chapter  10
12 Pages

Kevin Kline: Donald McManus


American actor Kevin Kline’s success has been built on an iconoclastic personality in a nation that historically follows fashion and has been ruled by market forces. He has managed to maintain a film career as a top box office draw playing dashing leading men, primarily in the high comedy genre, while simultaneously dedicating himself to performing the great roles of the classical repertoire on stage. He has played Hamlet twice, Richard III, Henry V, Lear and Falstaff and has brought his classical acting reputation to the screen playing Bottom and Jacques in popular film adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It. Class distinctions have long divided American audiences. A stigma of elitism has

been attached to any actor who seems to emulate British style, and cinema-influenced natural delivery and behaviour have served as indicators of unaffected, Americanstyle performance. Linguistic idiosyncrasies, actor training and native repertoire have all conspired to inhibit the development of first rate classical actors in the USA, leaving Kline to give great performances in less great productions. When American actors seemed to get verse reading right they appeared false, but if they played in their native dialect they seemed out of tune with the text. Kline’s Hamlet in 1990 was one of those rare moments in American theatre when

a contemporary sensibility and aggressively modern technique combine in an actor who commands both mass audience appeal and respect for Shakespeare’s poetic vision. It was the second time he played the role, and by directing the production himself he hoped to focus the interpretation more clearly, replacing directorial flourishes with simplicity of presentation and clarity in vocal delivery. During an interview I had with him in 2010 (from which all otherwise unattributed quotes here are taken), Kline reflected on his approach to staging the play. He told set designer Robin Wagner to give him ‘a bare stage with only the minimal bits of furniture-and then get rid of those too’. He described his directorial style as ‘old-fashioned actor management’ in which he surrounded himself with like-minded actors who wanted to focus on the words; he told them ‘we don’t need a director, we can do this ourselves’. This Hamlet was a test case of sorts for the limits of the American realist tradition

of acting in Shakespeare. From Kline’s first entrance, his Hamlet was an emotional wreck. His intensity of feeling was so strong that even in repose, when listening to another actor’s lines, he seemed on the edge of a breakdown. No sooner had he spoken the lines ‘the fruitful river of the eye’ to Gertrude in the wedding scene, than

his eyes began to brim with tears. There was no scene in the play where he backed away from the emotional commitment of that first image of mourning, guilt and resentment, drawing from the fruitful river of tears again and again to build a complex set of emotional extremes. It was a remarkably brave performance in which his psyche seemed laid bare. If

audiences rejected this Hamlet they rejected the emotional life of the actor himself. Even in scenes where Kline used his considerable comic talent to great effect, Hamlet’s fragility and suicidal depression remained on display. Indeed, the comic moments, such as when engaging with Polonius over double meanings of words or parrying Claudius’s queries about the whereabouts of Polonius’s dead body, maintained the antic disposition of clinically observable manic-depressives. It was an interpretation rooted in mental instability: not the cliché, literary madness of gothic novels or received notions of the renaissance world view, but rather the kind of depression that most of the audience would recognise and have some personal experience of as individuals. He was a tangible, convincingly distraught Hamlet whose suffering seemed familiar despite his princely status and introspective poetic tangents. Kline’s strategy to create a constantly suffering central character demanded the

audience’s empathy. This was a marked contrast from his first performance of Hamlet directed by Liviu Ciulei. In that version Kline had decided he wanted to play each soliloquy in a ‘presentational style, directly addressing the audience’. Later he was studying production stills of himself delivering some of the big speeches, and he thought it looked as if he was lecturing the audience. He became convinced that ‘explaining the words rather than saying them’ had cut the audience off from the inner life of the character. When he remounted the play, his approach to the soliloquies was radically altered and it affected the entire performance. This was not a dry, self-centred, intellectual Hamlet. He was a sensitive, passionate,

