ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Demands of Hamlet

News   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Demands of Hamlet
Two actors, Hamish Linklater and Jeffrey Carlson, discuss the joys and demands of playing Hamlet.
Hamish Linklater and Jeffrey Carlson portray Hamlet in different productions this summer.
Hamish Linklater and Jeffrey Carlson portray Hamlet in different productions this summer. Photo by Aubrey Reuben


Ask is a weekly column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

This week's question comes from the staff.

Question: What are the pressures of playing Hamlet?

Answer: talked to two spring Hamlets, Hamish Linklater (who plays the role at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, through July 1) and Jeffrey Carlson (The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, through July 29) in separate phone interviews. Carlson: The main pressure is a lot of people know about this play, and people have opinions about what it is. You walk into it saying, "Oh God, well am I going to do it right?" but what you really have to do is take it one word at a time and look at the real story and hopefully discover that it's something you didn't realize it was.

Linklater: I think there's a lot of pressure in terms of just staying healthy and not losing your voice. It's exhausting. I did the Friday night and I have two today [Saturday] and two tomorrow…But the good thing about how exhausting it is is that it takes a lot of the other ghost pressure off you. All the ghosts, all the people who have done it before who have done it perfectly and are amazing, all that sort of "be as good as the great ones," all that sort of sh**. You don't have to [worry about that]. Just surviving the ascent up Mount Olympus is enough to worry about, frankly…The worst pressure of playing the role is having to do it five times in 51 hours. That is balls. Just balls. But I'm in the best physical condition in my entire life. I just had a baby — my wife did — and I gained 15 pounds pregnancy weight, and it's gone, plus five more. You're running around soaking in sweat. I have to change my shirt three times through the production. They have to de-ionize my shirt. I have to figure out the version where you sit in the chair for three hours.

Carlson: I've lost almost ten pounds since we've been running it. [At the end of a performance] I'm drenched through and through. Soaked to the bone. I have bruises everywhere. I've ripped both my pairs of pants repeatedly.

Are there any specific moments that are particularly difficult?

Linklater: I think that by far the hardest thing to do is there's a scene at the end which is at Ophelia's grave, with Laertes, with [Hamlet] jumping in the grave with the fight and the screaming he's, like, really mean. I find it so exhausting. He's been away in England for a while, you're offstage for maybe 20 minutes, you come back in and have this Yorick speech, that's beautiful, and you're physically calm, and all of a sudden you have to go form zero to 60. I just find it really hard.

Carlson: When I was first looking at the play, the things I was most intimidated by are the parts I [now] love the most. There's the "get thee to a nunnery" scene. The scene itself in our production, it closes the first half of it, before intermission. And there's just something about that scene in terms of the words and what he's saying there and the language and already in the play, he came home from school, his father's dead, his mother remarried, and his schoolfellows lie to him, and his girlfriend, who's already been weird to him anyway, she lies to him. His whole world crumbles and having to go from zero to 100 in just a number of words, not only hoping they come out the right order but allowing yourself to come out into that place and experience what that is, it's difficult. And the scene with the mom, with Gertrude. People know those scenes. But when you really try to find out what's happening moment to moment, it's really complicated. I was intimidated by them initially. Now I love doing them because of the work that we've done.

What about the famous soliloquies?

Linklater: I have to go to the theatre a half hour early to f***ing figure out what I've forgotten to do in [the soliloquy that begins] "What a rogue and peasant slave am I." I've been screwing that up — not screwing up the lines just screwing up the shape of it. I peak too early. It has three crescendos in it, and I've been running over one of them. You can kind of tell when you're sucking the life out of a theatre of 500 people. I gotta stop doing that… [About the "To be or not to be?" speech], I like doing that speech, and I like my attack on it. There's so much of the part that gives you so much personal pleasure that why let other people get in the way of that? And people love hearing that speech. They love it. It's a real treat, and for a lot of people, Hamlet isn't done all that much out here on the West Coast. A lot of people, it's their first time hearing it.

Carlson: I don't want the audience to be like, "Here comes the speech." You want it in a way that catches people off-guard, and something just the character is going through at that moment… Hopefully at that moment in the play the audience is like, "Of course!" That's what I would prefer, as opposed to "Here's that famous speech. He's by himself, he's going to talk for a long time." If you're not doing that, you're not doing your job.

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