Playing Hamlet can be an intimidating rite of passage for a young actor, the same way King Lear is daunting when the hair grows white — the bar has been set so high. But actors are nothing if not a saucy lot, so some plunge ahead with bravura. Liev Schrieber said the role is easy, since “we all are Hamlet.” Ian McKellen, stressing self-confidence, said “unless you’re a good comedian, you’re never going to be able to play Hamlet properly.” To Derek Jacobi, the challenge was to win the audience over to “accept me as Hamlet, who by the end of the play is a mass murderer who has killed far more people than his Uncle Claudius ever killed.”
Jacobi’s elegant British portrayal is the favorite of Stephen Thorne, who is currently strutting and fretting as the troubled Dane at Trinity Repertory Company (January 27 through February 26). This past summer, Thorne watched some recorded performances of Hamlet, such as Mel Gibson’s restrained take and Kenneth Branagh’s showy rendition — long enough before rehearsals that he wouldn’t be unduly influenced.
So is Thorne taking this in stride? Is he intimidated?
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s an amazing, daunting challenge,” he said, “because of its size, because of its complexity, because of its mystique. It’s also the kind of challenge that, as an actor, the ambitious side of you says: ‘I really want to test my mettle.’ ”
The challenge was just beginning to get to him, he confessed in the third week of the five-week rehearsal period. He was speaking at one of the café tables in the upstairs lobby of Trinity, about to climb to the top-floor studio and begin practicing the role once again. Thorne looks boyish for his 36 years, though in the fall of 2004 he showed audiences that he could project an edgy authority, when in Trinity’s Henriad he turned a frivolous Prince Hal into a sober and commanding Henry V. Fortunately, he says, he’s gotten the chances to do a lot of Shakespeare in the last few years, including playing Romeo last year under the direction of Brian McEleney, who is directing Hamlet. That was up in Vermont at the Bread Loaf School of English, where Thorne was discovered by Trinity’s Oskar Eustis and Amanda Dehnert in 1999 and invited to join the company in Providence.
“Yesterday was a tough rehearsal day,” he said. “Yesterday was one of the first days I was, like, ‘Gosh I don’t know whether I can do this in the way I want to do this.’ And doubt is a bad thing.”
Also an energizing thing. The prospect of hanging in a fortnight isn’t the only threat that concentrates the mind.
“One of the things I will continue to be grappling with is understanding what the journey of Hamlet is,” Thorne said. “From where he is at the beginning, to get to say ‘the readiness is all’ is a huge journey.”
Just before the sword fight contest in the final scene — which becomes a bloodbath, with the four principal characters dead — Hamlet reflects on mortality: “If it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?”