shakespeare for older women. ‘I don't want to play Gertrude,’ she confided to the Guardian. ‘I want to play Hamlet.’
Well, she never did play the brooding Prince. She could have done; there were precedents. It’s the only heroic male role in Shakespeare that has been regularly acted by women, in a tradition stretching back to Mrs Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt. This is the tradition that Leopold Bloom muses on in Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘Male impersonator. Perhaps he was a woman. Why Ophelia committed suicide?’ Victorian critics were particularly scathing of Mme Bernhardt’s Hamlet, commenting that her attempts at masculinity, such as cocking her legs up on a couch, her ‘manly stride’ and ‘gruff howlings’, resulted in the portrait of an ‘angy elderly woman’ rather than a ‘young and emotional man’.
Mirren did, however, achieve the unusual double of playing both Ophelia and Gertrude in the same production. Celestino Coronado’s 1976 film, made in seven days on a tiny budget of £2,500, was not so much ‘art house’ as ‘art school’. A production for the Royal College of Art, it took literally Hamlet’s speech to Gertrude concerning the ‘counterfeit presentment of two brothers’ by splitting the role of Hamlet into two. Identical twins Anthony and David Meyer battle with each other like the twin souls in Faust’s breast. Since they also play the Ghost, every opportunity within the text for doubling and mirroring is seized on. The Ghost cradles Gertrude while Hamlet admonishes her. Ophelia is deleted from ‘The Mousetrap’ scene, so Hamlet’s lines to her (‘country matters’ etc) are conflated with those he speaks to his mother. Gertrude, asleep, morphs into the drowned Ophelia on her funeral bier. Graham Holderness characterises Mirren’s two roles:
Ophelia is played as a ‘dumb blonde’ erotically passive and slow of wit. Gertrude is played as a mature and powerful woman, confident in her overt sensuality. But the two can pass into one another and exchange identities.
Running at little more than an hour, the film offers a Hamlet cut down, cut up and reassembled. Quentin Crisp, the ‘naked civil servant’, eyeing the world through a monocle, sets the tone for the whole as a hilariously camp Polonius. Not for the first time, Mirren seems to be sidelined in a play about boys and their bodies (see my comments on Troilus and Cressida). It’s all very balletic -- not surprisingly given Coronado’s former association with the Lindsay Kemp Circus -- and rather weird. As Russell Davies observed,
You do not have to be one of the in-crowd to guess that this is a sort of Homo-let. And of course you can’t make a Homo-let without breaking a few eggs – hence the inevitable messy elisions between soliloquies.
Yet, as befits a film dedicated to Pasolini, it’s undoubtedly cinematic. In the words of another critic, Derek Malcolm:
The whole thing looks quite extraordinary, even though it uses photographic tricks that are now threatening to become clichés and sometimes gets too overwrought for clarity of expression. Mirren in particular speaks her lines with biting eloquence and is so stunningly shot in colour that she rivets the attention throughout.
While I wouldn’t go as far as Kenneth Rothwell, who suggests that ‘Coronado was employing a new paradigm for interrogating the play’s mysteries, which have kept themselves inviolate for centuries’, I found the doubling device a provocative way of dramatising what others have tried to tease out by psychoanalytic tools.
This wasn’t Mirren’s first Hamlet, or her last. In 1970 she was Ophelia to Alan Howard’s Prince in a Trevor Nunn production for the RSC. Nunn had intended a plain anti-illusionistic design that would concentrate attention on the actors and the words, but according to company historian Sally Beauman, he was landed with
an oppressive chamber set, roofed and walled with Venetian blinds which could, theoretically, convert the entire staging from white to black in the twinkling of an eye… a set that brandished the play’s moral extremes in the audience’s face.
