Did you know that Damian Lewis made his Broadway debut some twenty five years ago in Hamlet? So why not travel back to 1995 and chase a 24 year old Englishman in New York today? 😀
Damian’s debut on Broadway is 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 Belasco Theatre in the summer of 1995.
Can you spot a very young Damian in the playbill?
And here’s a quick look at his credits:
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 does Damian join this Almeida Theatre production of Hamlet? Damian shares 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…
…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, 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:
“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 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.”
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?”
More recently, Damian talked about his sword fight with Ralph Fiennes when he was Stephen Colbert’s guest on The Late Show last year!
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.”
Damian looks at his Broadway debut retrospectively 20+ years later in a very recent interview with Kit Magazine, one of the best interviews he has given in the last couple of years in my humble opinion.
“Twenty years ago, I first worked in New York in a Broadway production of “Hamlet”. Ralph Fiennes was Hamlet, and it was right in the height of his fame from Schindler’s List, Quiz Show, and The English Patient. He was really flying high. It was a real coming-of-age, rite-of-passage time for me. I was 25. Just a bunch of 25-year-old English actors in this hit show. Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg all edging past each other on the stairwell to come say hi to Ralph. It was an endless, endless procession of Hollywood royalty that wanted to be at the show that season. We were all out of our minds, 20-something kids running around having the greatest time.”
Hamlet stays as the only play Damian has done on Broadway to date. It goes without saying we are dying to see him on New York stage and preferably sooner than later! We can only hope he wants to play to that “different sort of visceral feel” in New York theaters, too. Fingers crossed!