Throwback Thursday to Damian Lewis as Hamlet At Open Air Theatre

Damian Lewis is returning to Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in the brilliant Allie Esiri’s brain child Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year – Live! thirty years after he played the title role in Hamlet. Tickets are selling very fast so grab a ticket if you want to be there on July 8. And don’t forget to make pics and vids for the mortals, like me, who will miss this one-night only performance!

I think it will be an emotional experience for Damian to be on that stage again, a happy one, and so I would like to celebrate his return to Open Air Theatre by revisiting him as a 23 year old kid, ahem, actor, in Hamlet!

Hey, what were you doing in 1994?

In NY Times theater critic Matt Wolf’s words, Damian Lewis, within a year of graduating from Guildhall School of Music and Drama, goes “right to the pinnacle of possible roles for a young classical actor.”

Damian brings to life the Prince of Denmark himself in Hamlet at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in summer of 1994.

He shares the story about how he was cast in the production at Times Talks London:

“I was asked to go and audition in January, on a slightly drizzly, wind-swept day. Anyone who’s been to the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, much like The Delacorte in New York, is an arena-type auditorium, it’s like an amphitheatre, it’s actually got more seats than any other theatre in London, they can play straight plays in it, straight drama house. It’s got 1200 seats in there. And Tim Piggott-Smith was directing, and he’d seen all bunch of actors come in and he said: “Right.” He went and stood at the top right at the top of this rake and yelled at me and said: “Right! I want a “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Go!”

And the leaves were barreling across the stage and it started spitting and I lounged into ““Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”

And he gave me the part. And I said: “Amazing you’ve asked me to do it. It’s so much fun.” And he said: “Love, love, you were the only one I could hear.” So I knew that I was gonna have a good enough voice for the big houses which was a good thing. Subtlety? Maybe not. But loud.”

Gotta LOVE this guy!

Here’s the director’s blurb about the production:


The Independent theatre critic Paul Taylor’s review of the play, and in particular of Damian’s performance in it, reflects the fact that our 23 year old prince did not get the part just for being loud. I feel compelled to share the entire review here since I believe it is a treasure to savor. Written 30 years ago, way before Dick Winters or Nicholas Brody or Bobby Axelrod came to life on screen, this review is a true harbinger of a great actor being born on Open Air Theatre stage!

“There are some actors who approach the role of Hamlet via a rigorous apprenticeship in parts that have more than a smack of the Prince of Denmark: Konstantin in The Seagull, say, or Oswald in Ghosts. One such is Simon Russell Beale who is to play Hamlet, at long last, for Sam Mendes. At the opposite extreme are those actors who find themselves pitched in at the deep end early in their careers and prove that they can swim with precocious bravura.

At the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, there is now an egregious example of this latter type in Damian Lewis, who tackles the role in Tim Piggott-Smith’s otherwise patchy production. Lewis has all the stage presence and captivating instincts of a Michael Sheen. Long-limbed, in a black bum-freezer jacket, he reminds you a little of a Dickensian hero.

The tragedy is played out on a set that looks like some giant piece of modernist garden sculpture, the Danish court imagined as a set of harsh metallic curves. Some of the staging ideas merely have the effect of emphasising the production’s weaknesses, so the fussy freeze- frame backdrops which Piggott-Smith contrives for all of Hamlet’s soliloquies, seem all too emblematic of the quality-in-balance generally evident – Lewis’s Hamlet intensely alive, the rest of the show relatively inert.

To Hamlet’s antic disposition, Lewis brings a splendidly intimidating levity which can shade into the potent expression of spiritual disgust. During the ‘what a piece of work is man’ speech, he pretends to swat an insect on his neck, his disillusion with his species manifest in the fierceness with which he tries to flick the splattered creature from his fingertips.


It’s a performance that encompasses not only broad comedy, but also excellent signalling of Hamlet’s inner plight. The First Player and the Ghost of old Hamlet are played by the same actor, Kenneth Gilbert, and there’s a wonderful moment when Lewis approaches the former in a daze of half-recognition, only to discover that the beard that so reminds him of his father comes off in his hands, a tawdry theatrical prop.

There are one or two notable weak links, and some of the ideas aren’t worked out as arrestingly as they might be. But, though the alfresco loveliness of Regent’s Park on a glorious evening seems a far cry from Hamlet’s sterile promontory and could well be a distraction, Lewis’s performance makes sure you see the thematic wood for the trees.”


Just months later, Matt Wolf in a New York Times article looking for the next Ralph Fiennes and next Hugh Grant among a bunch of young British actors, speaks very highly of now 23 year old Damian:

“Damian Lewis is, at 23, the youngest of the lot and a 1993 graduate of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Nonetheless, he played an acclaimed Hamlet over the summer in Regent’s Park… London critics have been impressed with what they describe as his “flaming red hair” and “heroic bones.”

Before “Hamlet,” he was a dashing Horace in Moliere’s “School for Wives” in London; other stage credits include Romeo and the well-heeled young psychopath in Patrick Hamilton’s “Rope,” both in Birmingham. Jonathan Kent, who directed “The School for Wives,” says, “Damian has a sort of flair and panache rare for a British actor.

Mr. Lewis has an impressive resume for a Londoner who has been performing professionally for only about a year.

Spot the red head! NYT had a photo shoot with some of the young brilliant talent on Broadway in 1995 on Brooklyn Bridge!

Last month Mr. Lewis was chosen to play Laertes to Mr. Fiennes’s Hamlet in the much-anticipated Almeida production, directed by Mr. Kent. It opens in London in February and moves to Broadway in April.”

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

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.”

source: Getty Images

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

Last night, my husband and I were in the beautiful Belasco Theater where Damian made his Broadway debut many moons ago. I saw the brilliant play Appropriate with Sarah Paulson and Corey Stoll aka Mike Prince from Billions…

As the wise Charlie Crews once said “everything’s connected” and I plan another Throwback Thursday to Damian Lewis in Hamlet, this time on Broadway, soon!

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!

4 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday to Damian Lewis as Hamlet At Open Air Theatre”

  1. “Lewis brings a splendidly intimidating levity which can shade into the potent expression of spiritual disgust.” WOW! That’s him!


  2. Saw him playing Laertes in Hamlet at the beautiful Hackney Empire Theatre in London before it went to Broadway, was pestering him every day for photos and autographs! Fantastic actor and person.

    1. WHOA! This was back in 1995 or so. You’re definitely one of the early fans. How cool is that? I didn’t even know Damian existed until I “met” him in Homeland! And the rest is history 🙂

Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.