Again there was doubling. Ophelia and Laertes were ‘flirtatious doubles, almost twins in their matching fur-trimmed doublets, playing duets on the lute with Polonius looking on’ (Showalter). Mirren ‘did Ophelia’s madness without self-indulgence and to good effect’ (Hope-Wallace). This Ophelia, ‘victim of the same false society Hamlet hates’, follows him into madness ‘so that she too may tell it the truth’ (Bryden). The Evening News was impressed:
It seems only yesterday that Helen Mirren was in the Youth Theatre, but here she is playing Ophelia with originality and maturity and even accompanying her sad songs on the mandolin [sic]. Both these young ill-starred lovers, Hamlet and Ophelia, have the ability to draw compassion from us.
Ophelia is so often seen as an absence. She appears in only five of the play’s twenty scenes. We know little of what passed between her and Hamlet before the play opens. She doesn’t struggle with moral choices, as he does. ‘I think nothing, my lord,’ she tells him – a line that he chooses to interpret in the bawdy sense – but which the Gentleman echoes without irony when faced with the mad Ophelia, commenting that ‘her speech is nothing’, mere ‘unshaped use’. Mirren’s Ophelia was no shrinking violet. She was not prepared to go quietly:
The only one to break through this charmed circle of classicism is Helen Mirren as one of the most spirited Ophelias for many a year. In a tastefully low-key production, she stands out as one unwilling to lower her voice. (Barnes)
This Ophelia was not innocent but she was trusting. Describing the last scene between Mirren and Howard, one reviewer was prompted to speculate
whether Ophelia and Hamlet went to bed and, if so, whether the Prince did so out of lust or love. His ‘I loved thee not’ and her ‘I was the more deceived’ come across as a brutal wish to indicate the former and give the scene an added poignancy. It also accounts for the extreme lewdness of the song recital Ophelia treats the court to before her suicide. (Roberts)
In 1994 Mirren appeared in another movie version, Prince of Jutland, a French-British-Danish-German co-production directed by Gabriel Axel, based on the ancient Viking saga by Saxo-Grammaticus that was one of Shakespeare’s sources. Christian Bale played the title role (called Amled here), with support from Gabriel Byrne, Brian Cox and a very young Kate Beckinsale. Mirren was Geruth, Amled’s mother. The story differs somewhat from Shakespeare, and the differences bring into focus how Shakespeare (or the lost play of Hamlet that was supposedly another of his sources) fused the saga material onto the conventions of Elizabethan revenge drama. In the film, Geruth, having learnt of her new husband’s treachery, conspires with her son to bring about the usurper’s downfall. Amled survives to be crowned, but, in this rather endearing low-budget production, where his subjects seem to comprise a handful of downtrodden peasants from central casting, it’s difficult to see why the crown is considered a prize worth fighting over. Mirren sails through all this, regal as ever (notwithstanding yet another gratuitous nude scene). The music score, by Per Nørgaard, is noteworthy.
Anon, ‘Oh, what a wild and wonderful Hamlet!’ Evening News, 5 June 1970
Elaine Aston, Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage (1989)
Clive Barnes, review of RSC Hamlet, New York Times, 3 August 1970
Sally Beauman, The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades (1982)
Ronald Bryden, ‘Nunn’s Hamlet: a report from the kitchen’, Observer, 7 June 1970
Russell Davies, ‘Cinema: Swordplay’, Observer, 5 February 1978
Ryan Gilbey, ‘Helen Mirren: “I want to play Hamlet!”’ Guardian, 3 March 2011
Graham Holderness, Visual Shakespeare: Essays in Film and Television (2001)
Philip Hope-Wallace, ‘Hamlet at Stratford’, Guardian, 6 June 1970
Derek Malcolm, ‘London Film Festival: Hamlet’, Guardian, 30 November 1976
Peter Roberts, review of RSC Hamlet, Plays and Players, July 1970
Kenneth Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (2004)
Elaine Showalter, ‘Representing Ophelia: women, madness, and the responsibilities of feminist criticism’, in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Parker and Hartman (1985)
[with thanks to www.alanhoward.org.uk]