There is something bracing about the fact that, after nearly 400 years, the way an actor makes his mark is not by playing a great lover or a daring swordsman but rather a prince who feigns madness in order to put his life in order.
The latest in the line of actors who, having achieved renown in film, want to prove their real mettle is Ralph Fiennes, who is appearing in a production of "Hamlet" after becoming known to Americans in the films "Quiz Show" and "Schindler's List."
If I were running a provincial English repertory company worried about how to cast the standard Shakespeare repertory, I would be thrilled to have Fiennes on board. With his dark features, glowering eyes and a resonant voice with the Welsh strain of sadness in it, he could do Iago, Richard III, even Macbeth without difficulty. But I'm not sure I'd cast him as the noble Danish prince, who returns home after his father has been murdered and his mother has married the murderer.
In person, Fiennes' features lack the sensuousness they have onscreen. There is a kind of hardness about him that doesn't seem right for a character who is unwilling to take direct action.
Fiennes shows the advantage of basic English training. He is comfortable with the verse, moves gracefully and has the technical ability to sustain a high energy interpretation for over three hours. Apart from his training, Fiennes brings to the role a clear and deep intelligence, which is essential to a character whose life depends on outwitting a host of shrewd people around him.
Fiennes' Hamlet is at its strongest in the last half-hour of the play, when he returns from England and with wily craft, arranges for school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be bumped off. Fiennes has a relaxed quality that is more interesting than the tense ranting that characterizes much of his work in earlier scenes.
The final sword fight and all the murders it occasions are quite thrilling, but on the whole, this is a Hamlet notable for its skill and steadiness rather than the illumination it brings to the complex text.
Director Jonathan Kent has set the play in the Edwardian period, which adds nothing to our understanding. He also uses 19th-century effects like lightning and loud thunder, which obscure and, when they prompt the actors to compete in terms of loudness, distort the play's own music.
For the most part, the performances are creditable English provincial characterizations. The standout is Francesca Annis, whose portrayal of Gertrude is remarkable for its clarity, particularly after Hamlet has berated her and we see how her attitude toward Claudius has changed.
Whatever its weaknesses, this is an engrossing "Hamlet." It is possible that in a few years Fiennes will bring more thought and maturity to the role, but this is a brave and arresting piece of acting.
When "Hamlet" comes to Broadway, he is usually carried there by someone who is a film star, was a film star or might one day become a film star.
I am not quite sure whether Ralph Fiennes, who last night carried him to the Belasco Theater, qualifies under the first or third categories - after all, virtually every time his name is mentioned we have to be told how to pronounce it, suggesting that its familiarity is yet to become the household variety - but he is undeniably a Hamlet.
I have collected Hamlet like other people collect stamps, and this is an extraordinarily fine one - and of the classic, rather than household variety.
The production in which Rafe Fynes (it's spelt Ralph Fiennes, by the way) finds himself and the Dane is by Jonathan Kent and his Almeida Theater Company from London, those fyne folks who last season gave us Diana Rigg in "Medea."
In Britain, Hamlets come and go in two categories, with revolutionary Hamlets, Nicol Williamson, Jonathan Pryce or Daniel Day Lewis, sharing the Elsinore limelight with those in a more classic mode, from Gielgud on. London's Hamlet immediately before Fiennes, the superbly antic Stephen Dillane, proved revolution personified, so it balances out that Fiennes is in a more classically romantic mold.
He has a dark genius as an actor - sunlight defined by shadows - and his best stage work, his tigerishly attractive Edmund in "King Lear"; and his nobly vacillating Henry VI, foreshadowed this Hamlet of artifice and passion, mixing, most wonderfully, cold calculation with uncertainty.
He broods with true melancholy, moves with a princely grace, and manipulates the verse with a conversational passion which recalls Scofield, and an intellectual conviction that suggests Redgrave. It makes even the most thumb-homarked passages of quotation sound quietly spontaneous.
What is unusual about him is his comparative sexlessness - he is a Hamlet motivated by an ambition for revenge. If Claudius, and the wrong he did him, had not existed, he would have had to invent them. He is cold to Ophelia, almost pettily vengeful on Gertrude, and yet, like a Greek hero, constantly driven toward his death by demons he can neither master or control.
This is far from a one-man show, even if it is a case of one man - through the fame he justifiably acquired through the movies "Schindler's List" and "Quiz Show" - making the show possible. But Kent's staging is exceptionally canny and cunning, and the company is as good as any Britain has sent Broadway since Olivier and Richardson's Old Vic.
Kent and his set designer, Peter J. Davison, have placed this Hamlet in a draughty, shabby Elsinore, full of high windows, bare walls, constantly thrown into a state of chiaroscur by the thin Baltic sunlight suggested by Mark Henderson's lighting.
