The story of Hamlet has been told many times before, in the mediums of theatre and film. The tragedy of the Prince of Denmark, a brooding young man who exacts revenge following the murder of his father, is one of the most familiar tales in the literary canon. Director Simon Stone has chosen to stage the play at Belvoir, and when his name is attached, you know that you’re in for something new and fresh. Thomas Campbell, who plays Laertes in this new version, promises a unique and essential take on the Shakespeare classic.
“Simon is always excited to discover the potential in a text,” Campbell says. “Since the start of this whole process, he’s been focused on the idea that Hamlet is the story of a young man grieving for his father.” While he says he doesn’t want to give too much away ahead of time, he says that Stone’s pared-back version of the play turns the focus inward. “It’s very family-based,” he says, “a lot of the war stuff has been cut. It’s very much about internal family relationships, and about the idea of what might drive Hamlet to do what he does.”
Ahead of Hamlet’s Belvoir season, one critic suggested, perhaps playfully or perhaps not, that Stone’s version had ‘ruthlessly attacked’ the original text. Campbell laughs at this suggestion. “The script is definitely pared back,” he says. “It’s all about the essentials of the text, Hamlet’s relationships with his mother and his uncle. In this version, the ghost of his father is a little more present than in most productions. A lot of the periphery characters are gone, too. It hasn’t been done in a way that’s going to offend people. It’s just about the essentials.”
The character of Laertes is one of the more physical roles in Hamlet – he spends much of his time jumping into graves, storming into rooms, and fighting with swords. He is the son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia, for whose deaths he blames Hamlet, and seeks revenge. I’ve always thought of him as a very angry and pent-up character, but when I put this to Campbell, he disagrees. For him, the essential component of Laertes is his duality with Hamlet – he sees them as two similar characters with fundamentally different approaches to their grief.
“I don’t think of him as angry,” Campbell says. “A lot of people compare Hamlet and Laertes by saying that they’re both young men dealing with family tragedies – the difference between them is that Hamlet stands around talking about it, whereas Laertes jumps in and takes action to try and resolve it quickly. He’s a guy who has lost his family and wants to seek revenge. I let those feelings drive my performance. He comes in at times yelling and being very demanding, but he’s really just a man grieving a loss, and we all have our own parallels for things like that.”
A lot of actors say it can be difficult to get into the right headspace for Shakespearian dialogue, but Campbell has no such concern. He has performed a good deal of Shakespeare before, working with Bell and even playing the role of Richard III several years ago. Also, and perhaps crucially, he is not as precious about Shakespeare as some. “I don’t know if I have quite the reverence for his texts that some do,” he says. “His dialogue is beautiful and it’s poetic, and it also has emotional truth, so it has that double whammy, but you approach it like any other text.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN