As Damian Lewis is preparing for a wonderful comeback to stage this spring in David Mamet’s modern classic American Buffalo… I thought it would be cool to travel back in time and visit some earlier stage work Damian did. We may start with Hamlet which Damian calls a “growing up, coming of age experience ” in his career.
Damian Lewis did his Broadway debut in Hamlet, and played Laertes to Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet in 1995. The Almeida Theatre production was staged first at Hackney Empire in March 1995, and after its successful run in London, it came to Broadway in the summer of 1995 — OMG, yes, exactly twenty years ago!
Spot a very young Damian Lewis in the playbill!
In an interview with Plays and Players 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.”
So… Damian is off to NYC to make the city… well, in his 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 (London equivalent of my beloved Delacorte in New York) in Regent’s Park, and was a little bit obsessed with the character of Hamlet. From the Plays and Players interview in 1995:
“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.”
Hamlet had 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. Damian Lewis also got 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 swordfight with Hamlet at the end has an intensity seen more often in a swashbuckler than in a “Hamlet.” The intensity of the swordfight should be really something that another NYT critic, Matt Wolf, wrote an article just on the swordfight 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.”
Now… I am really curious how intense the swordfight was the night the NYT critics saw 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.”
Haha, Damian, “work hard, play hard” is absolutely the right attitude in NYC, and believe me, there was nothing you could do about it. New York always wins… over anything : D
Finally… Hamlet having a successful run on West End and coming to Broadway — and, of course, it’s not the only example, I am looking forward to RSC’s Wolf Hall Part I and Part II on Broadway in April — gives me ideas… about American Buffalo! Who knows, maybe it will have such a run on West End that it may come to Broadway… Yeah, I can see some scheduling issues but who knows? Dreaming is FREE 🙂