Simon Russell Beale is indeed a "sweet prince." And he deserves "flights of angels" to sing his praises wherever he may go. At present he's moping about the stage of Boston's Wilbur Theatre in the Royal National Theatre's production of Hamlet. Considered offbeat casting, given his short stature and his girth, Beale won both the London Evening Standard and Critics' Circle awards for his performance. A good indication of his range is the Olivier Award he took home the year before for Best Actor in a Musical, in the NT's revival of Bernstein's Candide. Folks on these shores may have caught a glimpse of him in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 filmed version of the play. Beale was the Second Gravedigger.
In addition to Branagh, this reviewer is familiar with a handful of other Hamlets on stage and film. Richard Burton, Mel Gibson and Campbell Scott spring to mind. All were interesting and memorable. All worked on various levels, but Beale's interpretation is the one that makes sense. His is not a Hamlet full of angst, a petulant Hamlet, a Hamlet of action, or a Hamlet of youth. His is a Hamlet of reflection, intelligence, wit and moral conscience. He's sad, wistful, even fey. Beale gives us a Hamlet whose words we can understand and thoughts we can follow.
This Hamlet longs for everything to go back to the way it was. Given that director John Caird has chosen to cut Fortinbras and the political struggle between Denmark and Norway, the concerns here are all domestic and filial. Hamlet is disappointed by his mother's behavior. He's sad, but compliant, when Cladius asks him to remain at Elsinore rather than return to university where he might distance himself from recent events. Instead, he has the burden of revenge thrust upon him by his father's ghost. He executes an elaborate series of subterfuges and counterplots to confirm his own plan for carrying out the charge and thwart, sometimes inadvertently, the enemy operatives.
This is why the casting of Beale works. Why should it be a handsome man of action who finds himself in this position, a young man well equipped to carry out his father's orders? Why not someone who jots notes to himself in a journal, is delighted by his own cleverness at using the players to reveal Cladius' quilt and gets irritated when his mother reaches out to tame his uncombed hair? Better that Hamlet look like he's more accustomed to having a book in his hand than a rapier, someone who we know will weigh the consequences before he acts.
Caird has also chosen to emphasize the Christian undertones in the play. The arrangement of space and line often suggests a cathedral and the chandeliers swinging on their chains, a priest's censer. The men are robed in long, ecclesiastical-looking garments. The music sounds, at times, Gregorian. All this befits Shakespeare's interplay of contemporary (Elizabethan) Christian thinking about good and evil with the basic tenants of old-fashioned revenge.
As appealing as the production is in its simplicity, this is a noticeably sparse company of actors both in number and effect. Aside from Peter Blythe in the dual roles of Polonius and the Gravedigger, the rest of the cast isn't as compelling as Beale by half. The younger men, in particular, who are supposed to be Hamlet's contemporaries, are an odd collection, not the sort of fellows you'd imagine this Hamlet hanging out with.
The U.S. tour of Hamlet, in Boston through April 29th, continues on to the Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis (May 2-13), the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson (May 16-20) and the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix (May 22-27.) The tour ends in New York City with five performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (May 30 - June 2) before the company returns home for another booking at the National in June and July.