'It is arguably the most famous play on the planet’, writes Jonathan Croall in his introduction to this absorbing study of how the play and its eponym have gripped the imagination across the ages – and, as far as this book is concerned, particularly across the last seventy years. Whether for actor or director, Hamlet has always been ‘a supreme challenge’, making huge demands on those bringing it to theatrical life.
As the dust settles on twentieth-century acting giants, and reputations are appraised, it is at least arguable that John Gielgud emerges as the greatest. Certainly his was the longest and most varied career, spanning nearly eighty years, only death itself, when he was ninety-six, causing him to slow down. Since then his pre-eminence has seemed confirmed as one reads about him and his distinguished contemporaries.
It used to be said in decades gone by that overseas acting luminaries only came to Australia when their stars were in decline. This was never true in the case of Sybil Thorndike, who was critically acclaimed here, and widely admired as a person. She was not one of those who was past her prime – or, like some, never had one. She remained in her prime until she died in 1976. It is indeed hard to imagine her contemplating any other approach.