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'Hamlet' gets Branagh treatment

March 8, 1996
Web posted at: 8:00 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Richard Blystone


LONDON (CNN) -- Alas, poor Yorick ... he gets no privacy. His skull has been handled by many a Hamlet throughout the ages with so few to understand him. Enter bard buff Kenneth Branagh, a man with whom Yorick would likely enjoy having a cup of cappuccino because he gives new life to Shakespeare.

The trouble is that everyone thinks they know "Hamlet," a play so crammed with well-worn lines, that you risk putting audiences to sleep, perchance to dream.

And risking the slings and arrows of outrageous movie critics, Branagh has managed to dig up Yorick with a unique approach that entertains as well as maintains the integrity.

"I think people half know it but don't know it, you know?" Branagh says. "I think when you see the whole thing, there's just such a slew of new things there. You see them in a different light."

His set is quite different from the usual medieval and slightly dreary Denmark associated with Hamlet's hangout. The exteriors are courtesy of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, near Oxford. The interiors of ornate and high-ceiling grandeur are provided by Shepperton Studios in London, where "Alien" was shot.


"We wanted to do something that was a little closer to our own century and yet also was a world in which you could believe that people spoke in a slightly different way," Branagh says.

Branagh, who adapted the play for film, also directs and gets to play the Prince of Denmark. But this is nothing new for Branagh, who took on those tasks in his screen version of "Henry V," which won him Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture.


Another aspect that makes Branagh's classics audience-friendly is his casting. Gerard Depardieu will play Reynaldo. Jack Lemmon will play Marcellus, and Billy Crystal takes on the role of the first grave digger. Also look for Robin Williams as Osric.

"It's the greatest story ever told, maybe," Crystal says. "It's an amazing story of murder and madness and lust and suicide and grave diggers."

Crystal did have his eye on the "Hamlet" role and auditioned for the CNN cameras.

"To be or ... Line!" Crystal bellowed.

Maybe he should leave the "to be-ing" to Branagh.


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