The BBC’s Shakespeare Collection production of Hamlet is available:
– For streaming from Ambrose Digital ($25 / ~£16)
– For streaming from Amazon.com ($1.99 / ~£1.35)
– As a DVD from Amazon.co.uk for £6.98 (£2.86 used) /
Note that prices quoted are indicative and subject to change. Check the prices on the Vendors’ pages at the links above.
If you want to know more about the best Shakespeare shows to watch at home check out our Great Shows to watch at home page
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Our Bottom Line:
This production is what it set out to be; a solid, watchable, fairly accurate version of the text. With so many versions of Hamlet out there, this just doesn’t quite do it for me; despite Jacobi’s excellent performance.
Our Review (***)
Hamlet, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play, has been adapted for the screen over fifty times, from the 1900 silent French film Le Duel d’Hamlet in which the title role was played by actress Sarah Bernhardt, to the present day. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays, where the BBC Collection version is really the only choice, there are many options available when one decides to watch a version of Hamlet at home. So, is there anything really special about this 1980 version, anything that makes it a better choice than, say, David Tennant’s 2009 version, or Kenneth Branagh’s visually sumptuous, all-star 1996 adaptation? It boasts two very well-known names in British theatre, with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius, as well as the well-respected name of the BBC.
I feel that before going on, in order to be fair here, I have to make it clear that this film was made sixteen years before I was born and I am used to a very different style of acting, and a different level of film technology. Even the aspect ratio, being made for small, square television screens, looks pretty old-school to me. I’ll try to avoid being biased, but it may slip in a little (or a lot). Anyway, on with the review, and the obvious place to start seems to be with Jacobi as the Prince of Denmark himself. At 42 years old, he was rather mature for the role, so his interpretation is more of an older man who has failed to mature, than the usual flawed young prince. This interpretation works, but personally I prefer a younger
Hamlet, and ideally one with a little less facial hair. With a manic, high pitched laugh that bubbles up at fairly regular intervals as he bounds around in a loose white shirt and red and orange tights, there seemed to be hints of real madness even as he feigns it. Although at first I found it difficult to get past the slightly declamatory, 1980s style of acting, Jacobi definitely grew on me, and it becomes a far more energetic and exciting performance as the play progresses. One other slight weakness for me was that the soliloquies (of which there are many) didn’t quite seem to come alive in the way Tennant, whose Hamlet I watched recently, brings them to life. I found myself at points getting the general sense of a speech but not focusing on the individual lines. Fortunately, he is far more enjoyable in sections of witty dialogue.
Patrick Stewart, at 40, is an unusually young Claudius- and, although fortunately he doesn’t look it, two years younger than Hamlet. Having recently watched him in the 2009 RSC/BBC version, again as Claudius, it was interesting to compare the two performances. His Claudius here is somewhat more grandiose. In all the court scenes, a load of
extras have been carted in and stuck into Elizabethan costumes so he has plenty of people to declaim to. In his first scene, almost every speech he makes receives loud applause and he plays to this crowd. This Claudius is a politician, a new, young King enjoying his role. Everything is more forceful, more rash, less thoughtful; he even laughs when Laertes claims he would “cut [Hamlet’s] throat in the church”. It’s an excellent performance of Claudius, but I greatly prefer his more recent version. His approach almost 30 years later, was more thoughtful and considered, far more sympathetic. This more recent Claudius is aging, he’s seen it all, and although he does plot later to kill Hamlet, he does seem, at least earlier, to care for him, and he certainly cares for Gertrude; there is one lovely, very tender moment between them in her bedroom after Hamlet has killed Polonius. I also greatly prefer his death in this later version. With Jacobi, as his treachery is revealed by Laertes, he still attempts to escape his fate, trying to push the blame from himself, and is thrown onto a table and before the is wine forced down his throat. In the later version, he seems to accept his fate, even welcome it. He takes the goblet and even gives a little shrug, as if to show that he’s really not very bothered by this, before drinking the poison and dying with his hand outstretched towards Gertrude’s. It is, in all respects, a more mature and considered performance.
