Some Yoricks

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

NPR and others reported last week on the recent staging of “Hamlet” with Jude Law in the title role; Law, ever the Stansilavsky man, requested use of a real skull for the Yorick scene.  As NPR explained:

Actor Jude Law is appearing in London’s West End as Hamlet, using a real human skull instead of a fake one. The production bought the skull for $400 from a dealer in Salt Lake City. Barry Edelstein, director of The Public Theater Shakespeare Initiative, says this is not the first time a real skull has been used in a production of the Shakespeare play. “Some actors want to go for authenticity at all costs, and if that means having a real human skull in their hands when they are speaking to Yorick, they’re going to do what they can to make that happen,” he tells NPR’s Melissa Block. Edelstein says that sometimes having a real skull can make a real difference to the actor. “It’s very much like an actor in a film who’s going to play a policeman, saying, you know, ‘I want to ride around with some cops on the streets of New York for a couple of nights,’” he says. But, Edelstein says, Shakespeare wanted the skull in Hamlet to be handled roughly, and Edelstein says he wouldn’t want his own cranium to be knocked around for all eternity. Still, that doesn’t prevent people from donating their skulls to theater companies. The main donors: actors, Edelstein says. “Theater people can be odd sometimes,” he says.

Is it really the same as riding around with a cop for a few nights?  When I was writing the skull book, a couple of people offered to get me a real skull for contemplation purposes (thanks, mom), but I declined.  It’s not that I’m unnerved by the presence of a real head, but it implies a level of responsibility that I wasn’t yet ready to accept.

Anyway, Law’s experience with the anonymous Salt Lake City skull calls to mind various other uses of real heads for the Yorick prop, including this rather famous story, which appeared last year in the Daily Telegraph:

When André Tchaíkowsky died of cancer in 1982 aged 46 he donated his body for medical science. But he added the proviso that his skull “shall be offered by the institution receiving my body to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use in theatrical performance.” Since then it has only been used in rehearsals because no actor felt comfortable enough using it on stage in front of an audience. David Howells, curator of the RSC’s archives, said: “In 1989 the actor Mark Rylance rehearsed with it for quite a while but he couldn’t get past the fact it wasn’t Yorick’s, it was André Tchaíkowsky’s.” Now, unbeknown to the paying public, Dr Who actor Tennant has used the skull in 22 performances of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon. Director Greg Doran explained why he didn’t want anyone to know. He said: “I thought it would topple the play and it would be all about David acting with a real skull.” Polish-born Tchaíkowsky was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 to the city of Lodz, before settling in Paris and later England. He lived in Oxford for a time and loved going to the theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The skull will now travel with the Hamlet production to the Novello Theatre in London.

Interestingly, Doran’s comments turn out to foreshadow the story of the Law production: the news stories about this most recent performance (see also this one in The New Yorker) are not about the production, but about are (to paraphrase Doran) “all about Jude Law acting with a real skull.”

Of course, it also depends on whether or not the identity of the skull is known; Mark Rylance couldn’t get past the fact that he knew his prop’s identity—Tchaikowsky—whereas Law’s skull is nameless, anonymous.  Why wouldn’t Law (or anyone else) have similar compunctions? Whomever’s skull it is, it’s not Yorick’s.

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