It was London in 1969. The fashion-led and pop music-centred frivolity of Swinging London (after The Beatles moved from Liverpool to the capital) had to some extent been supplanted by an “underground” influenced by the counterculture of San Francisco, but with its own distinctive twists of psychedelia and left wing or anarchist politics.
A production of Hamlet at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm began with considerable media attention, and this was focused on Marianne Faithfull playing Ophelia. She had scored several pop hits, the first, As Tears Go By, was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and she was now in a relationship with Jagger: they were the popular culture power-couple of late 60s Britain.
The media frenzy continued, but the narrative changed. When the reviews began appearing, the big story was Nicol Williamson’s performance as Hamlet. It became clear this was very special and might be considered as one of the twentieth century’s most important interpretations of the role, ranking alongside Gielgud and Olivier.
Being described as sensational, it was, for sure, a hot ticket, and the details of how I came to see it are now somewhat vague. From the year, I think this is the explanation: at that time I was living very close to London and studying at a further education college, where I was also a member of an evening drama group. Our leader was George, a young English and Drama lecturer and recent Cambridge graduate. I am fairly sure it was George who acquired some tickets and took a small group of us to the Roundhouse. More certain is the impression made by Nicol Williamson’s incredible acting. Over fifty years later, it is something that remains with me.
I had already seen Laurence Olivier’s Oscar winning film of Hamlet, and the enduring and most iconic scene was for me, and I suspect for many others, the ‘To Be or Not to Be’ soliloquy, shot as a powerful Romantic pose accompanied by a dream like voice-over, luxurious in a poetry of indecision. If Olivier’s performance might be seen as one kind of measure, then Williamson took that measure and wilfully smashed it to pieces. Where Olivier was reflective, Williamson was dynamic. His performance, though, was beyond the merely energetic, it was manic. As a broad outline, I often describe it as playing Hamlet as a nervous wreck. Hamlet’s vacillations were not philosophical musing, but a living reality of frustration and rage. There was a ratcheting up of his desire to exact the cruellest possible revenge on Claudius. Williamson realised that with Shakespeare the poetry can be trusted to take care of itself, and he traded a carefully enunciated rendering for the power of a singular performance. His nasal voice at times modulated into one extremely suitable for expressing an aggressive bitterness. He eschewed declamation in favour of a more conversational tone and moments of cutting cynicism and sarcasm.
The other role Williamson is most remembered for is Bill Maitland in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, performed, earlier in his career, to much acclaim in both London and New York, and it was also filmed. The character is in despair at the state of his life, and the nervous anger Williamson presented, a frightening intensity on the brink of madness, might be seen, at least in part, as a template for his portrayal of Hamlet.
As a person, Williamson was complex, troubled and difficult. He had a problem with alcohol and a proclivity for fast living. When playing King Lear at a small theatre in north Wales, the director cancelled the second night, knowing Williamson would party so hard after the first night that it would not be possible (the performances resumed again on what should have been the third night). He also had anger management problems, and on more than one occasion landed blows against a fellow actor or a producer. At one point in the 1970s, he walked out of The Dick Cavett Show, at the time one of America’s leading chat shows, just prior to a scheduled appearance. His own volatility was, it seems, imported into Hamlet, understanding the character partly, and inevitably, through those aspects of himself he must have considered valid for his incendiary interpretation.
Later in 1969, it was decided this production must be filmed for posterity. As with the play, the director was Tony Richardson. I did not watch the film, thinking it might subvert my memory of its theatrical origins. Until now, when I decided it would probably be a valuable addition to this piece. All of the sets were within the Roundhouse, which, as its name suggests, is a theatre-in-the-round (used as both a rock music and theatre venue). For Hamlet, it also became a film studio. The film is not just documentation, but valid as cinema, and the many close-ups do not in any way detract from Williamson’s performance, on the contrary they provide yet another cause for admiration. Stating the obvious, it is, though, a recording of Nicol Williamson playing Hamlet and not the actual Nicol Williamson I was privileged to experience in a performance now lost forever: a series of moments on a particular night, when something approaching farce occurred: Williamson’s pacey movements shifted the dagger round his waist to the middle of his back, where it dangled between his legs. In response to the phallic connotation, there were a few giggles from the audience, and I doubt if I was the only one thinking ‘if he sits down now, he will have a nasty surprise.’ He didn’t, and that part of the action soon ended. Did this detract from his performance? At that point, a little bit, since it became unintentional Brechtian alienation, and if he wasn’t aware of it, and I don’t think he was, a type of dramatic irony might also be argued. In retrospect, it emphasises a strength of theatre: it is an art form that inhabits the actual stuff of living, with all its unpredictability. In film there would have been a ‘take 2’ and I am pleased that I saw the 'real thing’ when that could not happen. Theatre also means a third dimension, and it was amazing to be close to the actual space Nicol Williamson was moving through, because movement was a crucial part of his performance. Nevertheless I would encourage people to watch the film. The DVD I received was produced for the Italian market, but it was fine and the subtitles could be switched off. There are a few extracts on YouTube, and again I would encourage tracking down everything there with Nicol Williamson, including interviews. Why? Because he was an exceptionally great actor, and there are never many of those.
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer living in Leicestershire. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has graphic artworks in collections of the British Museum and the Australian National Gallery. In 2018, he had a solo exhibition of photographs, Luz Brilhante, at the Museu Municipal, one of the leading museums in Faro, Portugal. In the last few years he has produced a portfolio of digital artworks, some of which are now available as limited edition prints. www.robertrichardson.art