Damian Lewis on Stage: Broadway Debut in Hamlet

We continue our walk through “Damian Lewis on Stage” memory lane today with Damian’s Broadway debut in Hamlet, an experience our favorite guy calls a “growing up, coming of age experience” in his career.

source: tumblr.com
source: tumblr.com

Damian does his Broadway debut as Laertes to Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet in 1995. The Almeida Theatre production is staged first at Hackney Empire in March 1995, and after its successful run in London, it comes to Broadway in the summer of 1995 — OMG, yes, almost twenty two years ago!

Can you spot a very young Damian in the playbill?

Hamlet 1995, Broadway, Playbill
Hamlet Broadway Playbill, source: Playbill

And here’s a quick look at his credits:

Well, we talked about Rope, Romeo and Juliet, The School for Wives and Hamlet (Regents Park) earlier here. I still need to see if Mickey Love is available somewhere and you all can see our favorite guy in Poirot: Hickory Dickory Dock since it is available on DVD.

So how did Damian join this Almeida Theatre production of Hamlet? Damian shared the quite hilarious story at Times Talks London in 2014:

“It is something that nearly didn’t happen. Because Jonathan Kent called me and said: ‘Darling, I’d like you to play Laertes, starting at Hackney, we’re going to Broadway, it’s gonna be a fabulous fabulous production.’ And I said: ‘Jonathan, darling, I couldn’t possibly. I just played the Dane in Regents Park. I couldn’t possibly play Laertes.’ And I was promptly out of work for three months. The Phone. No one called about anything. And I called him three months later and I said: ‘Jonathan, remember, you asked me to come and play Laertes. I don’t suppose it’s still open… He just said: ‘Darling, I knew you’d call. Of course, it is.’ And so I went and played Laertes. And Thank God I did. It was real coming of age, sort of rights of passage experience being in a big show on Broadway like that way…

Times Talks London, 2014 source: summerhousemedia.com

…and experiencing New York’s love of theater and real intellectual engagement with the material. Quite a lot of letting everyone around them know ‘I got that joke. That Polonius line. It’s very funny.” Just letting the person next to them they know their Shakespeare. Quite a bit of that is going on in New York…. Is there anyone from New York?  😀 But they are more vocal than us, stuffy Brits, and that’s actually lovely to play to. And it’s a real change. Different sort of visceral feel in the theaters there.”

And in an interview with Plays and Players back in 1995, a 24 year-old Damian talks about going to Broadway with Hamlet:

“I say yes, yes and yes to Broadway. I’m not a career obsessive, but the chance to live in New York at this stage in my life is massive; after all, the success of the actor is contained in the baggage of his personal experiences.”

Well, this exactly sounds like me when I was moving to New York in my late 20s. Yes, Yes and Yes to New York! 🙂

So… Damian is off to NYC to make the city… well, in his own words, “his playground.”

He tells NewsWeek:

“It was 1995, and I was on Broadway playing Laertes in the hit production of Hamlet. Ralph Fiennes, who was playing Hamlet, was at sort of the height of his fame. All of us young British actors lived two lives in New York. Our public face was hardworking British thespians performing Shakespeare on stage by day, and at night we availed ourselves of all the pleasures New York has to offer. It became our playground. Sometimes I wouldn’t get to bed until 6 in the morning, and then wake up at 12 and stagger to midtown for a matinee.

Early on in Hamlet, Laertes is sent away to Paris by his father, Polonious, and sometimes I was so exhausted from running around all night with my pals that I would sleep for an hour in the middle of the show in a little bed, which I had erected underneath the costume rail. These thick tunics smelling of old theatrical wardrobes would brush my nose as I went into a deep slumber. Someone would nudge me five minutes before I had to go back, and then I would leap out of my cot, splash water on my face, and run on stage and yell to Ophelia, “The king, the king’s to blame!” Looking back, I can’t believe I did it. I was young and foolish.

As the production went on, I was enjoying myself in New York far too much. It was like a rite of passage for a 24-year-old Englishman. Halfway through the run of the play, it was clear that New York was winning over Hamlet, and I was getting more and more tired…”

By that time, Damian, as a fresh graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, had already played the role of Hamlet at the Open Air Theatre  in Regent’s Park, and was apparently a little bit obsessed with the character of Hamlet. From the Plays and Players interview in 1995:

source: https://silibrary1.wordpress.com/tag/damian-lewis/
Damian Lewis as Hamlet at Open Air Theatre,  source: https://silibrary1.wordpress.com/tag/damian-lewis/

“Lewis once confessed he was obsessed with the character of Hamlet. I wondered whether it was difficult now playing his rival, whether he got attacks of the old jealousy pangs. He reacted very diplomatically: “I do get moments of possessiveness when I think, ‘Now hang on a minute; I wouldn’t play it like that.’ But Ralph is brilliant; he’s a much more experienced verse speaker than I am, and I’m learning a lot from him. Ralph’s a bit older than me; if I played Hamlet again in 10 years time I would do it very differently from before.”

source: Almeida Theatre

Hamlet has a successful run on Broadway with Ralph Fiennes winning a Tony Award for his performance as Hamlet on Broadway, the first actor in the role to do so. And Damian gets positive reviews as Laertes. Theater Critic Malcolm Johnson says “Damian Lewis gives us a Laertes who is as fiery as his hair.” Vincent Canby from NYT concurs with his praises for the intensity of Laertes: “Damian Lewis’s Laertes is a vastly more interesting character than he was on opening night in London. His affection for Ophelia is real, and his sword fight with Hamlet at the end has an intensity seen more often in a swashbuckler than in a “Hamlet.” The intensity of the sword fight should be really something that another NYT critic, Matt Wolf, writes an article just on the sword fight in Hamlet: “Jonathan Kent’s current staging, imported from the Almeida Theater Company in London, offers an additional virtue in the face-off between Hamlet (played by Ralph Fiennes) and Laertes (Damian Lewis). Beginning on a white rectangular fencing mat, the fight soon spills beyond it, weaving among the chairs of Claudius’s dismayed court as the two combatants become increasingly fevered. Lasting no more than four minutes or so, the duel leaves both the actors and the audience breathless.”

source: crushable.com
Famous Swordfight between Hamlet and Laertes, source: crushable.com

Now… I am really curious about how intense the sword fight is the night the NYT critics see the production… Because… Damian tells quite a story on THR Drama Actors: Full Uncensored Interview when asked about his most challenging experience on stage:

“Is my eye still in?” Wow!

Damian tells Newsweek:

“The lesson I learned is that sometimes the task you have at hand needs all of your concentration and focus. I’ve always had a “work hard, play hard” attitude to life—I still do—but sometimes you get involved in something that needs a calm, methodical approach. That can be hard when you have a “dual” personality.”

Hamlet stays as the only play Damian has done on Broadway to date. It goes without saying we are dying to see him on The Great White Way and preferably sooner than later! And we just hope he wants to play to that “different sort of visceral feel” in New York theaters, too! 😀

Next: The Royal Shakespeare Company Years

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

2 thoughts on “Damian Lewis on Stage: Broadway Debut in Hamlet”

  1. As someone who works primarily in front of a live audience, it’s awesome to see and hear all about Damian’s history with live theatre. The story of him napping between scenes is amazing-I am sure that the poor stage manager must have been more than annoyed by that!

    1. Nothing can beat a good live performance in my experience — theater, music, anything. I understand it’s very common for actors to take naps, but Damian’s looks a bit extreme with the location of his bed being underneath the costume rail 🙂 And I am so glad his eye is still in its place 😀

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