I Hate Hamlet, about the slings and arrows of playing the Dane, comes to Hong Kong

The ghost of famous stage actor John Barrymore, who first played Hamlet in 1922, returns to help a young actor who has reluctantly taken on the role

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 5:09pm

Every serious actor supposedly aspires to play Shakespeare’s Danish Prince. However in I Hate Hamlet, a 1991 play by Paul Rudnick being presented next month at the Fringe Underground by the Hong Kong Players, a TV star is offered the role and quite genuinely doesn’t want to take it.

Playwright Paul Rudnick got the idea for the play when he moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village in New York, and learned that a previous occupant had been the actor John Barrymore.

Inspired by his new surroundings, Rudnick imagined Barrymore, who was particularly renowned for his interpretation of Hamlet, coming back as a ghost to tutor a ham actor in the necessary stagecraft for the role.

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“It is a fantastic opportunity to vent 14 years of bad acting habits in one go,” says Hamish Campbell, who plays the role of Andrew Rally opposite Neville Sarony’s ghostly Barrymore.

“There is a fine line between good and bad acting. A bad actor performs for himself, marvelling at his own immense talent and skill. Through the play Andrew has to learn to break from this, and work hard to truly impress an audience.”

Sadly no complete record exists of Barrymore’s Hamlet, a role he first played in 1922 and one that led to his being acclaimed as the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day.

An attempt to film him in the role was made in 1933, but the project was abandoned. However, there is surviving footage of a screen test – and a late-career recitation of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy –that can be found on YouTube, and which gave Sarony some raw material to work with.

“The recording I decided to draw upon was the last one he did when he was virtually finished and looking back with some humour on his past,” Sarony says. “He is no longer the athletic young actor but the mature Barrymore, obviously enjoying himself – and a trifle inebriated.”

Director Jodi Gilchrist first read I Hate Hamlet last year at the suggestion of a friend, and decided that the play, which has six cast members – the others being Kate Mulligan, Kath O’Connor, Jane Archibald and Mike Pizzuto – could be made to work for the Players.

“I spent time over the summer reading it, and created a vision that I thought would work particularly well here. It’s witty, concise and farcical, and with the right cast I could see would be very entertaining,” she says.

It is certainly a play for people who love theatre and have an interest in its lore, and in acting as a craft, as Campbell points out.

“The audience witnesses my transition between Andrew Rally and Hamlet, and as Andrew is very ‘method’ and has some odd techniques to get into character, it should be quite humorous to watch. Any people who have acted before will recognise some of the odd rituals and superstitions that many actors have,” he says.

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Sarony found pathos as well as humour in the role of Barrymore’s ghost.

“He fluctuates between self-parody and deadly earnest at various stages of the play,” he says.

“I set out thinking it was going to be a fun role to play. I discovered that while it is fun, and there are parts which are greatly enjoyable, there are also aspects which move from the merely introspective to deeply sad.”

In the original Broadway production, the role of Barrymore’s ghost was played by the late Nicol Williamson, also renowned as a great Hamlet, but by the latter stages of his career apparently difficult to work with, and, like Barrymore, a heavy drinker.

Although some knowledge of Hamlet and of John Barrymore’s life will undoubtedly add to the audience’s enjoyment of the play, Gilchrist says that background is not absolutely essential, and there are plenty of lines which should elicit laughter.

“One of the more challenging aspects of performing a comedy, is to ensure that the pace is maintained throughout and that punchlines are not lost. These are technical aspects that we have worked hard on,” she says.

I Hate Hamlet, Hong Kong Players, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central, Mar 1-4, 7.30pm (2.30pm matinee), HK$280. Inquiries: 2521 7251