How to give Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' new meaning

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Media captionActor Samuel West gives four interpretations of 'To be or not to be...'

John Simm of Life of Mars fame is the latest actor to take on one of drama's defining roles, Hamlet. But how can anyone bring new meaning to the most familiar six words in literature, "to be or not to be..."?

Talk about pressure.

There are more than 1,500 lines to learn, and the words have already been immortalised by theatre greats like Olivier, Gielgud, Burton, Jacobi, McKellen, Branagh and Russell Beale.

The character of Hamlet is possibly the most challenging in drama, and therefore one of the most alluring, with John Simm the latest to join what amounts to a hall of fame for classical actors, as he treads the boards at the Crucible theatre in Sheffield. Olivier award-winner Rory Kinnear continues the tradition at the end of the month in London's National Theatre.

As well as taking on one of the most complex characters ever created, there is the small matter of trying to bring something new to the most quoted lines in literature: "To be or not to be..."

The famous passage comes in Act III Scene I, when Prince Hamlet is trying to establish his uncle's guilt in murdering his father and usurping the Danish throne. This scene, in which he appears to be talking to himself, is a deep philosophical reflection on life and death.

"The challenge is to make the audience listen to what Hamlet is saying, rather than drift into a hazy memory of school days," says Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington, who has seen about 50 Hamlets over the years.

"They need to sit up and listen to this man who is debating whether to kill himself or not to kill himself and why by the end he decides not to."

For him, the most memorable rendition was by Sir John Gielgud, who brought "breathtaking intensity and intelligence" to the passage, although it wasn't in the context of the play but Gielgud's Ages of Man anthology in the 1950s.

Given the familiarity of the lines, many directors and actors like to try something new.

Samuel West, who spent a year playing Hamlet to wide acclaim in 2001, says there are multiple ways of doing the speech, four of which can be seen in the video above, including a "gameshow" version.

Interpretations can differ, he says, depending on how much you think Hamlet is suicidal or philosophical.

There is also a choice between introspection and engagement, he says. When he acted the part for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the stage lights came up, he strode out towards the audience and looked them in the eye.

"Whether you do soliloquies to yourself or do them to the audience is a decision you'll make with your director.

"You might think 'I'm a very thoughtful, philosophical person and I'm very private, therefore I want my Hamlet to be alone in existential despair.'

"Or you might, like me, say 'I like being in a public sphere, I like the idea of embracing audience. We shouldn't pretend they're not there and I want to turn the lights on and talk to them as if I want to ask for their help or indeed interrupt.'"

It was important to address them directly because the passage is about death so no-one can say it doesn't affect them, says West, who is currently rehearsing Caryl Churchill's A Number at the Chocolate Factory in Southwark, south London.

Few theatre roles explore the emotional range of humanity as fully in three hours as Hamlet.

That is why, he says, it's impossible to master the part and every actor brings something new, rendering any talk of the "best" or "perfect" Hamlet a nonsense.

"It's a very difficult part but also a very easy part. It's very forgiving of things you can't do. But it brings you up against them very quickly, it brings you up against your limitations as an actor and as a person quite fast.

"You're calling your girlfriend a whore, your father's been murdered, you want to kill your mother, you might want to sleep with her. All of these things. There are no dark corners of yourself that this play won't hold your hands in, if you want to explore them.

"You can't say: 'He's not going there.' He really is. Shakespeare is absolutely interested in those things."

So can a serious acting career ever be complete without Hamlet on the CV?

When Simm accepted the part in December, he said it was probably the greatest part ever written, and one he couldn't turn down.

"When you get asked and you're 40 years old it's probably wise to say 'yes', because I'm probably not going to be asked again to play Hamlet, so this is the last chance saloon."

Many other actors would agree. Sir Ralph Richardson is probably the only big name not to have played the part, says Billington, perhaps because his "robust countenance" didn't fit the bill for the lean, thoughtful Hamlets of the time.

The reason why the role is so important, he says, is because the play is big box office and the part is so challenging.

"The play itself is one the audience crave to see because it contains so much and it's the archetypal Shakespeare play. And secondly, if you're a young actor between 20 and 40, you feel you have to test yourself against it. It's the ultimate acting test for any actor."

Outstanding performances have launched stellar careers, he says. When the gangly, 24-year-old figure of David Warner shuffled on to the stage in Stratford in 1965, dressed like a student in a red scarf, he appeared to speak for a generation.

Image caption Jude Law's Hamlet was warmly received on Broadway

And nearly 40 years later, Ben Whishaw was the same age when his performance at the Old Vic ignited his stardom.

Strangely, the reverse doesn't seem to apply. A poorly received Hamlet has rarely dealt a fatal blow to acting aspirations.

Billington thinks that's partly because it's difficult to fail in a role which is so adaptable. It will always coincide, he says, with the actor's personality and strengths.

As West puts it, you can fail. But only in an interesting way.

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