Review (*****) ‘Hamlet’, dir.Gregory Doran, RSC. BBC 2009.
By Alan Brown
May 12, 2018
‘Hamlet’, is available:
in the US, from Amazon Prime at $4.99 to stream; or as a Blu-ray DVD at $15.44.
in the UK, from Amazon.co.uk (DVD, Region 2), new from £5.90
Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.
Our Bottom Line.
Quite possibly the best stage Hamlet of our time. Action packed, clever, relentlessly aware.
Scottish actor David Tennant plays the Dane, not Geoffrey Tennant of Slings & Arrows. Still, it’s a valid if brief match. Both Hamlets are quick and passionate and have an antic disposition to die for – or of. However, this is a full-on 3 hour Royal Shakespeare Company production, very neatly filmed, to the point where stage action and scene ‘takes’ appear virtually indistinguishable. David Tennant’s performance is good, sometimes extraordinary (? ‘the greatest Hamlet of his generation’), and is supported all the way by Patrick Stewart’s award winning Claudius: ‘so excellent a king’, in truth, that the ‘incestuous’ and ‘adulterate’ portion is easily masked. As for murdering his brother; well, that seems almost an obscure side-show, off in the colourless wings of the glossy stage.
Understandable, then, that Hamlet knows not ‘seems’ and is the madcap avenger almost from the off, otherwise the audience would never reckon Claudius a mildewed villain.
Director Gregory Doran guards against the King’s smooth majesty by using live CCTV and audio to force a distancing effect. It’s the Big Brother house with a murderous difference. The opening titles appear above grainy, black and white, imagery of Francisco’s watch. The tracking camera whirrs and clicks as the sentry walks by, but – sure enough – it cannot ‘see’ the Ghost. By Act II scene 2 (at 1.21.00), as the Players leave with Polonius, Hamlet has had enough and rips a camera off its wall mounting. His “Now I am alone” raises a chuckle. Horatio could have drunk poison and still Hamlet’s story would be told by pressing ‘Replay’ in Elsinore’s control room.
Maybe, just maybe, there is no security camera in the Queen’s bedroom but there is a mirror in a panelled door. Hamlet shoots Polonius through that door (at 1.55.00), cracking the mirror and providing the fractured reflections that would image his splintered and jagged self. Forget the ‘glass of fashion’ and ‘mould of form’; no, this is a mind at breaking point. Tennant is a face on a mission, his sharp features rarely still, his eyes often wide and staring, and his manic – almost signature – grin never too far away. Hamlet’s abuse of Ophelia (Mariah Gale) may be an act in front of a second one-way mirror but it is still shocking whilst his brutal, flailing, assault upon the Queen (staggeringly good by Penny Downie here) is the best ever emergency call for the Ghost.
By n’by this is, I’m sure, the strongest playing of Hamlet’s whole 3rd Act that I have seen on film.
Note also that the commemorative newspaper, ‘The Nation Mourns’, has the news in Danish (… could be Swedish?) on the reverse. Imaginative touches are not missing from this show. Ophelia wickedly waves a couple of condoms in her brother’s face as he packs for his return to France. Fortinbras’ troops circle in Arctic warfare kit whilst Hamlet looks up at a departing helicopter. Yorick’s skull comes to us close-up and the gravedigger Clown, in flat cap and tie, hurriedly lobs a couple of skulls into a pile of earth.
Hamlet wears the Player’s crown askew. The king, for his part, is rarely out of an immaculate pinstripe navy suit and waistcoat. Patrick Stewart plays Claudius with unruffled, applause gathering aplomb. He stands in calm contrast to his nervy, exasperating nephew (see Hamlet armed with a digicam during the Mouse-trap to realise quite how irritating ….) and the King might almost be a tragic figure himself. No, that cannot be, but enjoy the nonchalant shrug as he drinks of the poisoned cup!
All told – and remember this is a full three hours of a ‘feature’ stage drama – there is too much to recount and very little to question except, as usual, what to do with Fortinbras and need revolvers replace daggers. As my last ample pointers: Osric (Ryan Gage) and Hamlet together at 2.47.55 is superbly played, a comic encounter slap in the middle of a philosophical fade of (by now) epic import. Tennant’s delivery of ‘If it be now, ‘tis not to come ….’ is outstanding. Ophelia’s breakdown is as total as it is difficult to achieve and so Laertes’ (Edward Bennett) grief is absolute. Oliver Ford Davis is old school Polonius, venerable and foolish, and Horatio (Peter de Jersey) is the friend you too would wish for if it all goes wrong. Best, I’m sure, to enjoy an interval whilst watching this as – to follow another – there’s no release from a thrilling Hamlet.
[Ed. If you want to explore Hamlet further have a look at the following:
One Hour Hamlet, adapted by Aileen Gonsalves
Our Modern First Folio Edition of Hamlet – the full play
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