Battle of the Hamlets

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In the more than 400 years since Richard Burbage originated it in London, the role of Shakespeare's existentially challenged prince of Denmark has become the ultimate prize in a sort of eternal Olympics of acting.

That, I imagine, is much on the mind of Benedict Cumberbatch these days. Though more than a year away, his Hamlet (at the Barbican in London) has already prompted much heavy-breathing speculation; it follows celebrity interpretations during the past decade that include those of Jude Law, David Tennant and Rory Kinnear.

In anticipation of that event, I have imagined a fantasy arena in which a Battle of the Hamlets might take place.

Because the number of Hamlets past is beyond counting and records of long-ago incarnations are on the sketchy side, I am limiting myself to those since 1922, for which documentation is abundant, and to the interpretations that generated the greatest hue and cry.John Barrymore

(Broadway, 1922; London, 1925)

Barrymore, then in his early 40s, forged the template for the 20th-century Hamlet.

"The all-important spark of genius was there," The New York Times' reviewer wrote, adding that his delivery was "that of conversation, almost colloquial", a point of contention for British critics.

Laurence Olivier, speaking of the tradition of Hamlets dating back to the 19th century with actor Henry Irving, later admitted he was much influenced by Barrymore, of whom he wrote: "It seemed to me that he breathed life into the character, which since Irving, had descended into arias and false inflections - all very beautiful and poetic, but castrated. Barrymore put back the balls."

John Gielgud (London, 1934; Broadway, 1936)

For many, this melodious and intellectual interpretation constituted "the first Hamlet of our time", as W.A. Darlington wrote. Others found him a shade too lyrical and cerebral.

In The Times, Brooks Atkinson admired Gielgud's "extraordinary grace and winged intelligence" but said he lacked "the command, power and storm of Elizabethan tragedy".

Still, Gielgud was the toast of two continents, and on Broadway, he knocked Leslie Howard's rival production right out of contention.

Laurence Olivier (The Old Vic, London, 1936)

The performance that set its star on the road to theatrical immortality, this was an expressly physical Hamlet of quicksilver mood changes and Freudian motivation.

He consulted at length with psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, who later wrote Hamlet And Oedipus and palpably left his mark on Olivier's 1948 film.

Raymond Mortimer wrote that he seemed to be "playing a new part every minute with himself for the audience".

Legend has it that Gielgud rushed backstage to say to Olivier: "Larry, it's one of the finest performances I've ever seen, but it's still my part."

Richard Burton (Broadway, 1964)

Audiences in search of Hamlet had to squint through the bright fog of celebrity that then enshrouded Burton, who was newly married to Elizabeth Taylor. Gielgud directed him.

Presented with minimal scenery and the cast in street clothes, this Hamlet was partly inspired by Harley Granville-Barker's notion that the play was best approached as a "permanent rehearsal" and Burton's readings were said to vary radically from night to night.

Howard Taubman in The Times said: "I do not recall a Hamlet of such tempestuous manliness."

David Warner (Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 1965)

This being the 1960s, there were many portrayals of Hamlet as an anti-establishment student rebel. But the consensus is that the 24-year-old Warner - "frail, bedecked with a long scarf and acquired pop-star status", as The Guardian's Michael Billington later recalled - provided the most affecting account. Mark Rylance

(Stratford-upon-Avon, 1988, and tour, 1989)

This was when Rylance became a contender for the slippery title of "greatest actor of his generation". He brought a hard-hitting, genuine derangement to Ron Daniels' modern-dress production, beginning his first soliloquy with his back to the audience and performing many scenes in conspicuously soiled pyjamas.

He took the role "by what you'd have to call brainstorm", Paul Taylor wrote in The Independent.

When the production was staged at Broadmoor, a mental institution west of London, one inmate is said to have rushed the stage and cried out, "You were really mad - take it from me, I should know, I'm a loony."

Simon Russell Beale (London, 2000; Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2001)

This is the only one of the competitors that I have had the chance to see in the flesh (several times), though I did catch a later (and still fascinating) Hamlet from Rylance at Shakespeare's Globe in 2000.

In John Caird's ecclesiastic production, Russell Beale stripped Hamlet of his characteristic glamour and more obvious idiosyncrasies to present a startlingly transparent view of a mind at war with itself. More than a decade later, I can still feel his pain.

As of now, he's my Hamlet of choice, but that's mostly because he's the one I know most intimately.

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