As great an actor as Richard Burton is —and he is among the greatest — the single most distinctive feature about him is probably his booming voice. Whether in the movies, on stage, or as the narrator in the brilliant recording of the musical Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, Burton’s words reverberate with power, clarity and enunciative perfection, exhibiting the impression of an absolute mastery of the spoken word. Who better to pair Burton with than the one playwright in history who proves the absolute master of the written word?
Burton made his career on the Shakespearean stage in Stratford, arriving with a splash as Prince Hal in King Henry IV, Part 1 in April 1951, garnering rave reviews. He was 25. In the very same season, he followed up this first success with the natural sequels, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V, though first digressing into the role of Ferdinand in The Tempest. In America, he had already wowed American audiences on Broadway in 1949 with the then-new verse-play by Christopher Fry, The Lady’s Not For Burning. The same year saw his first appearances in British movies, and he arrived in short order as a Hollywood star when he appeared alongside Olivia de Havilland in the 1952 film My Cousin Rachel. Burton was nominated for best supporting actor at the 1953 Academy Awards, and won the Best Male Newcomer Award at the Golden Globes.
Though steeped in Shakespeare since his youth (at 18 he was in a 1944 production of Measure For Measure), the mature Burton appeared in only one film version of a Shakespeare play: Franco Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew (1967). But, one mighty stage performance of his 1964 Hamlet was committed to celluloid and subsequently shown in movie theaters, enabling millions of people to enjoy Burton’s powerful portrayal of the melancholy Dane.
Burton knew that this was the time to do Hamlet, because at 38 he would soon be too old for the part. Having reunited with his Stratford collaborator Sir John Gielgud in 1963 on the set of the film Becket, Burton told Sir John that he would do Hamlet if Gielgud would direct it. Gielgud agreed.
The performance came at the height of Burton’s celebrity status. The play was initially staged in Toronto, then came to Boston, ultimately ending up in a long and sold-out Broadway run. And right in the middle of it came his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, amidst a relentless media frenzy concerning Burton’s breakup with his first wife, and his “living in sin” with Taylor. Throngs of people showed up outside the theaters to demonstrate against the “immoral” relationship, while other thousands showed up as adoring fans. It is a testament to Burton’s consummate professionality that he managed to keep his head and deliver a stellar performance as Hamlet every night during this cacophony of public attention.
According to the trivia page on Burton’s Hamlet at the Internet Movie Database, all copies of the filmed performance were supposed to be destroyed upon the end of the cinematic run, but one preserved copy was discovered in Burton’s own garage after his death. Whether this discovery is accurate or not, the fact remains that Burton’s Hamlet is now out on DVD, and can once again be enjoyed by the multitudes.
It is a full, conflated text version of the play, more than three hours long, containing only a few admirably strategic cuts. One or two minor speeches are shortened, including Hamlet’s recital in front of the players.
The filmed performance is in black and white, and the DVD’s picture quality is not good. Thankfully, this is compensated for by a nearly immaculate sound recording, and in the case of a Burton-Shakespeare play, this must be said to be the most important facet of such an undertaking.
Gielgud staged the play in the manner of a dress rehearsal — a so-called “final run-through” — with minimal props and no period costumes. The actors were free to choose their own clothing, and they appear here in contemporary upper middle-class everyday clothes, although Burton wears a thin black V-neck sweater and black pants. Almost amusingly, even the three people portraying the Norwegian army wear suit and tie.
Burton is as phenomenal a Hamlet as you have any right to expect. He infuses his broad-shouldered portrayal of the Danish prince with a believably robust pathos. His Hamlet never lets down his guard; he is conflicted, angry, constantly suspicious, ironic, never trusting, rarely smiling, always pensive and always sensing danger. Like an undisciplined child, his voice oscillates wildly, but despite his frequent lapse into flippancy he seems to keep all impulses under control - except when he sneeringly barks out the word “woman!” at the end of “Frailty, thy name is...”
At “Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across, plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face, tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i'the throat as deep as to the lungs; who does me this?”, Burton whirls around as if beset by invisible enemies. He is strong enough to be confident, yet he’s never confident enough to fend off his fundamental insecurity. He never conquers his fear of the unknown, at least not until the final Act.
When he is with the players and asks them to speak him a speech, trying to remember it himself, the players actually produce a book containing the speech and show it to Hamlet. This is a variation I haven’t seen before. The 1st Player still knows the remainder of the speech by heart, though; he doesn’t need the book.
When Hamlet is on his way to England and passes Fortinbras’ army, latterly going into the “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy, Burton strangely delivers it in a sitting, calm, and almost indifferent manner, including the final “From this day forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.” I fail to grasp why Burton performs this passionate speech in so throwaway a manner; it reads like he has completely given up and doesn’t really mean a word of it. I dare say it is also a shame to bypass such a great opportunity for Burton’s sonorous voice to reach new heights of intensity.
It may, however, be part of the overall theme of contrasting strength of body with weakness of the will, for if there is a single overpowering theme to Burton’s Hamlet, it is physical strength. Hamlet is a man who needs to avenge his father by killing his uncle, and has cause and strength and means to do it, even if he doesn’t quite have the will. Grandly, the imposing Burton resembles a Herculean Hamlet, all the more tragic for never mustering the all-important resolve to put his strength to use. Besides this, there doesn’t seem to be any other strong statement to the production, nor is any needed, for Burton is himself such a statement personified.
The rest of the cast is capable, but, in comparison with Burton, generally on the uncharismatic side. Hume Cronyn’s spot-on Polonius deserves the most distinction for masterfully mixing impeccable etiquette with comical confusion. The gravediggers, too, are particularly entertaining, but the remaining cast is merely adequate. Claudius and Gertrude fulfill their roles and not much more. Ophelia is the usual confused, humble and restrained girl as seen so many times before, and Horatio is frankly a bit of a dullard, bordering on the anemic. Laertes, however, is a strong personality, and a fitting opponent for Burton’s square-framed Hamlet.
Burton is the centerpiece of the stage, and rightly so, for it would surely introduce a jangled disharmony if the other actors were to upstage a lead character of such strong and brooding presence. Choosing relatively uncharismatic yet quietly professional actors with which to surround Burton was the correct decision - particularly now that the performance is only left to us in black and white, so that there is very little to distract us from Burton himself.
At the end of this version of Hamlet, one could be forgiven for remembering it as a one-man show. And a fond memory it is.
DVD Extras: Apart from lists of filmographies for Burton, Gielgud and Cronyn, the DVD features a brief 1964 interview with a chain-smoking Burton, where he is asked to talk about Theatro Film's experimental project of filming stage performances for subsequent projection in cinemas; an ambition that was apparently considered very promising at the time, but which we now know has sadly come to very limited fruition in the years since. The interview is interesting only because virtually any words coming out of Burton's mouth have a nearly spellbinding quality.
Bibliography: The personal and professional circumstances surrounding the conception, staging and success of Richard Burton’s Hamlet are recounted in a chapter of John Cottrell and Fergus Cashin’s “Richard Burton - A Biography” (Arthur Barker Limited, London, 1971)