To Be on TV
Suspense! Murder! Intrigue! Deception! Ghosts! “I think Hamlet is a thriller,” director Greg Doran says in the featurette documenting the making of this stage-to-screen adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008 production starring David Tennant. (It aired on the BBC and PBS and has finally arrived on Region 1 DVD; it’s been available in Region 2 since the beginning of the year.) And a thriller is exactly what this surprisingly cinematic version feels like, even more so than the stage version did.
I saw a performance of that stage production in September 2008, and I found it startlingly modern and thriller-esque already. Everything I wrote about it then — from Tennant’s spontaneous, offhand performance to the palpably contemporary psychology to how thrilling it is to see Gertrude (Penny Downie) and Ophelia (Mariah Gale) reinterpreted as such strong characters — remains true on the screen. But Doran didn’t simply mount his stage production in front of television cameras, substituting electronic eyes for human ones: he brings the cameras into the action in a way that theater cannot do, yet without sacrificing the theatrical sense of it. Tennant was electrifying onstage, in part because he seemed to make a particular point of making eye contact with members of the audience, bringing us into the action and the mood; he wasn’t just talking for us but to us. But I was taken completely aback when, in his first soliloquy, the “too too solid flesh” speech, he suddenly makes eye contact with the camera — it re-creates the theatrical intimacy of the smallish Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, with its thrust stage that brings the audience into the play.
But Doran does other things that can only be done on camera. He gives us a few cinematic flourishes (just a few; this is emphatically not a movie but a superb hybrid of theater and film): a quick cut here and there; an angle impossible onstage, looking down on soldiers looking up at a helicopter. He lets us see some action through the surveillance cameras of Elsinore castle: this production was already very much modern dress — Hamlet is wearing
jeans and a T-shirt a tux when he offs poor Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) with a handgun — but this unexpected perspective underscores a theme that was particularly emphasized in the production, that this is a story about the difference between our public faces and our private ones, and about how people behave differently when they know they’re being watched (and when they don’t know they’re being watched). Most exhilarating is how Doran puts a Super 8 camera in Hamlet’s hands to highlight that character’s observations of others: while he watching his uncle-the-king, Claudius (Patrick Stewart), during the play-within-the-play for hints of guilt over his presumed murder of Hamlet’s father-the-king, Hamlet watches through the lens of that camera. Later, that same camera records another of Hamlet’s soliloquys as a sort of video diary. It’s Hamlet as a blogger. It’s brilliant.
Tennant’s performance takes on new tenors, too, because of the closeness of the camera: he almost whispers the “to be or not to be” speech, which he can do because the camera is right in his face… and hence, so are we. Hamlet’s monologue as he contemplates whether he can kill Claudius becomes internalized, a voiceover.
It’s all far more wonderfully dynamic than I was ever expecting it could be, both capturing the feel of the stage production while taking advantage of the possibilities of television, too. In fact, the only thing truly missing here is the one thing that onstage felt very television — it felt very Doctor Who, actually, which I’m sure was not unintentional. It was where Doran placed his intermission, and it’s missing, of course, because no intermission is required for TV and to artificially insert one would have ruined the lovely flow of it all.
This is where it came:
Hamlet comes upon his uncle praying, and he sneaks up behind Claudius intent on murdering him, to avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet raises his dagger… and here in the theater the lights went out for intermission. If you’re not already intimately familiar with the story of Hamlet, it’s impossible to convey how unbelievably thrilling this “cliffhanger” was. Because of course I knew exactly how this scene would resolve itself, and still I found myself transfixed with suspense: the entirety of the production was that fresh and that involving.
And it still is.