Conversation: Sir Patrick Stewart Stars in ‘Hamlet’ Tonight on PBS

BY Molly Finnegan  April 28, 2010 at 3:51 PM EDT

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David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart star in ‘Hamlet’ on Great Performances, which airs April 28 on PBS.

Tonight on PBS, to watch or not to watch? Great Performances presents a new, modern television adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008 production of “Hamlet.” David Tennant, who just retired his role as the title character on British TV series ‘Doctor Who’, stars as Hamlet to Sir Patrick Stewart’s ambitious but flawed Claudius.

“I’d like [viewers] to think, at least for an hour or so, that King Claudius is really a terrific guy,” Stewart says.

Stewart’s first brush with Shakespeare occurred at age 12, when a teacher told him to read aloud the role of Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice.” Since that fateful lesson, he has spent more than 50 years studying and performing works from the Bard (in addition to his popular roles in the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the X-Men films). Currently, he stars as William Shakespeare himself in a play called “Bingo” at the Chichester Festival in England.

I spoke with Sir Patrick Stewart today by phone in London:

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Editor’s Note: If you missed “Hamlet” on PBS, you can now watch the full episode online.
 
 
JEFFREY BROWN: Patrick Stewart joints me from London, welcome to you.

SIR PATRICK STEWART: Thank you, Jeffrey. It’s good to talk to you. I’m a fan of PBS. So this is especially delightful for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thank you for saying that. This television production grew from a stage production that you did for, for a good while — many months — what happens when there is suddenly cameras there? A camera in your face, instead of an audience that you are looking out at?

SIR PATRICK STEWART: In this case it was not a problem because we, essentially, did not film the stage production. We went on location and — which took us out of our comfort zone as actors on the stage. We had no audience. And we, in every respect, filmed it. It was given different — there was some exterior — not many, but some, exterior shots. And given that, as it happened, with this cast there were quite a number of experienced film actors. I think we were all very comfortable to be in front a camera instead of in front of a live audience. And yet it again proved to me that if Shakespeare had been writing today he would probably have been writing in Hollywood, because his text, his language, his characters fit so comfortably in front of the camera. The psychology of the characters, the subtext of the language is so real and truthful that you’re never, in any sense, pushed into a theatrical presentation. So it fits very comfortably on camera, I think.

Read the full transcript after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this production, of course, uses modern sensibility and technology as well. Of course there is modern dress, modern setting, but the use of the camera, ever-present camera, where the action is being watched almost from afar, so it moves in close to you and then shows us the view of the camera in the room as well.

SIR PATRICK STEWART: That of course is an idea which works especially well, I think, on television. David Tennant did have a camera in the play scene and he did film Claudius on stage but then Greg Doran our director extended that much further into using CCTV cameras as well, which I think he uses very imaginatively in the ghost scene, for example. You don’t see the ghost on the CCTV — the electronic data cannot capture a ghost, it would seem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now your connection to Shakespeare goes way back I know, but I didn’t know how far back. In 1966 you joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, so you have played many different roles, I guess, from the smallest parts on up.

SIR PATRICK STEWART: Jeffrey, I’m sorry but I have to tell you it goes back much further that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok. [Laughs.]

SIR PATRICK STEWART: I was first given a Shakespearean character to read out loud by English teacher when I was 12 and that was where the fire was lit that has stayed with me to the present day, because I sit here with a little tiny beard and mustache because I am presently playing William Shakespeare in Edward Bond’s play “Bingo” at the Chichester Festival Theater. I played Prospero when I was 15 and my only ambition once I become a professional actor — I’d finished my training — was to work with what I thought would have to be the best classical Shakespearean company in the world, which was the Royal Shakespeare Company. And I finally, after several failed attempts, got them to take me in 1966 when I joined the company playing very small parts and understudying.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also have played this character Claudius in – what, it was in 1980.

SIR PATRICK STEWART: I played it, already — not on film, but it was shot with multiple cameras — in 1980 in the Cedric Messina produced “BBC Complete Works series”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_Television_Shakespeare, which went on, I think, for five years. Derek Jacobi was the Hamlet in that production. Claire Bloom was Gertrude. And that was the first time I got to play Claudius, and that was when I was convinced that this was a great role and, although a supporting role to the prince, nevertheless a role of great complexity and richness and I began to develop some ideas about the role then about him being fundamentally a decent man, and a fine politician, and with all the potential to be a great leader, were it not that his ambition had lead him to do a terrible crime for which he was paying a constant ongoing penalty. And I had looked to do the play on stage for years. I had busily been, you know, selling myself to any director who would listen who I heard was going to do Hamlet, but for various reasons I wasn’t successful until Greg Doran’s production with David Tennant two years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I saw you here in Washington some years ago play Othello, right, and the production—

SIR PATRICK STEWART: Did you?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, in which the racial theme was reversed, right? A white Othello in an all black society.

