Theater Reviews by Morna

Morna Martell


RICHARD BURTON’S HAMLET – 1964 – Broadway.

Legend has it that when Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole were filming “Becket” they each decided they wanted to play “Hamlet”- in either New York or London – under the direction of either John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier. They tossed a coin and O’Toole won London and Olivier, while Burton got Broadway and Gielgud. Burton himself approached producer Alexander H. Cohen about the project that we all now know was a smash hit.

Gielgud, the renowned Shakespearean actor, conceived of this production as a final rehearsal, with the actors appearing in street clothes. This pleased Burton who said he always disliked wearing period costumes. Following in the tradition that Shakespeare himself portrayed the Ghost (Hamlet’s dead father), Gielgud depicted him as a shadow against the back of the stage wall, and voiced the character himself on tape. Eileen Herlie repeated her role from Olivier’s 1948 film as Queen Gertrude; Hume Cronyn got a Tony Award as Polonius, and Alfred Drake was King Claudius.

This became the longest run ever on Broadway for “Hamlet” with 137 performances and a number of Tony Awards. However, the shows popularity was also due to the public’s fascination with the romance between Burton and superstar Elizabeth Taylor that started during “Cleopatra.” While the Hamlet production was in Toronto, on its pre-Broadway tour, they married, and every night huge crowds gathered outside the Lunt Fontanne Theatre to catch a glimpse of Burton and Taylor, after the show.

The filmed record was created using a process called “Electronovision,” that used 15 cameras during three performances, then edited the footage into a single b/w 191-minute film. Now on DVD at your local public library


In 1964 I was a NYC actress with two Broadway shows accomplished (“A Taste of Honey” and “Semi-Detached”) and a passion for live theater that has never left me. So, of course, I went to see Richard Burton in “Hamlet” and bought a seat in the orchestra right in the center of the tenth row. I had never seen Burton perform onstage and I’ll never forget how sublime I found the first half of his Hamlet. The following is my explanation of why I dared not go back in after intermission.

I see a lot of shows and have a tendency, when I’m in the theatre, to get quite emotional and a tickle starts in my throat that can grow into a cough. I usually have a bottle of water and some cough drops in my purse to quell this before it can erupt. However, unfortunately, on this occasion I had neither. Therefore, when the great Burton began to recite the most famous Shakespeare aria of all – “To be or not to be, that is the question…” a great surge of joy and ecstasy overcame me and I began to cough.

Not a quiet little tickling cough – oh, no – this moment inspired my deepest emotional trauma and I coughed and croaked and gasped loudly and uncontrollably. Hardly able to breathe, I rose to my feet coughing, I clambered along the packed seats, over people’s laps and feet, to the aisle. Coughing, gasping for air, I staggered up the slope, through the doors into the lobby. There I stood, still choking so loudly, I’m sure the entire audience, let alone the star onstage, could still hear me. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure Burton never forgot me and maybe, ever after, he approached that famous soliloquy with a tinge of trepidation.

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