And the costumes, by James Acheson, are Edwardian - rather like those Adrian Noble used for Kenneth Branagh's recent Hamlet - giving the whole play a certain, not inappropriate, aire of Ruritanian intrigue.
I was slightly disappointed in James Laurenson's bluff Claudius - more character and less bluff would have been welcome - but the lovely Francesca Annis, last seen on Broadway as Ophelia and who I last saw as an enchanting Mrs. Erlynne in "Lady Windermere's Fan," offers a bewitched Gertrude of the most maternal complexity.
This time 'round Ophelia is Tara FitzGerald, meek, complaisant, sensual and vivid. Equally interesting and unusual, is Peter Eyre (also once a Hamlet of quality) as a bureaucratic, meddling Polonius, who even has his precepts off by rote, and unsentimentally deserves his fate.
Kent is a splendid director - and unlike many of his peers - a man with more ideas than concepts. He makes this "Hamlet" speed along, as it needs with a rare mix of brooding poetry and simple theatrical excitement.
Of course, the play has indeed been cut - quite literally - around its Hamlet, and the pressure is constantly on Fiennes to deliver a Prince of Denmark that Broadway can adore and scholars respect. And nothing in his career so far - his time with the Royal Shakespeare Company was gently distinguished but not star-making - could have prepared him for such responsibility.
And it is greatly to his credit that he emerges from the ordeal not simply unscathed, but with a credible first claim to be regarded as one of the major classic actors of his generation. It's more than a "Hamlet" - it's a coup.
Ralph Fiennes doesn't make a star's conventional entrance in "Hamlet," but it's an entrance to remember.
As the lights come up in his first scene, he's on the stage as just another member of the court surrounding Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet stands to one side with his back to the theater audience and the royal entourage. Wearing a dark greatcoat, he's slouched and a bit atilt, like Rodin's statue of Balzac attending to a muse.
When at last Claudius addresses Hamlet and he abruptly turns, the effect is that of a motion-picture close-up, something not easily achieved in the theater. The audience, having already seen Hamlet's silhouette, now seeks out his handsomely hawklike face and tries to read it. The audience is hooked.
This quite startling moment is also emblematic of everything that follows in Jonathan Kent's slick, entertaining English production, which opened last night at the Belasco. Here is a "Hamlet" paced to hold its own on Broadway, without knuckling under to Broadway's baser tendencies to soothe and stroke.
Produced under the auspices of London's prestigious Almeida Theater Company, the Kent-Fiennes "Hamlet" is not one for literary sleuths and Shakespeare scholars. It respects the play, but it doesn't provide any new material for arcane debates on what it all means.
Instead it's an intelligent, beautifully read and set production that serves the new star as much as he serves it. Mr. Fiennes, who slipped into our collective consciousness through "Schindler's List" and "Quiz Show," is in command at the Belasco from beginning to end. He's a charismatic stage actor. He has a fine strong voice (and complete control of it) that never becomes monotonously distinctive. He doesn't intone the lines with the velvety resonance of a Richard Burton. There's no suspicion here that, at the end, we'll be treated to an encore of highlights from Dylan Thomas.
His Hamlet is utterly contemporary in execution and concept, even to the downtown manner in which he wears his Edwardian clothes. Seemingly unshaven, his hair lank, this Hamlet has an unkempt, layered look. The layers become fewer and fewer as he proceeds from sardonic, passive inaction to resolve and feigned madness. By the time he's brutally advising Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery, he's barefoot and virtually shirtless, his passion naked.
It's a measure of the sureness of Mr. Fiennes's performance that he remains the calm center of a production that otherwise moves at sometimes dizzying speed. Only once is that pacing reflected in his own performance, when he comes on stage speaking the "To be or not to be" soliloquy so rapidly that it sounds like a madman's laundry list of options.
Mr. Fiennes is the star, but his is not the only excellent performance. Francesca Annis, who years ago played Lady Macbeth in Roman Polanski's film adaptation of "Macbeth," is lovely and exceptionally moving as the ill-fated Gertrude. She's also the first Gertrude I've ever seen who seems less predator than victim.
In this she's helped in no small way by Terence Rigby as the Ghost. It's another revelation. His portrayal of the implacable shade of Hamlet's father suggests that Gertrude's first marriage must have been less than the idyll Hamlet remembers. The old king was -- and still is -- a tyrant. Ms. Annis's Gertrude is clearly a woman liberated in her sexuality and her emotions by her union with Claudius. So much for all that Oedipal nonsense.
Tara FitzGerald is the production's enchanting Ophelia, first seen as she crosses an otherwise darkened stage bathed in a shaft of golden light, her coloring and her figure recalling a Vermeer portrait. The doom of this Ophelia is the loss of a genuine innocent.
Mr. Rigby's Ghost is matched by his rich portrayals of the Gravedigger and especially the Player King. The latter is a garrulous, cigar-smoking trouper who, given the chance, would talk your ear off but who pays attention to his producer.