SIR PATRICK STEWART: Not just an all black society, but an African American society.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, right.

SIR PATRICK STEWART: It has become rather famously known as the photo-negative production.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see. Do you like, I am wondering the idea of, you know, that this sense that Shakespeare is in some way so familiar to us and so many of the characters are familiar, and how do you make it new and how do you make it rich, you as an actor, we as an audience? Do you like this idea of, I don’t know — playing with Shakespeare, finding new ways in?

SIR PATRICK STEWART: I do. Yes, even, you know, if I am not, as I was, in a sense, miscast as Othello, or wrongly cast, I feel that important, one of the important aspects of performing Shakespeare, is to take the audience by surprise, especially with very well known characters and well known plays, perhaps to give them a perspective on the character, as I hope I have done with Claudius in this film, which is a little different from what they might have expected. I would like to think, for example, tonight I am sure there will be some people watching Hamlet on television in the United States who will have never seen the play before and won’t know how it ends. I’d like them to think, at least for an hour or so, that King Claudius is really a terrific guy and he’s just the man to be running the country, and his brother who came before him who is dead must have been a pretty hopeless king, because his response to everything was to pick up a battle axe and bash someone about the head with it. And if you know the play very well, if you are someone who has seen countless productions, then perhaps, too, it will give a different perspective on a very well known role and a very well known play. I do get a kick out of doing that, I must admit.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how do you do that as an actor, because you yourself must have seen it many times, as we’ve said you’ve played it before, but you’ve also seen other actors do it. You know the character, you know the play, so what goes into giving it some kind of fresh feel?

SIR PATRICK STEWART: I think what goes into it is knowing how to read Mr. Shakespeare. Because I am currently playing Shakespeare I am talking about him a lot and I do workshops and master classes and so forth. And one of the things I always say to young actors is you have no reason to be afraid of William Shakespeare, because he is the actor’s best friend. There is no writer that has ever written for the stage who understands actors and what they need so well as William Shakespeare. So if you can read him without fear, and without preconceived notions; if you can read him with a totally open mind, and take things at face value, and not put a spin of foreknowledge on them, then you will find all kinds of surprising things. And it’s one of the reasons the plays after 400 and odd years continue to be performed, and continue to be so interesting, and to find new audiences, as I’m hoping “Hamlet” will tonight. It is because we have never finally plumbed the depths of what this man does. I’ve been acting Shakespeare, yes, now for well over 50 years and I am continually taken by surprise by what he hints at and suggests. It’s not a case — I can’t stress this strongly enough — of imposing something on the play. Maybe my idea of a photo-negative Othello was an imposition, I grant that. But in playing Claudius as a very, very decent man, and an excellent politician, and a great national leader who made one calamitous, disastrous decision in his life is something which is present there in the text and that’s all that I have been responding to.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s great. And now I learn that all that started for you at, what did you say? Age 12 with a teacher?

SIR PATRICK STEWART: I was 12 when my wonderful English teacher put “The Merchant of Venice” on the desks in front of us and said, “Stewart, you’re Shylock. Act 4, Scene 1,” — which is the great trial scene in “The Merchant of Venice” – “Start reading it.” So we all began reading it to ourselves, and he said, “No! This is not a poem. This is drama! You’ve got to say it out loud.” And that was the first time that I did. And well, you know, I said at the very beginning, I’m a fan of PBS. That’s because I am fan of BBC radio. I’m a child of the radio. I didn’t have a television set until I was 25. And I listened to Shakespeare on the radio as well, and some kind person gave me a “Complete Works” and I could follow it while I listened to it on the radio, which was an especial thrill. And he’s been a dear, dear friend ever since, and the good thing is he’s a friend who never, ever lets you down.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, Patrick Stewart is in tonight’s production on PBS of “Hamlet.” Thank you so much for talking to us.

SIR PATRICK STEWART: It’s a great pleasure. Thank you, Jeffrey.