"Shakespeare played [the ghost]...it's the toughest part of the play."
August 12, 2021 9:26 AM   Subscribe

 
I will never pass up an opportunity to promote Brian Blessed talking about his many fights with frenemy Peter O’Toole, which is as hilarious, tragic and touching as anything either actor ever did on stage.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 9:45 AM on August 12 [5 favorites]


Do they mention Andre Tchaikowsky’s real-life skull?
posted by migurski at 10:11 AM on August 12


sigh...sadly the end of the segment is missing, as noted on the video itself, it cuts off mid-explanation in O'Toole's interpretation of the response to the ghost. Yet still a delightful even with that. You have to feel a bit for Ernest Milton though, with O'Toole and Welles arguing against him. Hard enough to elbow one's way into conversation with Welles booming about alone, add in O'Toole getting actorly and insistent and there's little chance for Milton to defend his descent into derangement read of Hamlet when Welles and O'Toole aren't having it. I would have liked another 25 minutes of that discussion, but I'll settle for what there is with thanks for finding it.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:43 AM on August 12 [3 favorites]


I know, the cut-off point is where they're getting really interesting and delving deep into the historical weeds, and I regret we don't get to hear it. Like you, I felt so bad for Milton, he really didn't stand a chance. Maybe he and O'Toole could have had a more balanced discussion, but with Welles in the picture, that was never going to happen.
posted by sardonyx at 10:46 AM on August 12


I don't know, O'Toole was dogging him pretty hard on Hamlet's killing of Polonius, Milton surely would have had more time to speak without Welles, but I'm not sure that would have ended much better for him with O'Toole being so caught up in his interpretation.

Oh, and it might be worth noting that there is something of a slur used against Greta Garbo at one point, O'Toole referencing her lesbianism in crude terms as part of a comparison of her role in Queen Christina to Hamlet, which gets a big reaction for the surprise of the statement, though its seeming intent as a comparative wasn't wielded as an insult, it's there nonetheless.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:01 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Oh, I'm sure O'Toole would have still pulled out every reference possible to make his point, but I think Milton would have had a chance to actually get a few more words.

I was discussing this with somebody and we were trying to think of who would be able to have this discussion today, assuming people of similar statue and with similar levels of Hollywood fame and theatre experience. Outside of Kenneth Branagh, we pretty much came up blank. I might be tempted (from a Canadian perspective) to throw in Colm Feore or Paul Gross to fill in the Milton slot (at least they'd be somewhat known to an American audience), but I have no idea who I'd pick as the third.

I did find the discussion very old-school male-oriented. I think a modern discussion would have a more nuanced take on Ophelia and Gertrude (or at least I hope it would).
posted by sardonyx at 11:16 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


It's too bad there's not a transcript of this. Between the sound quality and the accents, I find the argument hard to follow.
posted by wittgenstein at 11:18 AM on August 12


Outside of Kenneth Branagh, we pretty much came up blank.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart would make a decent hash of it, but I'd watch them discuss anything, really.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:34 AM on August 12 [8 favorites]




I did find the discussion very old-school male-oriented. I think a modern discussion would have a more nuanced take on Ophelia and Gertrude (or at least I hope it would).

That is a problem with talking to actors who played Hamlet, their focus is on the character and how the play works around him to some degree I think, it even seems to carry over to how they direct the play or talk about it as a whole, from what I've seen anyway. Coming at the play from the supporting players can be an interesting direction to take though. I mean it's certainly possible to have an Ophelia who is quite aware of what Hamlet is getting at in the play within the play, for an example, rather than just one dumbfounded by it all, so to speak. Looking at Hamlet where he is as much the malady confronting the kingdom as the cure can be a valid way to play things to large degree.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:16 PM on August 12 [6 favorites]


Toss Wallace Shawn into that conversation as well.
posted by Windopaene at 12:32 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


I mean it's certainly possible to have an Ophelia who is quite aware of what Hamlet is getting at in the play.

I once saw a production where Ophelia was not only on stage during Hamlet's early soliloquies, but reacted in a way which told us she could hear every word. Knowing she had that information made you look at all her subsequent scenes in a different light.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:55 PM on August 12 [6 favorites]


Some friends and I have been watching as many versions of Hamlet as we can get our hands on—last week, it was Kevin Kline in the title role, and he was very good. We all started out going, "Oh, hey, that's Kevin Kline," and then after awhile, the actor disappeared and only the character was left.

It's been really interesting seeing the different ways the play, and the character, are interpreted. And, since the entire play is rarely produced, there are bits and pieces around the margins of the parts that are always included that can change the play in interesting ways—one little speech left in or left out can change how you see Gertrude, for instance, or make more or less of the pending invasion by Fortinbras.

This week, we're watching a version that features a female Hamlet. That will be interesting.

This all started because, just before the pandemic hit, I had lunch with a friendly acquaintance and I happened to have a book about Hamlet in my bag, which I was serenely reading while I waited for them to get to the restaurant. And thus we discovered that we both harbored a love of the play.

