Every Hamlet is haunted – and not just by his father's ghost. To play the prince is to converse with the dead. It is to join a pantheon, a long line of great actors that have played him before you: Richard Burbage, Sarah Bernhardt, Olivier, Rylance, blah blah blah. Equally, though, it is also to set oneself apart from them. Each Hamlet tries to tiptoe around their predecessors, seeking some new ground in him. Each hopes to make the part their own and so to leave some lasting impression.
For our part, as audiences, we collect Hamlets. We compare and contrast them. To watch one is to recall others so that, more than any other role, Hamlet exists in relation to itself. We rank Hamlets. We remember them. If we don't, it seems a kind of failure.
Re-Member Me makes all this manifest. In it, lip-sync artist Dickie Beau exhumes a load of old Hamlets. One moment, Peter O'Toole's voice jumps out of his mouth; the next, John Gielgud's. They speak in soliloquies and in the sort of smokey, interviews buried in the BBC archives. "Anyone can play Hamlet," purrs one old boy. Another likens it to an athletic feat. For one, it's a baton passed along. The impression is of stagey in-jokes and actorly egos. "It is I," Beau booms as his backing tape gets stuck: "I, I, I, I, I, I." No-one ever remembers Ophelia.
In Beau's hands – on his lips – lip-syncing becomes so much more than mere ventriloquism. He's no dummy, opening and shutting his cakehole in sync. Instead, he rearranges his whole face to fit this voice or that. One swallows as if suppressing trapped wind. Another speaks with the slightest of sneers. It's all sorts of uncanny: ghoulish, cartoonish, a kind of possession. Just as Jonathan Pryce belched up his ghost, Beau burps Hamlets back to life.
He wrings lipsyncing for all its resonance – questions of liveness, queerness, artifice and authorship. The act of it – the art – asserts its own virtuosity. Why, you wonder, do we worship classical actors and dismiss drag acts? What gets to count culturally? At one point, Shakespeare swerves off into Streisand: "Papa, can you hear me?" Re-Member Me presses the issue of exclusion – not just who gets to play Hamlet, but what its cultural position eclipses.
Hamlet is the archetypal young man, remember. Royalty. Intellectual. Vengeful. Tragic. He stands for a certain mode of masculinity – even a norm of it – and, as the ultimate everyman, he ends up standing for us all. Who, Beau asks, does that obscure?
Gradually, he hones in on one particular Hamlet: Ian Charleson. He's often overshadowed. When Daniel Day-Lewis supposedly saw his father's ghost (he didn't) and fled theatre for good, Charleson took over. Next to nothing remains of his performance: no footage, a few photos, one exalting review.
Charleson was dying when he took on the role. He had AIDS. His face was swollen almost out of recognition (something the theatre explained away as sinusitis). Within two months, he was dead. He was, Ian McKellen would later say, "the perfect Hamlet."
With a clutch of talking heads speaking through him, Beau pieces Charleson's performance together. It's a rather sublime gesture – one that holds a space to commemorate an actor who died too young to fulfil his potential. Though his, it remembers an entire generation of men that did likewise. It's telling how long it takes for anyone to name AIDS in the show – Charleson was ill, they say, he was unwell. Beau silently scoops up scattered mannekin parts – another gravedigger – and so insists we remember.
In doing so, he reawakens the tragedy of Hamlet. It's easily forgotten. We know he's doomed from the off. Right from 'Who's there?', we know the rest will be silence. Re-Member Me reminds us: Hamlet's is a life cut short; a young man brought down in his prime. He might have changed the world. Instead, he haunts it.
Re-Member Me runs at the Almeida for one more performance on Sunday 2nd April.