Hamlet. Is it the be-all and end-all, the alpha and omega of roles? Or is it an actor’s nightmare, a theatrical curse, a challenge that can never be met? Recalling his first Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1929, when he was 25, John Gielgud wrote in Early Stages: “How could I seem great enough, simple enough to say those hackneyed, wonderful lines as if I was thinking of them for the first time? How could I avoid certain passages in the manner of other actors I had seen, how could I put into the part my own personal feelings–many of which fitted the feelings of Hamlet–and yet lift them to a high classical style worthy of the character?”
Tom Hulce, now playing his first Hamlet in a production running through Jan. 10 at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., came to the part warily. For seven years, by his account, he and the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director Michael Kahn discussed the possibility of Hulce’s playing this role-to-end-all-roles, and for seven years they postponed it.
“I hadn’t felt compelled to do it,” the 39-year-old actor earnestly tried to explain during an interview last November. “I felt that there was no reason to do the play just because–because it’s something you were meant to do.” He had seen numerous productions, “and I didn’t really understand what everyone was carrying on about. But over the years, I’ve worked toward trying to nourish a compulsion.”
Talk, talk, talk
Friends like the playwright Peter Shaffer, for whom Hulce had starred in Equus on Broadway and as Mozart in the film Amadeus, nudged him Hamlet-ward. “One of the things that made me reticent was that Hamlet just talked too much,” said Hulce, who has a reputation among journalists for being reluctant to chat. “Peter suggested that he always saw Hamlet as a man who only felt alive when he was talking and that put me on a track.”
Another friend sent Hulce a tape of 10 famous Hamlets being interviewed about their portrayals, ranging from Ben Kingsley, Jean-Louis Barrault, Olivier, Gielgud, Nicol Williamson and Vittorio Gassman to Innokenti Smoktunovsky, who had starred in a Soviet-made film of Shakespeare’s tragedy in 1964. (Hulce was watching that film one morning last winter when Kahn telephoned and said, “This is it. Now or never.”)
The diversity of these stars’ approaches seemed to reassure the actor. “It was interesting to hear what hooked them. It was almost as if they were talking about different plays.”
Finally, a Moscow sojourn in 1991, several months before the crash of the Soviet regime, inspired Hulce to take on the beleaguered Prince of Denmark. In the U.S.S.R. to film The Inner Circle, in which Hulce plays a young revolutionary, he found the environment “the closest I had been in my own life to the circumstances of Hamlet. That is a place where you can imagine someone eliminating somebody else and taking over. It is a place where the people who seem to be your friends may very well work for an organization that is not particularly on your side. It is a place where you feel you are in prison.”
As we share a dinner break in a gray office at the Shakespeare Theatre, Hulce scarfs down cold sesame noodles and an order of steamed broccoli and, between mouthfuls, praises the role he once slighted. “Incredible. When you dive in, something happens to you,” he says, almost stammering in the effort to convey his thoughts. “This part can embrace everything that you have to bring to it and still beg for more.”
Now, in his fifth week of rehearsal, he even likes all the talking. “It’s a great warming kind of experience to speak a lot of it.” What kind of man will his Hamlet be? “Not for me to say,” is Hulce’s reply. “I wouldn’t be able to describe myself objectively from the outside.”
He complains, in fact, that “everyone has an agenda about this play. I get questions like, ‘Are you going to play a resolute or an irresolute Hamlet?'” He laughs. “I don’t know. First, you have to explain to me what that means.”
Experiencing this production as a continual discovery, and his acting process as “concentric circles” in which he tries “to cover as much territory as possible in all directions,” he prefers to talk in terms of sudden, often unrelated, insights about the role. He plays Hamlet younger than his own age. “I think 39 is very old to be a student, and to be having these agendas with your mother. It’s a more interesting play if it’s somebody who has discoveries to make.”
On Ophelia: “Why would you tell someone to lock herself away from people and the world if you didn’t love her? If you didn’t have her best interests at heart? It becomes a less interesting evening if there’s no love lost. Makes her a fool. And it means he’s been writing a great number of pretty terrible love letters. Here is a man who speaks some of the most exquisite sentences ever written, and when his letter is read out loud by Polonius, it is terrible. I love the fact that he’s a bad writer. I identify with that. I can’t write to save my life.”
On the soliloquies: “In some way, getting confirmation that his world is diseased–although the news that his father was murdered by his uncle is not good news is confirmation for Hamlet that he’s not crazy, that he is right and there is something rank and gross in nature at work in this place. I think the soliloquies are meant to be shared with the audience. They are his attendant ear.”
Private angst about acting
Ironically, at the moment in Hulce’s career when he is wrestling with a character often described as ambivalent, he feels ambivalent about his career. The man who received an Oscar nomination for his performance in Amadeus, a Tony nomination for his portrayal of the wise-cracking lawyer in A Few Good Men, whom Kahn describes as a “wonderful actor” who is “not afraid to try anything” says he might consider another, as yet unnamed, line of work.
“It’s a feeling that it’s time to move on,” Hulce says carefully. “That this is a phase, and that there is another phase to be entered into. I’m not sure what that is. It definitely may not be acting. I’ve always admired people who, when they were 50, went and did something else. In some way, the easiest thing would be to continue acting, look at it as a way to make a living and as a job. I think if that’s what it becomes, I will definitely stop.”
His friends note the perfect confluence of stage persona and private angst. To be or not to be. To act or….
“This is the thing, this is the thing,” Hulce exclaims, amazed once more by the general need to find an agenda for this Sisyphean labor known as Acting Hamlet. “The point is that, whatever you’re feeling, it has a life in this story. There is nothing you bring with you to this role that isn’t accounted for somewhere.”