For some people, it's like we'd tampered with the Holy Grail," says British actor Alex Jennings.
He is referring to the Royal Shakespeare Company's truncated, modern-dress "Hamlet," in which he plays the title role, clad in a T-shirt and toting a Polaroid camera. The production is currently at Washington's Kennedy Center as part of a monthlong, five-play residency.
Of all five productions, however, "Hamlet" has provoked the most controversy. This is somewhat surprising since, over the centuries, "Hamlet" has probably gone through more permutations - from the weird to the wonderful - than any other work in English literature. There have been child Hamlets, ballet and opera Hamlets, sitcom Hamlets, even cartoon Hamlets.
Sarah Siddons' performance in 1777 was probably the first time the prince was played by a woman, although the most famous was surely Sarah Bernhardt, who began playing it in 1899 at age 55 (and with a wooden leg). Both women played the role in drag, as did a 72-year-old Judith Anderson, who brought her version to the Mechanic Theatre in 1971.
Casting children in the title role was a 19th-century fad. In the same century, Ira Aldridge became the first great black American Hamlet, though to be accepted in the role, the actor - who was more widely received abroad than at home - had to paint his face and hands white.
More than two dozen mediocre ballets have been fashioned out of "Hamlet" and a half dozen operas. Of these, just one, by 19th-century French composer Ambroise Thomas, met with any real success.
Then there are the nearly 50 screen versions, the most recent of which is Kenneth Branagh's 1996 uncut, four-hour version. On the small screen, bits and pieces of "Hamlet" have shown up even on sitcoms ("Gilligan's Island," no less).
Various forms have also surfaced in cartoons, including Popeye ("I yam what I yam" instead of "To be, or not to be?"). In addition, the plot of Disney's 1994 animated film, "The Lion King" - and, of course, the Tony Award-winning musical - is loosely based on "Hamlet."
Nor is this the first time "Hamlet" has inspired a musical. In 1976 a rock musical called "Rockabye Hamlet" opened on Broadway with songs such as "He Got It in the Ear" and "Have I Got a Girl for You." (The show folded in a week.)
In the wake of Freud, the play has proved a psychological treasure chest. Laurence Olivier attracted considerable attention with an interpretation that emphasized the Oedipal notion that Hamlet was in love with his mother. In 1968, director Joseph Papp upped these inferences by having actor Martin Sheen portray the Danish prince manacled to a coffin-like cradle at the foot of his mother's bed.
And, there are the spoofs. The California-based Reduced Shakespeare Company ends "The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)" with a fast-forward rendition, followed by coda in which the heavily abridged play is performed backward. There's even been a four-page skinhead version, with language unsuitable for a family newspaper.
For Norrie Epstein, Baltimore-based author of "The Friendly Shakespeare," the reason "Hamlet" is so malleable is fairly simple. "You can almost do anything in that play and get away with it. It contains everything," she says. "All of the questions about life are there - life, death, what does it mean? He becomes a metaphor for the thoughtful human being."
Jennings, who has played lead roles in a half-dozen RSC productions, says, "I do believe you can turn these plays on their heads, but you also have to respect the words and the language and the form in which it is written. I don't think you can be completely anarchic with it, but you can head toward anarchy."
The world's best-known play, "Hamlet" inspires protective impulses as well as flights of fancy. "The best thing you can do with a play that is over-performed is be distinctive," says Matthew Warchus, the 31-year-old director of the RSC's "Hamlet." "My whole production is willfully not to idolize Shakespeare or 'Hamlet,' because that can get in the way of really doing the work. A kind of healthy irreverence can be a good thing."
Epstein acknowledges that audiences and critics are often resistant to seeing Shakespeare tampered with, but, she says, "We feel we know ['Hamlet'] better, so you can take the liberty. It's not like putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. You're not hurting it, you're exploring it. There's a difference between the gimmicks and exploration of the play. The Royal Shakespeare Company would fall into the latter group."
The liberties Warchus - a 1998 Tony Award nominee for the hit Broadway play "Art" - has taken are basically twofold: modern clothing and concision.
Using costumes contemporary to the audience is, of course, nothing new. In Shakespeare's day, the plays were performed in 17th-century dress, not in the historically correct Danish medieval dress Hamlet would actually have worn.
In terms of concision, Warchus chose to focus on the domestic drama, excising the play's external politics, i.e., all references to the invader, Fortinbras, and his native land, Norway. There is precedent for this as well. Cuts in the text began in the 17th century, and Fortinbras disappeared for much of the 18th.
"I wanted to try and do a small portion of the play rather vividly and hopefully well, rather than the whole play in a mediocre way," Warchus explains. "When the whole play is performed, I feel the breadth and scale actually diminishes the effect. I wanted to make the story one that, in order that the audience would feel emotional about it, was identifiable in terms of relationships."
For Jennings, Warchus' "fairly radical" approach "has been fantastically releasing and accessible." The actor, who wasn't especially eager to play Hamlet, now regards the role as "very personal."
"I don't really believe there is a [single] character of Hamlet. I believe the words and situation get filtered through whoever happens to be playing it, the director and production as well," he says. "It's very much how you respond to what you're having to say."
As critic Jan Kott told Epstein, "There are many different Hamlets. ... He is in some ways a very complex character. Very complex. He is like Swiss cheese, with all the holes."
Indeed, Hamlet is a prince, but is he an avenger? He's a lover, but he behaves cruelly toward the girl he loves. He's a devoted son, but perhaps a little too devoted to his mother. He's even, briefly, a theatrical director, telling the players how to perform, without knowing how he himself should perform.
No wonder Mel Gibson, who starred in Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film version, said: "The character is so confusing. It doesn't matter how many times you nail him or think you've nailed him. ... Every time you go back to [the script] there's something else there which completely negates what you were thinking about before."
Where: Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 1:30 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 2:30 Sundays. Through June 21
Pub Date: 6/14/98