wronged man whose damaged greatness was the core of the tragedy. Although Kline’s performance was consistent with an American tradition of intense emotional commitment to character, it was also technically very precise. His approach to the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy was almost akin to a textbook reading of the lines as metre, except that the tone was so hushed and steeped in stream-of-consciousness that the audience had to lean forward to make sure they could hear the over-familiar words. He entered entirely into his own thoughts, with no awareness of Claudius and Polonius in the previous scene or Ophelia’s proximity in the next. No doubt was left that this was a genuine consideration of suicide as an option, with sorrow at the realisation that he didn’t have the courage to take that step. He shared both parts of this pain with the audience, the despair followed by the frustration, equally. His tears of release on ‘to die, to sleep’ were almost enough to make one forget rhetoric and believe that suicide was a good choice, while his realisation that suicide had no guarantee of release seemed so spontaneous that a sensitive viewer almost felt guilty for being privy to such private confessions. It is always a problem for actors to create the illusion that they do not know what

they will say next or what thought will come next, but in set pieces like ‘To be or not to be’ where the audience also knows the lines, delivering a spontaneous reading is even more difficult. Kline’s preparation for Hamlet focused almost exclusively on the problem of spontaneity. He wanted to avoid a pre-meditated or scheming quality

in each of his readings and reactions. Above all he wanted his Hamlet to be fresh and to appear as if each moment genuinely followed upon the last. Where another actor might be tempted to ‘kick the ball ahead of him’ as Joan Littlewood used to complain, Kline obsessively guarded against such strategising in rehearsal, concentrating on each individual beat as complete and independent. His approach was centred on the words and the effect the words had on him in rehearsal. By moving from word to word and religiously avoiding generalities or preconceptions, trusting his personal reactions to the text, he was confident that he could appear as a present and living character as opposed to satisfying a given interpretation. In fact he consciously avoided specific interpretive notions based on the Oedipal complex or ‘Hamlet as an intellectual and therefore unable to make decisions or act impulsively’ (Guskin 2003: 155). Kline performed an elaborate pantomime with his knife as he seemed about to

seize the moment to kill Claudius at prayer. As he had done in the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, he managed to externalise interior monologue, in this case adding physical action by encroaching dangerously on Claudius’s space and threatening his ear with the point of his blade. In the closet scene with Gertrude, he balanced extreme physical action, throwing her across the stage and wrenching back her head, with equally compelling images of a child who seemed to want to nestle at his mother’s breast. At his most violent, Kline’s Hamlet never lost the audience’s sympathy because his rash acts never seemed part of a generalised plan. Throughout his performance, Kline cleverly balanced Hamlet’s tendency to ana-

lyse and intellectualise with scenes of open-hearted guilelessness. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia can create a barrier for the audience’s compassion if he seems to privilege his suffering by belittling her feelings. When Ophelia entered after the soliloquy in Act III, i, Hamlet approached her with unguarded love and ingenuous affection. Kline made it clear that it was only after she delivers an incriminating line reading on ‘I have remembrances of yours, that I have longed long to redeliver’ that he turned from welcoming lover to betrayed one. A similar strategy was used for Hamlet’s first interaction with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Kline, who emphasised Hamlet’s insomnia throughout the play, was sleeping when they entered and startled him into wakefulness, whereupon he spontaneously expressed his love and affection for his two friends. Only much later in the scene did he start to play a suspicious character with superior wit calculating how to foil their treachery. This Hamlet was only cruel when circumstances conspired to bring out that side of his character. The balance between honest soul and intellectual schemer had its corollary

in Kline’s use of simple commitment to stage action and manic theatricality. Where Shakespeare has Hamlet enter in Act II scene ii reading a book, Kline entered actually reading a book; he didn’t pretend to read a book or use a book as a pre-meditated prop to catch up Polonius. Yet once the dialogue began and Hamlet called Polonius a fishmonger, the book was transformed into a prop and eventually the pages were torn out, licked and pasted on Polonius’s forehead. At one point Hamlet sat reading, Marcel Marceau style, in a non-existent mime chair, while he turned the pages saying ‘words, words…words’. The artifice of these manic moments was effective precisely because the initial image of the scene was always so simple and direct.