by Mark Greig
Of all the various tragedies, comedies and histories he produced in his lifetime, Hamlet remains one of my absolute favourite William Shakespeare plays. It contains one of his best narratives, some of his most fascinating characters and without doubt his finest dialogue, much of which has now become embedded in the national lexicon. Like many I was unable to acquire tickets to see the RSC production starring David Tennant when it first debuted in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Fortunately the RSC, realising the mass appeal of Tennant, teamed-up with the BBC to adapt the play for television.
Director Gregory Doran, also responsible for the stage production, wisely avoids the same trap that befalls many by refusing to simply record the play on the stage as it is performed. This production instead uses a mixture of studio sets mixed with some location work. Doran’s Elsinore is a dark, cold and claustrophobic setting, a palace of polished black floors, shattered mirrors and security cameras on every wall. Doran takes full advantage of the camera, but doesn’t resort to being flashy by showing off with cheap camera tricks. Instead he uses the camera to tell the story and showcase the performances of his cast. Many of the major soliloquies are delivered directly to the camera and often shot in continuous takes. Doran also utilizes basic special effects to make Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost that little more spooky.
As the Dane, David Tennant is simply mesmerizing, effortlessly capturing the character’s torment, wit and cunning. There are times when his performance is a little too Tenth Doctor-ish, but that’s a minor quibble of a truly phenomenal performance. He’s masterfully supported by Patrick Stewart as Claudius and Penny Downie as Gertrude, but it’s Oliver Ford Davis who steals the whole show as a wonderfully infuriating (and possibly senile) Polonius.
It’s not a completely flawless production. Despite the passion and conviction of the acting, the whole thing never truly comes alive as it might do on the stage. Some scenes still feel too static and stagy for television. The subplot with Fortinbras is retained, but goes nowhere and could’ve been easily excised. The final act feels rushed and unsatisfying (more Bill’s fault than Doran’s). And although many of the cast are flawless, Mariah Gale is at times too theatrical as Ophelia, especially in the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene.
Hamlet remains the Bard’s most performed and adapted work. In my humble opinion, Kenneth Branagh’s lavish four-hour epic remains the definitive screen version (with Arnold's a close second). This production could’ve never have hoped to match that achievement, but it is still an engrossing interpretation with a towering performance by its leading man.
Notes and Quotes
--Patrick Stewart also plays the ghost of Hamlet's father.
--David Tennant isn't the only Time Lord in Elsinore. Peter De Jersey (Horatio) appeared in 'The Day of the Doctor' as Androgar.
--Patrick Stewart previously played Claudius opposite Derek Jacobi, who later played The Master on Doctor Who. This is starting to feel like Six Degrees of Doctor Who.
--There is a tradition in productions of Hamlet where Ophelia's madness is conveyed in part by having her hair down, unkempt, and the character going barefoot. In this version, Hamlet is also barefoot with unkempt hair to denote madness.
Marcellus: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Polonius: "This above all: to thine ownself be true."
Three out of four undiscovered countriesrom whose bourn no traveler returns.