Saturday, December 29, 2012

the Royal Shakespeare Company's BBC broadcast version of the stage play Hamlet: review

David Tennant is a mad Scot and Patrick Stewart doesn't age. Those are two profound insights that I extracted from my viewing of the BBC and Royal Shakespeare Company's lavish-yet-somehow-streamlined production of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy, Hamlet. I watched the DVD extras first, and marveled at how savvy the production crew had to be in finding an appropriate space for the drama-- space that both honored and expanded upon the stage production on which this made-for-television effort was based. The crew spoke about how, in this modern version of the Bard's tale, the concept of CCTV was all-pervasive: Castle Elsinore is a place of paranoia, where everyone is watching everyone else. That feeling of being watched is accentuated by the preponderance of shiny surfaces: mirrored columns and floors abound. As castle interiors go, Elsinore is paradoxically gloomy and glossy.

I'm sure you know the story of Hamlet, so I won't bore you with a full-length summary. Suffice it to say that the action takes place mostly at Elsinore, a castle in Denmark. Prince Hamlet is troubled by the fact that his father (also named Hamlet) has died, and Hamlet's uncle Claudius has swiftly, perhaps too swiftly, married young Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. The plot lurches forward when a ghost appears-- that of Hamlet Senior-- and informs Hamlet that Claudius has usurped the throne by poisoning Hamlet the elder ("Murder most foul!"). Hamlet, at the ghost's urging but also of his own volition, swears vengeance.

That's the basic setup. The play weaves together too many themes to count: murder, vengeance, courage, cowardice, familial loyalty, mortality, insanity, religious piety, religious hypocrisy, arrogance, betrayal, suicide, and forgiveness, to name just a few. Hamlet is also well known for its raft of soliloquies: "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt"; "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I"; "O, my offence is rank: it smells to heaven!"; "To be or not to be"... through these intimate moments, the play breaks the fourth wall with shameless frequency to engage the audience directly with its characters' inner misery and turmoil.

With the BBC production, it's hard to place the time period. The presence of CCTV would seem to indicate that the action takes place now, in the twenty-first century; at the same time, the antiquated uniforms and weapons of the guards bespeak an earlier age, as does Hamlet's wind-up film camera, which he employs while watching for Claudius's guilty reaction to Hamlet's accusatory playlet. Shakespeare was marvelous in his minimalism, and wouldn't have minded a little time-bending: back in the Elizabethan era, traveling players had no idea what sorts of theatrical facilities they might encounter, and thus had to be flexible in their scripting and production design. Shakespeare, for his part, was very open-ended about setting and action. We moderns have taken advantage of his aesthetic largesse to create a whole spectrum of interpretations of Hamlet, from Mel Gibson and Franco Zeffirelli's more literally ancient take to Kenneth Branagh's glitteringly operatic 1800s-era piece to this BBC production. So why not have the play take place in a timestream not our own?

Confused though we might be by the time period (and for all we know, the period is the Era of Anachronism), there's no confusion about the quality of the acting. David Tennant's performance as Hamlet has been hailed as the defining performance for his generation. Tennant, whom I first encountered in the role of Barty Crouch, Jr. in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," certainly provides Hamlet with enough manic energy to rival Mel Gibson's own wild-eyed turn as the anguished Dane. He's all flashing eyes and gritted teeth, but at the same time he can dial his energy down to whisper "To be or not to be" into the darkness. Tennant does little to mask the tonal and rhythmic quirks of his Scottish accent, but I think this is for the better: the actor is free to concentrate on other aspects of Hamlet's character.

Patrick Stewart, as the monstrously duplicitous Claudius and as the ghost of Hamlet père, plays the entire emotional gamut from frustrated phantasmic pathos to kingly knavery. Stewart, a trained veteran Shakespearean who is in his element here, moves easily from passionately thunderous to cunningly sibilant as each scene demands; his Claudius-- who shrugs mysteriously before drinking of the poisoned cup-- is a roiling enigma, a born liar and murderer whose motives may be concealed even from himself.

