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Shakespeare & Beyond

Q&A: Allan Clayton on playing Hamlet in Brett Dean's opera

Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Allan Clayton as Hamlet

Allan Clayton in the title role of Brett Dean’s “Hamlet.” Photo: Karen Almond / Met Opera

Hamlet sings! A new opera version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is onstage now at the Metropolitan Opera, with tenor Allan Clayton resuming the title role that he played for the opera’s world premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017. Read our Q&A with Allan Clayton below, and listen to our interview with composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn on the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.

Performances at the Met run through June 9, and a special live broadcast will be transmitted to movie theaters around the world on Saturday, June 4, via the Met’s Live in HD series. (Find it at a cinema near you.)

In the opera, some of the play’s famous lines appear at times and in ways that might be surprising to people familiar with the play. What’s it like to do that, especially with a really well-known speech like “To be or not to be”?

It’s thrilling, to be honest. It’s really exciting because, like you say, it’s so well-known, and you know–despite it being a new opera–if everyone was coming in and going, “Oh, I’m going to see Hamlet. I know how it goes”… That’s what’s so great about the libretto that Matthew has done and the opera that Brett has written, that it completely subverts what the audience is waiting for and expecting. So my very first line is, “or not to be” – the first line in the entire piece, which is fantastic, because the audience goes, “Oh fine, we’ve had that now.” You know, we don’t think about it. And then of course I come back and I expand on that, and then I give this soliloquy but again, in a slightly different form. So it’s really exciting because the music subverts, I think, what people were expecting and so for the text to do the same is thrilling.

Are there any stage or film portrayals of Hamlet that you find particularly gripping or inspiring?

I watched a few ones on film, and I went to see one live just before we did this for the first time in 2017. I saw Andrew Scott’s portrayal in the Robert Icke production in London, which was phenomenal. He’s an incredible actor. I think probably on film was the first time I saw it, and it probably was the Kenneth Branagh one, when I was at school. 

But I think because the subject matter and the lines themselves are so personal to the character that you can’t help but do it differently. And it’s not that I don’t want to look at other actors or other singers; it’s more that it doesn’t really help because you find your own way with these lines. So, innately, I think, trying to copy anyone wouldn’t really work. But I have huge admiration for anyone who does the role in a stage play, and that would be a completely different challenge.

What’s your favorite part of the opera? 

I love the scene with Claudius in the chapel. That is really well done, I think, because we have this sort of tradition in theater and, of course, in opera of asides and soliloquies. And so the way that this is done with the two characters and with the audience there is really, really thrilling. And it’s a very different piece of music in the show itself. Rod Gilfry, the brilliant singer playing Claudius, is fantastic and a really good guy, so that’s really exciting as well. I love that bit. 

The play within a play is very cool. The way it’s been set by Brett is brilliant, with the accordionist sort of leading the action and me commenting on the side, and just the way that Matthew’s played with it–when the players first arrive, I say to them, “Come, we’ll have a speech straight… Come, a passionate speech from your very best play.” And then the player king stands up and addresses the whole of the Met Opera audience–all 4,000 of those people–with “To be, or not to be.” And it’s great. It’s like, it’s the only real laugh of the night, which is good, you know, because you need some levity in there.

How does the combination of acting and music help you in conveying Hamlet’s thoughts and motivations to the audience?

Well, I mean, I would say it’s sort of freeing, the acting side of it. With all humility and with thanks to Brett and Matthew–and to this guy, William Shakespeare–my interpretation of it comes through all these different layers, you know, sort of like water going through a sedimentary rock. You’ve got Shakespeare, obviously, at the top, and then you’ve got Matthew Jocelyn, and then you’ve got Brett Dean, and then you’ve got sort of me and the director at the same-ish level.

And so a lot of the acting choices I might’ve made were it a stage play have been taken for me–or you’re corralled in a certain direction. So that’s interesting because you then have to decide whether you play against what the composer and the librettist have decided, or whether you go with it and just have an easy ride for a few pages, you know? So it’s an interesting combination of things. I was very lucky in that I was involved before the piece was written and during its birth. So that was really cool because I could then comment a bit on it and say, “Maybe we need a bit more of this there.”

With the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy there was some discussion about where it would go in the piece, how it would be in the piece, whether it would be a solo or, as it is now, a duet, really, with Ophelia. And for me, having seen a lot of the music that Brett had already written for the character, I said I thought it was important that there was a real moment of stasis and of solitude for Hamlet. Because until that point that hadn’t really existed apart from a very brief sort of prologue.So that was really cool to be able to say, I think the audience needs to get to know Hamlet a bit better and to experience what he thinks.

What was some of the reading that you did to prepare for this role, and can you share some of the insights into the character you gleaned?

I read The Hamlet Doctrine, which is a really interesting sort of treatise on the different versions of it and of the psychological breakdown of the character. I read different versions of the texts, obviously; there are so many wonderful different versions to dip into, with so many different comments and prefaces and these amazing scholars around the world, so you can look at this piece in a completely different way, a new way. That’s what’s so exciting. For me, it was just about sort of living with some of the soliloquies themselves and just getting to know them a bit without music, just the texts, and trying to work out what I felt about them.