We haven't only been watching Hamlet—we've seen a version of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart, and Kenneth Branagh's terrible yet somehow appealing music version of Love's Labour's Lost, and we took a break from Hamlet to catch up on a season of Dr. Who together.

But we have seen a lot of Hamlet, that's for sure.
posted by Orlop at 4:00 PM on August 12 [5 favorites]


Toss Wallace Shawn into that conversation as well.

And maybe Andre Gregory into the mix.
posted by hippybear at 6:47 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


I did find the discussion very old-school male-oriented.

There is this going to happen, so that might broaden the discussion.
posted by hippybear at 6:49 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


According to Simon Callow’s bio (vol 3), Welles later wanted to cast Milton in Chimes at Midnight, but Milton declined, largely because of his experience during this interview.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 7:56 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


Poor Earnest Milton.
posted by rmmcclay at 8:30 PM on August 12


It's been really interesting seeing the different ways the play, and the character, are interpreted. And, since the entire play is rarely produced, there are bits and pieces around the margins of the parts that are always included that can change the play in interesting ways—one little speech left in or left out can change how you see Gertrude, for instance, or make more or less of the pending invasion by Fortinbras.

Yeah, that's the beauty of Hamlet, there are so many fascinating ways to interpret it, from the personal whether that be a Freudian type read of the play or just an examination of Hamlet's motivation and/or reasoning/madness to something larger, where Hamlet is the lynchpin of a broader look at rule, justice, and all the implications thereof. I was always struck, for example, by the kind of circularity to the actions of the play, where the ghost appears on the battlements at a time of preparation for possible attack by young Fortinbras due to the actions of old King Hamlet defeating old King Fortinbras as laid out by Horatio in the opening scene:


At least, the whisper goes so. Our last king,
Whose image even but now appear'd to us,
Was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway,
Thereto prick'd on by a most emulate pride,
Dared to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet--
For so this side of our known world esteem'd him--
Did slay this Fortinbras; who by a seal'd compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror:
Against the which, a moiety competent
Was gaged by our king; which had return'd
To the inheritance of Fortinbras,
Had he been vanquisher; as, by the same covenant,
And carriage of the article design'd,
His fell to Hamlet. Now, sir, young Fortinbras,
Of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes,
For food and diet, to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in't; which is no other--
As it doth well appear unto our state--
But to recover of us, by strong hand
And terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands
So by his father lost: and this, I take it,
Is the main motive of our preparations,
The source of this our watch and the chief head
Of this post-haste and romage in the land.


At the end of the play, young Fortinbras has accomplished his revenge of sorts, not by his own doing or battle, but by young Hamlet's want for revenge against Claudius and all that entailed. Putting the focus more on the why Hamlet dithers and acts as he does can miss out on the political implications of Denmark being essentially dissolved at the end of the play and becoming property of Norway as consequence of Hamlet's decisions. Looking at it from the position of the country or its citizens, that which Prince Hamlet would have ruled, casts a different light on his fitness for ruling due to his meeting with King Hamlet's ghost and being charged with a personal revenge. The mirroring or circularity of the plot in that sense becomes really fascinating, but far from the only way to look at the play.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:30 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


Incidentally, I think that goes bit towards what O'Toole was going to talk about when the video cut off, Horatio questions the ghost as if he is a potentially malignant spirit, which fits the "Papist" perspective on visitation, where Hamlet is more accepting of the spirit as representing his father and thus still "kingly" in some sense and may or may not be deceived for that belief/approach. The way a production handles that, then, becomes central to how the rest of the play plays out, is Hamlet deceived, acting out of a rightly sense of duty, or allowing his own feelings/desires to influence his reaction or some mix of response.

Everything that happens afterward is informed by this moment, so it is crucial, but then so much of the play rests on how one interprets various line readings, which aren't always even consistent between the various folio and quartos that differ in lines and scene construction. That itself can make reading the play so much fun, well fun to a certain small set of people anyway, even small things like deciding whether it's "smote the sledded Polacks on the ice" or "smote the ledded poleax on the ice" allow the interpreter to pick and choose their preferred reading.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:57 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


I hope no one minds a triple post, but I was looking online and found it both interesting and a little depressing that the tendency for a lot of sites that "explain" Hamlet is to offer a notion of there being a definitive line reading, which in the case of Polonius' death, tends to favor Milton's choice over that of Welles and O'Toole.

They scan the lines "How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!" and [To Polonius’s body] "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune. Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger."


simply as reading that Hamlet mistook Polonius for the king, even though one can read the lines differently, with dead for a ducat suggesting Polonius' fate is sealed by his taking employment from a vile king, instead of it being Hamlet saying I wager he, the king, is now dead and took thee for thy better as being Polonius is better off dead than serving Claudius instead of it meaning Hamlet mistook Polonius for Claudius, which as O'Toole and Welles suggest has some problems as Hamlet has just left Claudius at his prayers and he hears Polonius cry out right before he stabs him through the curtain. Neither of those is fatal to Milton's method, but declaring his read to be definitive is a problem that comes from wanting "an" answer rather than allowing for ambiguity.

