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Archive Unboxed: Peter O'Toole in Hamlet, 1963


Actor Frank Finlay as Gravedigger and Peter O'Toole as Hamlet, holding a skull, on stage at the National Theatre, 1963

What would he do / Had he the motive and the cue for passion / That I have?

Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2

While filming the historical drama Becket, co-stars Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole agreed that each should subsequently play Hamlet on stage. Supposedly, the two actors flipped a coin to determine the city and director each would be allocated. O’Toole landed on London and Laurence Olivier, while Burton would perform in New York, directed by John Gielgud. Amazingly, both productions went on to be staged! The O’Toole and Olivier production of Hamlet opened the National Theatre at the Old Vic in October 1963 and 2023 marks the 60th anniversary of that production.

After gaining international recognition via Lawrence of Arabia, which had been released the previous year, O’Toole was only able to commit to 27 performances as Hamlet due to prior filming commitments. The uncut, four-and-a-half-hour production opened to mixed reviews. The Times reported:

“[Hamlet] contains good things, but it bears the stamp of having been put on as a means of exhibiting a number of big names in the most famous and popular work in the classical repertory”.

Alongside criticisms of the production chosen to open the National Theatre, the casting of O’Toole in the lead role of Hamlet also proved divisive, with some critics arguing O’Toole was too outgoing and good-looking to play the character and had too many ‘film-star’ qualities. Others were more forgiving, with The Daily Telegraph declaring “He [O’Toole] has the mixture of sensitivity and intelligence which the best Hamlets must possess.”

The overriding feeling on opening night amongst the critics, however, was one of relief that Great Britain finally had a National Theatre. Bernard Levin’s Daily Mail review was headlined “After a wait of 100 years, this will do for a start”. Since O’Toole took on the role, Hamlet has been played on the three National Theatre stages by Albert Finney (1976), Tim McInnerny (1986), Daniel Day-Lewis and Ian Charleson (1989), Simon Russell Beale (2000) and Rory Kinnear (2010).

Jack Thorne’s play The Motive and the Cue transports audiences back to the rehearsals for the Burton/Gielgud production of Hamlet in New York, which opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in April 1964 and was a huge commercial and critical success. Thorne’s play explores the politics of a rehearsal room and the relevance of theatre in a world from which it can sometimes seem removed. The Motive and the Cue opened in the Lyttelton Theatre on 20 April 2023 and stars Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton, Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor.

Peter O'Toole as Hamlet onstage at the National Theatre, 1963

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Find out more about the Archive here

Photographs by Angus McBean
Frank Finlay as Gravedigger and Peter O’Toole as Hamlet
National Theatre, 1963