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“The play's the thing. Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.”

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.


  1. I've only seen clips of this, which is definitely the wrong way to do it. Like you, I think the Branagh Hamlet is the best--probably because it is the first that I watched.

    Have you seen the Ethan Hawke Hamlet? The "to be or not to be" speech takes place in a video store. It's hilariously awful.

  2. I haven't seen the film, but have seen a clip of that scene, Josie. And it did look hilariously awful.

  3. I'm not a huge Tennant fan (treasonous in some Dr. Who circles, I know) but I did enjoy this production. I always like Patrick Stewart and I really enjoyed the Gertrude in this production. She is a character that sometimes seems to get lost in some productions - there are a lot of strong parts in the play and the balance is hard to find for me. I've never liked Hamlet the character much. I just finished my umpteenth rewatch of Slings & Arrows and the them song for the first season pretty much sums up my feelings about the character. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvmMt_xG1tI

  4. I'm embarrassed to admit that I rented it but didn't get through the first hour. I should get me to a nunnery.

  5. I'm not a big Shakespeare fan, but I absolutely love this adaptation. David Tennant is simply amazing. My favorite scene is the one where reads the book :)
    Oh, and Doctor Who and (evil) Captain Picard on stage together? It doesn't get better than this! :)
    Great review, Mark!

  6. Also, you should watch (and review, nudge nudge) Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate. It was recorded on a theatre stage and is, in my humble opinion, ever better than Hamlet!

  7. I saw this one live in Stratford, in the Courtyard Theatre, which has a thrust stage (always sounds rude to me). We were sitting right round at the extreme right of the stage and my most abiding memory of the production is the utterly excellent view of David Tennant's backside when he bent right over during 'Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt', as he was bent right over to the ground with his head facing the other way and... if he hadn't been wearing trousers we could have checked he wasn't smuggling crack, let's put it that way.

  8. Hamlet is my favorite play, and I've seen several adaptations of this play. And, this is actually my favorite adaptation.

    Maybe I'm biased, because it stars Captain Picard and Ten.

    (Incidentally, I had never watched Doctor Who prior to watching this on PBS. I immediately fell in love with David Tennant here, and then spent time watching Doctor Who, which I'd never seen before.)

    I've seen Branagh's Hamlet, although it's been a while. I remember being impressed by the beauty of it, but I think I was turned off by the length. It's been a while, though. And, I'd like to get it on DVD or Blu-Ray.

    I've seen the Ethan Hawke one. Not a very good movie!

    Incidentally, there is another version made in 2000, directed by and starring Campbell Scott. I recommend it. It's set in kind of a post Civil War America, and Polonius and his family are African-Americans. It's really quite good.



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