The other principal members of the cast are effective in more conventional ways. James Laurenson's Claudius is ruthless in his statecraft, but vulnerable when it comes to his conscience. As played by Peter Eyre, Polonius is not quite the joke most actors make him out to be, but he's still almost as much of a bore to the audience as he is to Hamlet. Damian Lewis's Laertes is a vastly more interesting character than he was on opening night in London. His affection for Ophelia is real, and his swordfight with Hamlet at the end has an intensity seen more often in a swashbuckler than in a "Hamlet."
Mr. Kent, who staged Diana Rigg's Tony Award-winning performance in "Medea" last year, isn't a director to let the audience snooze. He keeps attention focused throughout, sometimes with bold cinematic devices, as in the Ghost scenes. Dressed in shining armor, the Ghost appears on high radiating beams of light, rather like an angry human embodiment of the space ship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," just before it lands.
Mr. Rigby's Ghost hovers throughout, not only visually in the early scenes, but also as the unseen presence responsible for all that happens afterward.
The production is scored with Jonathan Dove's music and a variety of sounds, including those of the loudly crashing waves that isolate Elsinore. As it becomes increasingly apparent that the private problems of the royals are a matter of public concern, the theater becomes alive with the sibilant whispers of the members of the court.
Peter J. Davison's set design creates a labyrinthine Elsinore, a series of dark and chilly interlocking chambers, dimly lighted and seemingly at the bottom of a great well. The effect is eerie, removed from ordinary time. The effect is also far more intimate in the smaller Belasco Theater than it was in the cavernous Hackney Empire, the old music hall house in the North London borough of Hackney, where the production started out in February.
The performance runs nearly three hours, including one intermission, but you aren't likely to notice time's passage. You might suspect that because of the speed, this "Hamlet" is skimming the surface. Not true. Mr. Kent's greatest sin has been to present the text with such clarity and wit that you feel guilty for enjoying it so much.
Ralph Fiennes makes a respectable, if not completely impressive, Broadway debut as a most melancholy Dane. Under Jonathan Kent's direction (he was also responsible for last season's "Medea," a surprise click for Diana Rigg), this "Hamlet" unfolds briskly, without any pandering to the audience. Moreover, it offers, in the beautiful, tormented Gertrude of Francesca Annis, almost a fresh vision of the play.
Fiennes, whose roles in "Schindler's List" and "Quiz Show" have conferred on him the status of movie star on the ascent, is a very physical prince. Hamlet wrestles with Gertrude in the bedroom scene, where the tension between son and mother is at once erotic and full of confusion and rage; and the final sword fight with Laertes (Damian Lewis, all posturing and grimaces throughout) is deftly played.
The scene that stayed with me came early on: I've rarely heard Hamlet's "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I" so movingly spoken, or made so clearly a personal revelation, as he ruminates on the tears of the Player King (Terence Rigby). "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba," Hamlet wonders, and his soul seems truly tortured.
Rigby had something to do with this, as well. His Player King wears a bowler hat over a shaven head, and smokes a cigar, but when he's in the spotlight, he's all business. No rude mechanical, he even seems slightly taken aback at Hamlet's advice to the troupe, his look saying, "We're professionals, you know." Nevertheless, there's something going on between the two actors, and it's reinforced by having Rigby triple as the Ghost and the Gravedigger.
Still, Fiennes is otherwise notparticularly interesting to watch. He lacks a star's charisma; the air in the Belasco isn't electric with Hamlet's tormented indecision. Kent imposes all sorts of distracting business on the proceedings, and they only make it seem all the more earthbound: "Speak the speech, I pray you" is delivered almost comically broken up as Hamlet hauls in chairs for the evening's entertainment; Polonius (Peter Eyre) inexplicably fiddles with his pince-nez as he delivers his advice to Laertes; "To be, or not to be" is delivered so off-handedly you don't know what to make of it.
This Hamlet literally wears his angst on his sleeve. His clothes get progressively grungier, his stringy hair more unkempt, until he looks so depressed you half expect him to pull out a guitar and begin singing Jackson Browne songs. Peter Davison's ugly, gloomy castle setting doesn't help matters. Still, no one could accuse this Hamlet of lacking spirit.
Where Kent and company fail to measure up is in the casting of the secondary roles. Nobody seems to have paid much attention to Tara FitzGerald's Ophelia; the actress seems at sea in a role that ought to break our hearts. And the actor playing Claudius has to be a formidable match for Hamlet, which James Laurenson is not; it's hard to imagine what Gertrude sees in him.
But the overriding problem is that efficiency is about the best thing one can say about this "Hamlet." It doesn't offer any particular point of view on the play, and so it isn't especially involving. Those drawn to the theater because of the star are likely to be disappointed. Those drawn by Shakespeare are, too.