Gertrude, in this production, rather fades into the background, at least until the Closet Scene with Hamlet. Many Gertrudes, although they have far fewer lines than Claudius, are nevertheless a powerful presence in most of his scenes, but for some reason this one almost seems to disappear. Like
Claudius, this is a young (and attractive) Gertrude played by Claire Bloom, with beautiful long, thick red hair and a corset which rather emphasises the cleavage. Partly because of this, there is certainly a slight sexual undertone to the Closet Scene, although not nearly to the extent of Olivier’s version. This works fairly well, adding to the disturbing nature of the scene without just feeling overdone. Her death is perhaps a little too subtle; I do enjoy a bit more gasping for breath and staggering and choking out final words, but that’s probably personal preference.
On the subject of the final scene, it is rather unlike other versions I’ve seen before. It’s played before a large number of extras, which rather detracts from the personal, intimate feel of certain moments, especially as through most of it they stand there pretty statically. The sword fighting was very energetic and did look good, although Laertes was perhaps at points a little over the top. As mentioned before, I wasn’t sure about the deaths of Claudius and Gertrude, but I was also rather sceptical about Hamlet’s. In every other version I’ve seen he collapses into Horatio’s arms very quickly after being poisoned and the two have a few final moments together, with some really beautiful, moving dialogue. Here, Hamlet only falls towards Horatio just before his death, rather detracting from the intimacy of the moment, and again the hordes of randomers staring at the proceedings doesn’t help this. We also keep in the arrival of Fortinbras and his discussion with Horatio, which is very often cut. Keeping this in or not is a decision that all directors who take on Hamlet have to make, as it does greatly alter the atmosphere of the end of the play. Although leaving it uncut is more accurate to the original, my personal preference is to cut it and end the play with Horatio’s beautiful line “Goodnight sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Unfortunately, I do feel I have to mention Ophelia, played by Lalla Ward. There did seem to be a trend at this time of playing many female Shakespearean women as pathetic damsels in distress incapable of lifting a finger to defend themselves against the cruel world (*cough* Anna Calder-Marshall as Cordelia in Olivier’s Lear *cough*). Unfortunately, Ward very much fits into this category. After her first scene, I did have some hope that this Ophelia might have something about her, but sadly those hopes were quickly dashed. She sniffs and sobs through the whole of her second scene, and the nunnery scene, and is almost unbearably pathetic when Hamlet mocks her during the play. It’s probably a good thing his line “It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge” is cut or she’d probably have exploded with self-pity at how nasty and mean he was being. Usually during the nunnery scene I feel greatly sympathetic towards Ophelia and feel that Hamlet is being unnecessarily cruel to her, but here he mocks and teases her, and it seems entirely justified; only the kindest, most patient person could resist the temptation here. In fairness, she does do a much better job during her mad scenes (I especially like the slightly sexual approach, as she kisses Laertes full on the mouth, and wraps her arms around Claudius and whispers almost seductively to him), but unfortunately this, for me, is not enough to redeem her.
As for the sets and visuals, it’s all pretty basic. Despite the rich colours of some of the costumes, the overall tone is very dark- it’s not entirely clear if this is deliberate, or just because of rather poor lighting and bad film quality. Either way, rather than being atmospheric, for the most part it just looks
rather dull and sometimes makes it very difficult to make out what’s happening. For the most part, everything happens in empty, rectangular rooms, with maybe the occasional chair, or, if they’re really going for it, a desk or bed. It’s probably a good thing the sets are so basic, as those of most of this BBC series are so dreadful that anything more complex would probably just look like ply board cut-outs and be distracting. The costumes are pretty standard Elizabethan; the women’s dresses are rather lovely, although Ophelia has a terrible and rather distracting hat, and there is an excellent selection of dreadful 1980-style haircuts.
So, to answer my earlier question, is there anything special about this production that means you should choose it over the many other options? Well, unless you’re watching lots of different versions trying to see as many interpretations as possible, perhaps for research for performance, no, I don’t think so. It’s a fairly full version of the text, but if you want it completely uncut, go Branagh. If you want lots of big names, or something very pretty visually, again, Branagh is your best option. If you want a thrilling, modern version with a compulsively watchable Hamlet, and a more experienced Patrick Stewart as Claudius, Tennant is the way. Want a short Hamlet, and don’t mind it being rather less accurate? Mel Gibson for you. This production is what it set out to be; a solid, watchable, fairly accurate version of the text. For other plays where the BBC version is the only one available, this is great. But with so many versions of Hamlet out there, this just doesn’t quite do it for me; despite Jacobi’s admittedly excellent performance.