Most Excellent Prince
"What a piece of work is Keanu's Hamlet!"
This is one role that might have been written for the star of Speed, says Roger Lewis.
I crossed oceans of time to find him: 30 hours from my house in France, through several time zones and the polar wastes, to Winnipeg -- of all places the most God-forsaken. Situated in the dead centre of Canada, ice-bound for half the year, once a trading post for the Hudson Bay Co, and now a maze of subterranean shopping malls, Winnipeg is a town even the locals mock: "Winnipeg folk travel a lot -- to get away from Winnipeg";"Winnipeg looks great -- after dark, when the view is better..." They need not be so diffident. The standard of living is high (no beggars, no litter, no germs); they have opera, ballet, theatre -- and Keanu Reeves, the 30-year-old actor who had fled there, to be far out of reach, to play Hamlet.
Let's get it out of the way at once, and wipe that smirk off your face; if you had anticipated Bill and Ted's Shakeapearian Adventure, forget it. He was wonderful. He quite embodied the innocence, the splendid fury, the animal grace of the leaps and bounds, the emotional violence, that form the Prince of Denmark. He has the sheer virility of Larry Olivier's melancholy Dane -- which Keanu saw on video just the other week -- plus the Peter Pannishness, the little-boy-lost quality, that I remember Mark Rylance bringing to the role. He was both vulnerable (as in the scenes with Gertrude when a goodnight kiss goes on and on until mother and son recoil in horror at their arousal) and severe (as in the bit where he flies at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for presuming to "play upon me...you would pluck out the heart of my mystery").
He is one of the top three Hamlets I have seen, for a simple reason; he *is* Hamlet, and he has been a lonely a resourceful type, who won't submit, in film after film. He is full of undercurrents and overtones, which is why the world's big directors want to work with him. He is killingly attractive, no question. He can look, from moment to moment, faintly oriental, with his slanted black eyes -- he has Chinese, Hawaiian and British blood in him -- or crew-cut clean Caucasian; he can be Californian (especially in his locutions: I'd not been asked whether I felt a really cool dude before) and exotic, like a Canadian-Indian -- I kept seeing his profile in ancient Inuit sculpture, which Winnipeg has museums full of.
But his physique is just the first thing which sets him apart. What counts is the impression we get of a nature that is turbulent and proud -- though he can exude calm and courtliness -- and that he has a gift given to few; like Garbo, he is an actor who can register -- simultaneously -- both pleasure and pain. And, like Garbo, he prefers to keep his own company. He doesn't want to be crowded.
Is that why he chose Winnipeg? A self-enclosed community in the lonesome prairie? He was there without bodyguards or companions; there is not Court of Keanu; no agents or PR persons or those curious factotums, former ballet dancers usually, who tend to cluster around a star, like maggots on a chop. He walked to work, shuffling through the snow (it was minus 25 degrees C) in his curious, dancing, tripping-over-himself way. He'd been seen in a cafe on his own, nursing a Perrier. Here was the paradox of this famous and desirable man, and there is nobody with him, ever. He is loved -- by million of hungry fans -- but does he know how to love? He went to the Prarie Oyster restaurant with the cast, and left early; taking his food away in a doggy bag; he went to an Italian restaurant and left in case two girls at the bar pestered him. None of this behaviour is sulky, tantrumy, make no mistake about that, for he has a great and unfeigned tenderness; it is more that, like Hamlet, he has a world within himself.
He is coping with stardom, and trying to appear normal (when he knows he is not) by ignoring it. He doesn't own a house in L.A. He lives in hotels or in the rooms of actors who are out of town. He doesn't want too easy a life -- the mansions and the flunkeys. He anchors his ship for a little while only, and this is how he struck me in conversation -- though he is sitting there, he is not quite there all the time, as he darts from mood to mood, curving and winding, cautious and direct. Though he had been an athletic, piratical Hamlet, there is this huge, I can only call it ethereal, element. He is retiring from society, from life -- and that might be dangerous; his spirituality could intensify, and he could spirit away. He is in his dressing room hours and hours before the show. I'll bet he is bouncing around and getting himself into mortal and human shape so that he can appear or stage. For he is an eagle, really; or a glossy and supple stallion.
