to be or not to be: Mel Gibson as Hamlet


Yeah, he’s shouty, like he always is, but I kinda like Mel Gibson as Hamlet. I saw the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli mounting of the story of the Mad Dane years ago and I must admit that it didn’t really make much of an impression on me then, but now, having watched it after seeing a whole bunch of different interpretations of what could be the greatest play ever written… I like it. A lot.

I like how different it is from almost every other production. There’s nothing meta about it — there’s little open to interpretation. Normally, with any other story, that might be a bad thing, but most productions of Hamlet tend toward the ambiguous — is Hamlet crazy, or isn’t he? is he faking? does the faking actually make him crazy? does Gertrude really love Claudius? is she faking in order to secure her position? and so on — so there’s something kinda refreshing about a production that, punning aside, makes no bones about it. Gertrude (Glenn Close) absolutely is hot for the new king (Alan Bates). Hamlet absolutely is totally in control of his faculties, even if he is a moody, sulky bastard. We don’t even get the ghost, at first, don’t get that scene with Horatio and the guards confronting the spectre. You almost suspect, at first, that even the ghost will be dispensed with as nothing more than a fanciful story.
That doesn’t happen, of course — Hamlet eventually does talk with the ghost of his father (Paul Scofield)… but that turns out to be as grounded as a scene from a ghost story can be: I think it’s the most creepy, most horrific depiction of that moment, when the dead king explains to his son how he was murdered, precisely because it seems so real. Everything about this production is real and grounded and earthy. The medieval castle is rough and dirty. Hamlet’s scene with his mother in her chamber seethes with a nasty sexuality. The players are not rarefied artistes but down-to-earth entertainers who juggle and eat fire to amuse their audience before their play. That revelry that Hamlet says is more honored in the breach than in the observance… we actually witness that, when usually we merely hear Hamlet explain it to others.

And there’s that aspect, too: Events that we usually only learn about from one character telling another we actually witness here. Like the Ophelia-sewing-in-her-chamber bit. Shakespeare wrote that as an event that Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter) merely related to her father — you could debate whether it actually really happened or whether she had some ulterior motive in inventing the story (or perhaps she imagined it, even). But the Ophelia-telling-Polonius scene is omitted here in favor of Polonius eavesdropping on the scene and learning of it for himself, which leaves no doubt as to its actuality.

And Polonius? Ian Holm makes him rather more disagreeable than the character usually is: he’s not a doddering but charming old man here, he’s a schemer. He’s angry. Hamlet barely seems upset when he realizes that he has accidentally killed the old man, and you can hardly blame the younger man for it.

Oh, and that to-be-or-not-to-be scene! Set in a crypt?

Perfect for the contemplation of suicide! And yet, this most sane of all Hamlets doesn’t appear to be actually considering suicide, as other Hamlets are. Other Hamlets seem to come to the conclusion during this speech that suicide is off the table, but Gibson’s Hamlet seems to begin it already knowing that he had no intention of offing himself — he seems more to be lamenting the fact that he already believes suicide is not an option, as if it’s his poor fortune to be so thoughtful and introspective.

To agree with that as a valid take on the play, or not to agree, isn’t so much the question for me as is the simple fact that this production made me see things, in its unusual approach to the play, that I’d never seen before. That makes it extremely valuable… and fascinating.

Two more things I love about this production:

The electric moment when you see Hamlet realize how he can use the players to try to catch out his uncle.

Nathaniel Parker as Laertes:

Just cuz he’s so cute.

Alas, poor Yorick:

Get thee to a nunnery:

So angry a Hamlet. I love it.

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

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