Mel Gibson Takes on `Hamlet'

Star of action films describes the artistic challenge of acting in Shakespeare's tragedy

`I EMBARKED upon the bark of the Bard,'' quips actor Mel Gibson, describing his decision to film ``Hamlet.'' It's a welcome flash of the old Gibson humor. I have been struck so far during our interview by his relatively subdued, reflective manner - quite remarkable by contrast to his customary irreverence and prankish humor. This role represents his greatest challenge, his greatest stretch, since ``Mrs. Soffel'' some years ago. ``Oh, yes, I've been sucked into this play ever since I first saw it,'' Gibson continues after one of his quirky pauses. (His silences can keep you off balance, like syncopation in music.) He goes on to explain that despite his training in the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney, Australia, he never thought that much about actually playing the Melancholy Dane.

``I auditioned for it once when I was about 28 and paid it some mind. But somebody else got it and I hadn't thought that much about it again until Franco [Zeffirelli] offered me this part. He met me at a restaurant and,'' he gestures with his coffee cup - ``then I wanted to do it. You can't not do it. He presented it to me like a gauntlet, like a slap in the face. So, you do it.''

``The Gibson name was vital in finding financial backers,'' Franco Zeffirelli had admitted to me in an earlier conversation. ``But it was a two-edged sword. They liked the name but questioned if he could do it. And I realized it was risky for him. And very brave. He puts his life and career there. Imagine if we did not succeed, he could have become a joke in the industry. For me, it would be just a flop, but for him.... ''

Gibson downplays the risk factor. He's convinced his fans will recognize some of the same energies and sheer physicality in the character of Hamlet that have made his roles of Riggs and Max in the movies ``Lethal Weapon'' and ``Max Max'' ies so popular. They are all full of blood and violence. Rather, Gibson says, the real risk lies elsewhere.

``It's the language of Shakespeare that's the real difficulty for everybody,'' he says. ``I mean, the words were a barrier to me. You learn it by first understanding it yourself. But that doesn't necessarily mean you can make anybody else understand it. It's all in the inflection, the emotion, the sense of what they are saying. Then you can put your layers, or colors, on it.''

He sighs and pauses. ``You take a line like `Oh, most wicked speed to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets.' Pretty wild words, huh? Very abrasive words. `Incestuous sheets,''' He hisses out the sibilants. ``The iambic pentameter grinds itself into a rhythm in the brain after awhile, so that even your ordinary conversation takes on that style.''

Listen to those rhythms and those sounds, says Gibson, and you have the key to those thorny problems about Hamlet.

`YOU can hear his wheels, how he chases his tail around all the time. He's very smart, and he's always in motion - either thinking too much or acting too impulsively.

`Extremes either way, but they come from the same energy. Take those lines when Hamlet is welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Denmark [Act Two, Scene 2]: Hamlet has told them, `Welcome to my prison.' And they say that Denmark isn't prison, it's just his mind that makes it so. And Hamlet says, `Are you crazy? I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.' You can't pin him down. And don't forget'' - Gibson lowers his voice in a sardonic whisper - ``all this time he's enjoying messing with their heads. ... He's always doing that, too.'' Gibson adds this with a certain relish, a certain - well, approval....

Undaunted by the centuries of spilt ink over the exact nature of the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude, Gibson ventures his own typically straightforward, practical interpretation. ``I don't think it's sexual, but they do know each other very well. And they're totally dependent on each other. They touch and hang on to each other a lot. But with her new husband she's found something she likes better for the moment. And Hamlet can't bear it. By the laws of that time, her marriage to his uncle really was incestuous. He's disgusted with her. And when he confronts her in the chapel, he wants to shock her.'' Gibson pauses unexpectedly. ``Freudian?'' he asks himself. ``That's a crock. But then, Hamlet is too Jung to understand any of this....''

Another zinger. Puns are always a sign of Gibson's reviving spirits. The blue eyes snap as he takes another sip of coffee.

Time to switch topics. I learn that Gibson took particular delight in staging and playing the duel with Laertes at the end of the film.

``That part was easy,'' says Gibson. ``That's Hamlet in motion again, which is what he really does best. But for me it was a sweaty job under that heavy chainmail. Imagine putting on a 25-pound shirt!''

Did he see any of the other classic Hamlet portrayals that exist on film - Barrymore, Evans, Olivier? No, Gibson displays little curiosity about his predecessors. ``I don't think anyone can give you Hamlet. You're on your own. It's a very personal thing. No matter who you are, you can identify with some aspect of that character. Shakespeare has put the whole of the human condition into one person. And that's why it's so intriguing - why it has had such longevity. And always will. Maybe I'll do it on a stage sometime. Another time. Right now it's a blessed relief to get onto something else. It all seems so much easier after this.''

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