Hollywood, meantime, would prefer this wild beast to be back with them, making more bomb-on-the-bus stuff; there were brokers and moguls, less interested in him than in the money he makes, doing their best to scupper the production. Shakespeare in Winnipeg! Three weeks on a basic Equity rate! When he could be reaping billions after Speed! (After all, reports last week of his sign-up fee for the new movie, Drop Dead, ranged from 4 million pounds to 10 million pounds.) Thus, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, a concrete lump that looks as though it is dissolving, was forbidden from arranging publicity interviews with the Principal Boy; there were to be no press tickets, photo calls, nothing. CBC was forbidden to run a clip of Keanu in action -- so their bulletin was literally Hamlet without the Prince.
Hollywood pretended it was not happening; they were deeply contemptuous and suspicious of the entire affair. The rumor was that Keanu's own representatives would not fly to see his performance until they were absolutely certain he had not made a fool of himself. Supportive, huh? It just makes him the more like Hamlet, coming here, against the odds; embattled. It had been his idea to work again with his drama school mentor, the Toronto director Lewis Baumander, for whom he was once a thrilling Mercutio; and the production was built around Keanu, quite deliberately. Gone is the messy, modern, neurotic Hamlet; Baumander has encouraged us to see the character's sense of duty; and Keanu -- who is himself facing a challange, taking a risk -- would make a good King of Denmark, because he has re-discovered the splendour of heroism, its Camelot quality; which is how he transfigured Speed, giving it extra spin and nuance.
The Winnipeggios were tickled pink to have him in their midst -- they had not seen a star since Charlie Chaplin drove through on his way to fish in the lake -- and this, plus the fact that all 22,000 seats for the run were sold out on subscription (i.e. before the box office opened), was a story in itself. The local press had a Keanu Hotline: "If you see Keanu out and about in Winnipeg, don't keep it a secret. Call 697-7368." But this scheme was spiked -- by the readers. "It's wonderful what he has done for Winnipeg," I was often told, and though most people had indeed spotted him, he was to be accorded respect and privacy. This seemed rather British -- old-fashioned and virtuous -- British like an Ealing comedy. People were so polite, they would phone the theatre and ask if they could ask for an autograph ("He's very approachable," said the receptionist. "You could come and see him in the lobby"). The staff at the Sheraton, not wanting to over-do it, obtained a single signature and photocopied it.
Best of all -- a moment out of a Boulting Bros. film -- was the opening night itself. "Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the Governor General of Manitoba and Mrs Carlton Browne, and the Lady Mayoress and her goddaughter Patsy." And in trooped these Peter Sellers characters, in medals and ostrich plumes and we sang God Save the Queen. That this was followed by a burst of jangling rock music and Keanu in a spotlit tableau grieving over his father's tomb is I suppose what these days gets to be called surreal.
Afterwards, the cast party: to which the entire audience was invited. Though the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Sun reported this as a stellar evening to outrank Graumann's Chinese, the atmosphere, for all the ice sculptures of Elsinore and cavier canapes, was actually much more like a village hall -- with Keanu down at the end scribbling on people's programmes and posters. He was still performing -- or continuing to be, in endless permutation. For each person, he would adjust, to make them special: a puppyish younger brother with men; a chivalric knight when calming the hyperventilating teens; the adored grown-up son to the older women, who want to be his mother, Wendy to his frowning Peter Pan. Men and women desire that he should like them, and he would speak to them and pose for their Instamatics, and they'd fantasise forever that he'd stay with them. (There were no ogling gays in evidence, by the way. Perhaps the Canadian cold snaps keep them down.)
He doesn't need applause; he wants to survive the flattery. His exhortation to me was to deal justly with him. He is measurelessly puzzling and fascinating.
I'll never forget one occasion. It was midnight and we were standing outside the theatre, wrapped up against the cold -- and there was this huge hearse-like stretch limo 20 or so yards away. This was the only touch that said "movie star" and was very un-Winnipeg. "My mother," he said, in his low, soft and furry voice. "She had come to town to see the production," and the sinister car conveyed her -- and him -- around the corner to the Westin Hotel.
Before disappearing, he glanced at the the vehicle with amusement and embarrassement. Dressed in his layers of black, tall and elegant and as slim as a shark's fin, and with the snowflakes softly falling on his hat, twinkling and refusing to melt on his skin, and with his face inclined towards me, so intent you would swear he could listen to the wolves barking amid the ice and frozen rivers, he was very beautiful.