Plaudits go as well to Penny Downie for her nuanced performance as Gertrude, a mother whose fundamental mistake was in not taking her son's feelings seriously enough when she blindly and blithely married Hamlet's uncle. Mariah Gale's Ophelia also deserves mention here; although Gale doesn't have the charm or beauty of Helena Bonham Carter (in the Mel Gibson version) or Kate Winslet (in the Kenneth Branagh version), she gives us a frightening performance when Ophelia goes insane after learning of the death of Polonius, her father and the king's counselor. Oliver Ford Davies, whom I recognize from his role in the Star Wars prequels (he played Governor Sio Bibble), is alternately hilarious and poignant as Polonius, whom Davies plays as something of a daffy dotard. Finally, I have to mention Peter de Jersey, who plays Horatio. This may be the first time I truly understood how good and important a friend Horatio is to Hamlet, and it's thanks to de Jersey's fabulous turn as Hamlet's schoolmate and best buddy that I was able to see that. When Horatio cradles Hamlet in his arms and weeps at the end, I feel the pain of losing a best friend.

At a little more than three hours in length, the RSC/BBC version of Hamlet isn't as long as Kenneth Branagh's fulsome, unexpurgated, four-hour version, but it's about 45 to 50 minutes longer than the painfully truncated Gibson/Zeffirelli version. I'm tempted to compare these three productions a bit further, though-- to match Hamlet for Hamlet, Claudius for Claudius, Gertrude for Gertrude. Branagh's version certainly comes out on top in terms of scope and detail: his Elsinore is a gargantuan Russian palace full of gold trim and mirrors, lavish in space and décor, while the RSC/BBC's Elsinore is cozier, darker, and more obviously sinister. Mel Gibson gets my vote as the best Hamlet, despite accusations that he was too old to play the role (David Tennant was 38 when the BBC's 2009 production aired). Patrick Stewart's Claudius beats out Derek Jacobi's, to my mind, and Glenn Close's Gertrude trumps both Penny Downie's and Julie Christie's. True, comparing these three versions of Hamlet is like comparing apples to oranges; each has its own special virtues and flaws. But comparisons between and among large productions are almost inevitable.

Overall, I felt that David Tennant's Hamlet represented three hours well spent. The TV production remains faithful to its stage-play roots, but also folds in some cinematic conventions through clever camera work, lighting, and set design. The play was well and memorably acted; strong performances were given all around. I'm happy to have received such a wonderful gift for Christmas from my buddy Mike, and will likely watch Hamlet again soon.

Ah, yes, one final remark: I'm not sure, but there may have been a mistake in one of the line readings. In Shakespeare's text, Hamlet says, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." But in the RSC/BBC version, Tennant clearly pronounces: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy." I'm aware that several versions of Hamlet exist; could Tennant have been reading from a lesser-known version of the text? Or was this omission of a "y" a simple mistake?

ADDENDUM: Ask, and ye shall receive: an answer to the "your/our philosophy" conundrum can be found here. According to this source, Tennant's reading is perfectly proper: it's based on the Folio edition of Hamlet.



  1. Sadly, I first encountered Tennant (and Morrissey and Parish) in 2004 in the chuffing brilliant, Blackpool, or Viva Blackpool for us Yanks, and after watching him chew through such wonderful scenes in that series with the governor, I have found it hard to fairly judge them in anything they have done since.

    It seems I also have the same problem with Andrew Lincoln since his leading role in Teachers. Hard to imagine that two Brits are currently starring on one to the highest rated TV programs on the air on this side of the pond while usin' Southern accents to boot.

  2. I am glad that the gift gave you the pleasure I'd hoped. I will need to watch it myself.

    I quibble with you over your Gibson v. Branagh assessments. I think Branagh is the better Hamlet. I would give Bonham Carter the edge over Winslet. I think that Close and Christie is tough. I think I come down with Christie; but it is darn close.

  3. Mike,

    Thanks for the comment. I thought Branagh was absolutely unmatched as King Harry in Henry V (imagining anyone else in that role is now impossible for me-- has been impossible since about 1990), but the magic wasn't quite as evident in his version of Hamlet. Gibson wasn't the better Hamlet, for me, because he did a superior acting job: if anything, Gibson barely had to act because he was born to play that role. Branagh is intelligent and methodical, but the character of Hamlet calls for someone foul-tempered, passionate, and more than a little manic. I'll concede that if Branagh and Gibson went toe-to-toe in a Shakespearean throwdown, Branagh would run circles around Gibson. But not in this instance.

    Just my opinion, of course.



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