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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

to be or not to be: Kevin Kline as Hamlet

To be. Oh yes, definitely to be. ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished for, Kevin Kline and the crazy Dane. His is the most powerful Hamlet I’ve seen yet: he’s mad-angry, not mad-crazy, and physically powerful with it. When he’s tossing Ophelia around in the get-thee-to-a-nunnery bit… wow.

What’s even more astonishing about this is that Kline directed himself, in this stage production shot in 1990 for PBS from the version Kline mounted, to great acclaim, for the New York Shakespeare Festival. His instincts both as an actor and a director are extraordinary: this is so easy a role to go over the top with, and he goes in the other direction. The whole production is minimalist, not just the plain modern dress and the stark stage but Kline himself. The character is always inner-directed, but never believably more so than in this production. This Hamlet may be faking the insanity, but he’s not faking the torment he’s putting himself through.

Early on, Kline’s Hamlet is mopey, teary, and grieving, and here, he was reminding me of someone I couldn’t quite put a finger on:

I thought at first that I was seeing a little shadow of what David Tennant’s Hamlet might look like, and that’s definitely the case, but whom he was really reminding me of is Brent Spiner. I’d never noticed a resemblance between these two actors before, but all of a sudden it was obvious.

The pretend-crazy Hamlet is almost subdued, as if he’s trying more to comfort himself by being light and goofy than he is trying to convince anyone else he’s gone off the deep end:

Then, of course, comes the moment when, perhaps, this Hamlet does go a teensy bit mad. Dude, you look like you’ve seen a ghost:

To tuck, or not to tuck, that is the question:

Alas, poor Yorick:

[part of my “summer of David Tennant and ‘Hamlet’” series]


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

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  • TCM

    I had the great fortune to see Kline’s Hamlet live and then later enjoyed the PBS version as well. He was a very generous director, giving a more of the focus to his Ophelia in the nunnery scene than is usually the case.

    Bonus for me: in the audience at the matinee performance was none other than Isaac Asimov, very unmistakable with his muttonchop sideburns.

  • Kit

    This version of Hamlet is on my to-see list, although I’ve never come across it in person. I love Kevin Kline and imagine I will love his Hamlet, too.

    Currently, my favorite Hamlet (and I am a Hamlet junkie) is the BBC version with Sir Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. Also staged with minimal sets, this version has Hamlet speaking his soliloquies directly to the audience, which makes the experience that much more powerful.

    Geek Trivia: Who played Claudius? Patrick Stewart (with really funny looking hair)!

  • MaryAnn

    That one’s on my list to cover, too.

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