Hamlet – the Old Vic, 1954, Assembly Hall, Edinburgh. Festival



My first job after leaving the R.A.D.A. was a season at the Old Vic and my first play was Hamlet starring Richard Burton. We took it to the Edinburgh Festival and were in the middle of a dress rehearsal on the old Assembly Hall stage (when it was still a single church arena) when Richard stopped in the middle of his scene with his father’s ghost (played by Bernard Horsfall) and said “what am I supposed to do when I look at him?” Michael Benthall, whose only genuine talent was in arranging stage movement, creating spectacle and moody lighting – a stage manager, really – blinked even more nervously than usual and waffled. ‘What is a ghost, anyway?’ asked Richard.

Our costumes were very heavy so the rest of us – Michael Hordern as Claudius, Fay Compton as Gertrude, Claire Bloom as Ophelia and me as a very old courtier in six scenes (I was nineteen and the make-up took an hour – the last time I was at the Vic there was a picture of us all on the wall, still) sat down and listened. Michael dithered on and the two of them got nowhere. Richard mockingly indicated the kind of reaction he might offer – but couldn’t see that he or his audience could accept the idea of a ghost. Michael said ‘try leaving your turn till later’, suggesting a line which would delay Hamlet’s reaction to his dead father. Richard tried it; he still couldn’t believe it. Michael suggested an even later line. Again Richard tried, but it still didn’t work for him. Impasse; we were opening the next day. Then Richard suggested that if the ghost wasn’t there when he turned, he could do it; it would make sense. So Hamlet played the whole scene with his back to his father’s ghost, waited till the old boy stalked off the stage and then responded to him. This device got all the reviews. Michael Benthall attracted a lot of critical comment for this original treatment of the ghost scene in Hamlet. A break with tradition; innovative.

We recently saw George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once In A Lifetime at the National, and I was taken with their using the same idea. They show how a totally crap movie is transformed in the heads of the critics. “Miss Blah Blah has the courage to appear clumsy and awkward on the screen. What a contrast this small-town innocent presents in comparison with the slick, glitzy, empty pap which the public has lately been fed on…” Etc. etc. So getting critical credit for something you don’t know how to do on stage is as old as show biz, it seems.