LONDON — When rehearsals for “Hamlet” began earlier this year in a church in west London, the legendary theater director Trevor Nunn stepped into the center aisle and began addressing his cast. As he was speaking, a ray of light fell on him and lit up the curls on his head, like a halo.
“And we all thought, ‘We are working with God,’” says 23-year-old Ben Whishaw, who plays the lead role in Nunn’s widely acclaimed production at The Old Vic.
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That wasn’t the only surreal moment for Whishaw and his Ophelia, 19-year-old Samantha Whittaker, both of whom are among the youngest — and least seasoned — actors to bring Shakespeare’s sad and confused lovers to the London stage.
Until now, Whishaw had done only minor work in theater and film; earlier this year, he had a small role in Nicholas Hytner’s play, “His Dark Materials.” Whittaker, a first-year student at University College, London, was having trouble getting cast in college plays. But they are taking the honor that’s been bestowed on them in stride.
Whishaw, a weedy, angular young man whose Hamlet is neurotic, passionate, cranky and full of adolescent angst, says he doesn’t feel the burden of all the great Hamlets who’ve tread the boards of the Old Vic before him — most notably Richard Burton, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. “Of course, the space is full of ghosts,” he explains. “But I feel quite ignorant of the legacy. I think the generation before ours would have felt that burden. They would have remembered listening to recordings of John Gielgud playing Hamlet. But we’ve missed that.”
The two believe their youth and relative inexperience have helped them build these characters.
“Younger people don’t have the emotional stability and the grown-up resources to deal with the loss of a parent or a mother’s infidelity, so it means that when those problems strike, they strike like thunder,” says Whishaw.
Whittaker agrees. “Everything is a tragedy for a teenage girl. She can lose herself in romance the way a woman of 25 can’t.”
In addition to using a young cast, Nunn has plunked Hamlet down in modern times. Queen Gertrude, played by Nunn’s wife, Imogen Stubbs, plays tennis, shops at Ralph Lauren and teeters around on stilettos. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show up in cargo pants, carrying backpacks. Members of court drink Dom Perignon and Evian and, in one scene, Ophelia dances to The Strokes.
In keeping with that mood, Whittaker took her own contemporary approach to Ophelia, talking at length to psychologists who specialize in post-traumatic stress disorder. “Lots of people look at Ophelia and think she’s this romantic, heartbroken figure, but what about the fact that her father’s been murdered by the man she loves?”
Like any Hamlet worth his prince’s crown, much of Whishaw’s research took place — where else? — in his head. “I dream about this role at night, and wake up thinking, ‘The graveyard scene! That won’t do. How can I do it differently?” The actor finds it’s much more difficult to express Hamlet’s epiphanies than his struggles. “I tell you, it’s harder to get peace and tranquility across than it is grief and depression.”
Otherwise, these actors are pretty much unflappable. Whishaw, who’ll appear later this year in Matthew Vaughn’s film directorial debut, “Layer Cake,” which also stars Sienna Miller and was written by Guy Ritchie, insists Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy, which Nunn moved to the beginning of the play — right after Hamlet’s meeting with his father’s ghost — didn’t spook or intimidate him.
“I wasn’t supposed to think of it as a speech, but rather as a man, living a moment, dealing with a problem: Do I kill myself or not?”
— Samantha Conti