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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

to be or not to be: Derek Jacobi as Hamlet

To be or not to be? Is there a third choice somewhere in the middle? I’m astonished to discover that I’m not crazy about this Hamlet, either the production on the whole or Jacobi as the melancholy Dane. Though much of that is a function of the production values of the time and my own biases, not Jacobi’s performance. Because I feel I must make it clear now that I think the man is a genius. But even geniuses aren’t always, you know, genius. School for the Gifted, right?

Not that I’m suggesting that there isn’t tons and tons of interesting stuff here. Like Marcellus, one of the guards who witnesses the manifestation of the ghost of the murdered king. He delivers that speech about how no planets strike and no witch hath power to charm like I’ve never seen before. Most productions have Marcellus intone this awesome news of a ghost — a ghost! — in very solemn tones. But with this Marcellus, it’s like he’s telling Hamlet, “Oh. My. God. Dude, you’ve gotta hear this! This is the coolest thing evah!” Which is kinda neat.
And then there’s this: Ophelia is Romana. Romanadvoratreludar, Time Lady of Gallifrey:

I mean, it’s actress Lalla Ward, who also played the second incarnation of Romana, companion to the fourth Doctor (Who). And Ward is excellent here as Ophelia. But I’m such a dork that I couldn’t help but see a little bit of Romana, too.

Which brings me to this: this is a BBC production shot on video on a BBC stage in 1980. It looks, to my eye, like an episode of classic Doctor Who:

Which of course sends me off on all sorts of wild tangents. Like what if this were an episode of Doctor Who? The TARDIS lands in medieval Denmark, and there’s a “ghost” who’s bothering people but maybe it’s really an alien, or a robot from the future, or…

I know: I’m so bad. I can’t help it.

I got the first weird vibe off this Hamlet when Jacobi started making eye contact with the camera during his big speeches:

It’s a bit… bizarre. It’s breaking the fourth wall. This might — might — work in an actual theater, to make eye contact with a member of the audience, but on film or video it shatters the illusion that you’re eavesdropping on events. I felt like I was being lectured during the “to be or not to be speech” — I felt like I was being sermonized at:

And I’m not sure I, as a member of the audience, should be present in the story at all.

That said, there are other fascinating aspects to this production. Jacobi’s Hamlet is not so much mad or griefstricken as he is simply peeved, bored with the provincialism of Elsinore. It makes me want to imagine that if Hamlet had just gone back to school after his mother’s remarriage and Claudius’s ascending the throne, he would have been fine.

On other hand, though, because this is an unabridged production of the play, two scenes that are often removed in the interests of time are found here: the one in which Hamlet talks about sending his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths — which Jacobi does without any hint of remorse or regret — and the scene in which their deaths are announced. It makes this Hamlet a lot harder and colder, especially combined with the lack of genuine madness, than other productions would have. It makes him a lot less sympathetic than he often is… when even that sympathy is typically pretty hard-won.

Ah, the 80s. Love the Luke Skywalker shag:

Though he’s also got a Han Solo thing goin’ on:

Oh, and how could I forget Patrick Stewart as Claudius (who is reprising the role in the David Tennant RSC production I’ll see later this month):

Love the Tudor theme! If Henry VIII could kill his wives, why not another Tudor-esque king who kills his brother? Familial homicide! It’s fun! (With Sir Thomas More as Polonius!)

Jacobi does go a bit over the top, as an actor. What a drama queen:

But he really wants to direct:

Dude, you look like you’ve seen a ghost:

Alas, poor Yorick:

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

MPAA: not rated

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