T.S. Eliot called "Hamlet" the " 'Mona Lisa' of literature": No matter how hard we look at the play, it never yields all its secrets. We become fascinated, even as it beckons us to read into it what we will.
This being Shakespeare, a ripping good story unfolds, of course, from the moment a creepy ghost walks the castle's parapet on through various intrigues, murder, suicide, and enough plot twists and complex relationships for any soap-opera fan, all topped by a climactic sword fight. But "Hamlet" is no Bruce Willis tale of an action hero on a payback mission. He is a round peg in the square hole of a hero, not really up to this business of revenge. He's Everyman.
Actually, Simon Russell Beale might chuckle at that "round peg" description. The British actor is playing the role on an American tour right now, and it's a wonderful, but not conventional, portrayal of the troubled Prince of Denmark. Instead of young, athletic, and blond, his Hamlet is nearing middle age, with a fleck of gray in his beard, and not slim. His Hamlet's question is "Tubby or not tubby?" Beale joked in a recent interview.
What his Hamlet does show is that the role is not about body type or age but about, to borrow from Spike Lee, how to "Do the Right Thing." The problem for the actor is that the character sets a chess game before him: There seem to be countless possible moves for the character - almost line-by-line decisions. Not the least is what's to be done about "to be or not to be" and a script full of famous lines that have become cliches. How can an actor be fresh but true to the words?
And what's really happening in the mind of Hamlet, a man who has found that his father has been murdered by his uncle, who has then married his mother? Is Hamlet pretending to be insane, as he says? Has he really gone over the edge? Or is he caught in some strange place in between? (Eliot calls Hamlet's actions "less than madness and more than feigned.")
Beale, shorter than average and with a higher-pitched voice than one might expect, is a sweet and gentle Hamlet - contemplative but not effeminate. It's a thoughtful and intelligent performance, neither showy nor gimmicky. His hands are ever expressive, but not distracting: He casually holds a recorder to his chest like a dagger as he weighs the true motives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
At the beginning of this "Hamlet," the characters all step forth from recesses ringing the stage, like the paintings of "Ruddigore" come to life. Are they mere ghosts, telling us this tragic tale over and over again, its lessons never learned? Several large trunks serve as tables, chairs, even walls, emphasizing the temporal nature of the events being depicted.
Even King Claudius, the murderer, is no simplistic villain. He recognizes his faults when he attempts to pray and finds "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below/ Words without thoughts never to heaven go."
As Horatio bids farewell to the "sweet prince," light forms a cross across the back of the barren dark stage. A symbol of hope amid the carnage?
The Royal National Theatre production of 'Hamlet' is at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston through April 29. It then travels to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (May 2-13); the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson, Ariz. (May 16-20); the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix (May 22-27); and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (May 30-June 2).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor