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Teen Angst

Talking with two young stars bringing “Hamlet” into the 21st century.

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Samantha Whittaker

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LONDON — When rehearsals for “Hamlet” began earlier this year in a church in west London, the legendary theater director Trevor Nunn stepped into the center aisle and began addressing his cast. As he was speaking, a ray of light fell on him and lit up the curls on his head, like a halo.

“And we all thought, ‘We are working with God,’” says 23-year-old Ben Whishaw, who plays the lead role in Nunn’s widely acclaimed production at The Old Vic.

That wasn’t the only surreal moment for Whishaw and his Ophelia, 19-year-old Samantha Whittaker, both of whom are among the youngest — and least seasoned — actors to bring Shakespeare’s sad and confused lovers to the London stage.

Until now, Whishaw had done only minor work in theater and film; earlier this year, he had a small role in Nicholas Hytner’s play, “His Dark Materials.” Whittaker, a first-year student at University College, London, was having trouble getting cast in college plays. But they are taking the honor that’s been bestowed on them in stride.

Whishaw, a weedy, angular young man whose Hamlet is neurotic, passionate, cranky and full of adolescent angst, says he doesn’t feel the burden of all the great Hamlets who’ve tread the boards of the Old Vic before him — most notably Richard Burton, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. “Of course, the space is full of ghosts,” he explains. “But I feel quite ignorant of the legacy. I think the generation before ours would have felt that burden. They would have remembered listening to recordings of John Gielgud playing Hamlet. But we’ve missed that.”

The two believe their youth and relative inexperience have helped them build these characters.

“Younger people don’t have the emotional stability and the grown-up resources to deal with the loss of a parent or a mother’s infidelity, so it means that when those problems strike, they strike like thunder,” says Whishaw.

Whittaker agrees. “Everything is a tragedy for a teenage girl. She can lose herself in romance the way a woman of 25 can’t.”
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