On London's West End, 'Hamlet' With Human Skull 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 Shakespeare's play.
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On London's West End, 'Hamlet' With Human Skull

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On London's West End, 'Hamlet' With Human Skull

On London's West End, 'Hamlet' With Human Skull

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now, no laughing matter. This next story features a skull buried for 320 years.

(Soundbite of movie, "Hamlet")

Mr. LAWRENCE OLIVIER (Actor): (As Hamlet) Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

BLOCK: We can't vouch for the provenance of the skull that Lawrence Olivier was holding in the 1948 film version of "Hamlet," but we do know that when Jude Law utters those words onstage in London, in a production that opened last night, he is holding and gazing into the eye sockets of a real human skull.

The actor insisted on it, so the theater shelled out about $400 to an anatomical parts supplier in Salt Lake City for a skull that dates back to 1800 to play the part of Yorick. And evidently, this is not the first time that real human skulls have made an appearance in "Hamlet."

To clarify and expand on all things cranial, we turn to Barry Edelstein, director of The Public Theater Shakespeare Initiative in New York.

And, Barry, how common is this to use a real human skull?

Mr. BARRY EDELSTEIN (Director, Public Theater Shakespeare Initiative; Author, "Bardisms: Shakespeare for All Occasions"): Well, it has happened in the past. Some actors want to go for authenticity at all costs, and if that means having a real human skull in their hands when they're speaking to Yorick, then they're going to do what they need to, to make that happen.

BLOCK: Do you think that would help, to know that you're holding real bone?

Mr. EDELSTEIN: I think it does. In my own experience, I've been part of productions of "Hamlet" where the actor playing Hamlet has said, you know, I really want to know what it would be like to hold a real skull in which there was a real brain and real eyes and a real soul. You know, it makes a difference.

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.

BLOCK: Have you gone so far, though, as to actually get a real human skull as part of your set?

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Not in any productions that I've been part of. Actually, last summer, The Public Theater produced "Hamlet" in Shakespeare in the Park, and what I remember really vividly about that is we used plastic skulls, and at one point, the director didn't feel that they bounced around the stage quite right. So the prop master had to go find a different set of plastic skulls that would give him the bounce that he was looking for.

BLOCK: Doesn't Hamlet toss the skull away? I mean, if you're using a human skull, I would imagine damage could be an issue here.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Yeah, I mean, that's the thing that surprises me. You know, there are all these stories about people who have willed their heads to theater companies so that they could then play Yorick or play, and quote, "Yorick later on and through eternity." But Shakespeare is really clear that the skull is handled roughly.

You know, there's a line about being knocked about the mazard, and then there's about being hit on the pate with a sexton's spade or something like that. So Shakespeare wants the skull to be handled pretty roughly, and I'm not sure that I would want my cranium to be knocked around like that for all eternity.

BLOCK: Might not make it to the next show.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: No, and that's another issue. Prop masters will tell you that human bone, especially 250-year-old human bone, is kind of brittle and frail. So I haven't seen the Jude Law production, but I imagine that maybe there's not so much knocking around.

BLOCK: Who do you think would want to leave their skull to a theater for a production of "Hamlet"?

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Actors. There are a couple of cases about actors who have specifically willed their heads to theater companies, and, you know, theater people can be odd sometimes.

BLOCK: You think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: I know.

BLOCK: Barry Edelstein, thanks so much.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Barry Edelstein is director of The Public Theater Shakespeare Initiative in New York. He's also author of "Bardisms: Shakespeare for All Occasions."

(Soundbite of movie, "Hamlet")

Mr. OLIVIER: (As Hamlet) Here hung those lips that I have kissed that I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your songs? Your gambols? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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