I also meant to add in the previous post how Welles and O'Toole's mention of the three different characters, Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laertes, seeking revenge is such a rich element to work with. As noted, Fortinbras gets his revenge by being dutiful, or perhaps as Welles and O'Toole have it rational, a path Hamlet couldn't fully follow, where Laertes revenge first suggests another path Hamlet didn't take that's maybe even more telling, as Laertes' return after hearing the news of his father's death is to seek immediate recourse of action with a mob behind him. He turned to the people to find justice and was at the point of exacting it from Claudius before being convinced Hamlet was to blame for Polonius' death and, as Laertes will then see, Ophelia's madness. For Hamlet, on the other hand, revenge remains purely personal and isolated from other considerations.

(One also might note how Ophelia's madness can be set against Hamlet's performance of the like. The play is extraordinarily rich in its echoings, even when they are laden with ambiguity.)
posted by gusottertrout at 3:49 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


But we have seen a lot of Hamlet, that's for sure.

I’ve done this a bit with Macbeth, which is good fun and has the added bonus of the whole play being shorter than the part of Hamlet.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:33 AM on August 13


I was discussing this with somebody and we were trying to think of who would be able to have this discussion today, assuming people of similar statue and with similar levels of Hollywood fame and theatre experience.

Benedict Cumerbatch and David Tennant would probably fit the bill, as they've both performed the role to great acclaim, and have solid silver/small screen cred.
posted by Optamystic at 5:28 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


I've been working lately with The Revenger's Tragedy, and while I'd been using Jonathan Dollimore's formulation of the play as camp, which is fruitful if depressing, last week I also came across Scott McMillin's essay, "Acting and Violence: The Revenger's Tragedy and Its Departures from Hamlet" (JSTOR, free signup required), which threw the play into a new light for me, because when I've read it, I haven't really thought, okay, this is kind of a response to Hamlet, but that reading really works.

Just one example, the treatment of skulls--Hamlet is having his moment with Yorick, and there's this fun of not really being able to tell, is he seriously feeling emotion over this, or is this part of his performance now that everyone around him has become his audience, or is it both--and with its characteristic lack of delicacy Revenger says, "You want to see a skull, this baby's gonna be an accomplice in MURDER!" And yet the skull there is also playing a role for an audience (an audience of one, in this case).

There's something dizzying in both plays, in this concern for performances-within-performances, and something McMillin points out is the way Revenger closes that off, slam, with nothing left over; there is no more story. Meanwhile Hamlet has become a story at the end, a story that is about to be told, sometime after the play has ended and everyone has gone home, and so there is this idea of bounded versus unbounded--as though, for all its delight in malignity, Revenger can't permit itself to survive without the audience, and so won't allow the same lack of closure or boundedness...and so, maybe, does not stick in the head in the same way, doesn't allow itself to be as memorable, as messy old Hamlet.
posted by mittens at 5:42 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Benedict Cumerbatch and David Tennant would probably fit the bill, as they've both performed the role to great acclaim, and have solid silver/small screen cred.
posted by Optamystic at 5:28 AM on August 13


Cumerbatch's name did come up in the discussion, and we decided it would have to be somebody like him--his level of fame, British (because Americans generally don't have the same level of training or education when it comes to the classics), with stage experience--but we just weren't familiar enough with his body of work and especially his stage experience, to know how much familiarity he had with Hamlet. What we felt, however, was that he (or another actor like him) was probably missing was the directing experience and the experience of charting the course the whole production would take.
posted by sardonyx at 7:20 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Mittens: Just to add another layer of complexity, it's sometimes argued that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus as a deliberate parody of the excesses of gory revenge tragedies: "Tongues torn out? Hands chopped off? Blood all over the stage? Is that what you want? Really? Well, OK then ...."

Another Hamlet story I like involves the much-loved British sitcom actor Richard Briers, who once played the role on stage in London. By his own confession, he was so nervous that he ended up babbling through every speech at high speed. "Mine was not a great Hamlet," he sighed in one radio interview years later. "But it was perhaps the fastest."
posted by Paul Slade at 8:13 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


...missing was the directing experience and the experience of charting the course the whole production would take.

Agreed. On another note, you should check out both of their Hamlets, as well as Benedict's Frankenstein, in which he and Johnny Lee Miller alternated playing the Monster and the Doctor nightly throughout the play's run at the National Theatre.
posted by Optamystic at 8:22 AM on August 13


Richard Briers, who once played the role on stage in London

Also Polonius in Branagh's movie. See also Ian MacKellen Playing Shakespeare.

(Mildly OT, but in keeping with Parasite Unseen's suggestion, see Public Places: My Life in the Theater, with Peter O'Toole and Beyond by Siân Phillips, the ex-Mrs. O'Toole, aka Livia.)
posted by BWA at 9:22 AM on August 13


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