Sean of the Danes

Sean as Mercutio
photo: Daren Scott

When it comes to preparing for his next stint onstage, Sean Cox, co-artistic director and founding member of Intrepid, freely admits that he’s “properly terrified.”

Even though Hamlet doesn’t open until next year, the focus of the company has already moved towards this next project.  For Sean, that means that he’s only weeks away from beginning rehearsals on one of the most challenging roles of his career.

He shouldn’t fret.  After all, in some ways, it seems he’s been preparing for this his entire life: “I’ve watched it so many times and heard it so many times and I’ve thought about it for years and years,” he says.  One of his earliest acting class memories even has him playing the gravedigger at 13.

But Hamlet is also about life experience, and for Sean the past few years have seen not only the formation of a theatre company, but also marriage to co-founder Christy Yael and the birth of his first child.  It seems fitting that this play is happening now when Sean is looking at life so differently.

“Hamlet asks those questions that we all ask: right, wrong, afterlife, immortality…all of those simple and honest questions that are in silent dialogue in our own head all the time,” says Sean.

This is also the reason why Hamlet is such an intimidating role to pick up.  For it to work, “it has to be simple, honest, and in the moment,” he says.  For Intrepid, this intimacy will be further emphasized by the fact that they will be performing Hamlet in the round.  “There’s no place to hide,” he says.  “Literally.  It’s exciting and it’s completely and totally terrifying.”

To hear Sean talk about his research for the role is to imagine him constantly tripping over books and recordings and DVDs of various Shakespearean performances.  “With Shakespeare, I’ve always been about devouring and watching every movie version, every audio version,” he says.  With Hamlet, “there are books and books and books.  There are literally hundreds of books.”  He’s been on a constant mission, it seems – dissecting the research, analyzing the greats, philosophizing on interpretation.

Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet

Some of Sean’s discoveries?  Kenneth Branagh’s audio recording is way better than his film version, Ian McKellen says you have to be a bit of a comedian to play the title role, and when you put McKellen and Simon Russell Beale side by side, it’s impossible to tell who does the role better, even though they are totally and completely different.  Ask Sean about his favorites and he doesn’t hesitate when he describes seeing Mark Rylance play Hamlet at the Globe as “the best theatrical performance of anything ever.”

But what do these great actors say about the actual experience of playing Hamlet?  “They are like ‘Oh, it changes your life!’” says Sean.  “It’s this momentous occasion.  And it’s intimidating to go into it like that but I think most parts are…they change you in a way…if you’re putting yourself into each role, then each one affects you.”

Isn’t having these performances swirling around in his head a little distracting?  “There’s no one way to do it,” he muses.  “Every one is totally different, totally, totally different and yet it works.  There is a reason why they say there are as many Hamlets as there are actors.”

Mark Rylance as Hamlet

But, even for a seeming veteran like him, the part of the Danish prince doesn’t come without its fair share of gauntlets.

“Hamlet is everything,” he says, animatedly.  “He’s got this enormous amount of dialogue and he goes on this emotional roller coaster throughout the play and then he’s got this big old huge sword fight at the end.

“Jonathan McMurtry has said to me that playing these great roles is like training to be an Olympic athlete,” says Sean, quoting a favorite mentor.  “So, yeah, not intimidated at all.”

Rehearsals officially start in December, but when asked about his schedule, Sean simply says, “I feel like I started a very, very long time ago.” — T.T.