Richard Burton’s Hamlet is uneven and in places given to declaiming, but it is certainly interesting to see him tackle the role, under the direction of John Gielgud.
This is purely filmed theatre, complete with scene entrance and closing applause, and because it was not intended to be kept or released it has limited cinematic value. Burton kept a copy and it was made available from his estate after his death, so was hidden from view for many years.
Interestingly, Gertrude is played by Eileen Herlie, who had played the same role opposite Laurence Olivier in 1948. Here she is more age appropriate. Polonius is played by Hume Cronyn, who is marvellous (and not totally played for laughs, which is refreshing). Alfred Drake is a curious choice for Claudius, but he does well enough, while Linda Marsh is a pretty Ophelia, lacking the delicacy and vulnerability of others who have played the role.
Gielgud is the voice of the Ghost, giving the production gravitas, but Burton’s leading performance at times threatens to overbalance proceedings. Having said this, now and again he is very good indeed, and one wishes he had been coaxed into a quieter, more reflective interpretation of the Dane that is finally on show. His verse speaking is excellent. It may be that it is simply the fact that his ‘star quality’ and associated baggage influence an audience’s reading of his performance here.