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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

to be or not to be: David Tennant as Hamlet

To be — there is no question. David Tennant’s Hamlet is thrilling… and not just because I’m a fan of the actor. His Hamlet is our Hamlet: a spin on the Prince of Denmark with a palpable GenX vibe. He’s snarky and self-deprecating: he hates himself, but he hates everyone else, too. He’s peeved not to be taken seriously but isn’t at all surprised when he isn’t (all his interactions with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a kind of resigned inevitability to them). He’s lost but he’s hopeful. He’s sane but he’s overwhelmed. But everything’s not gonna be fine, fine, fine. He’s got one hand in his pocket, and the other one is flipping off the world.

Tennant’s Hamlet feels offhand, spontaneous, and natural. I listened to another playgoer who saw the same performance I did complain that she was disappointed that he did not speak in verse, and I thought, What?! All I can figure is that she wanted to see him declaiming his lines with a distinct iambic pentameter rhythm, as if he were reciting them instead of living them. I infinitely prefer a Hamlet like this one: Tennant curls up on the floor, overcome with grief, to deliver the “oh that this too too solid flesh would melt” soliloquy, as if he can barely articulate his own sorrow; he wanders the stage in old jeans and a ragged T-shirt to wonder over the option of being or not-being as if he’s just discovering the concept that offing himself might be the answer to all his problems.

And how’s this for an ironic GenX twist? The generation that always gets the short end of the stick gets a Hamlet who gets the short end of the stick: We cannot say the triumph that is this Hamlet is Tennant’s alone. Of course, that’s always true — a play, even one so centered on a single character as this one, even one that rises or falls on the performance of the actor in that role — cannot exist without the other characters who make up his world, without the other actors who support him. But I’ve never felt that more about Hamlet than I did with this production. With, for instance, Mariah Gale’s astonishing Ophelia — the strongest, most forceful interpretation of the character I’ve ever seen — Tennant creates a sense of a preexisting relationship, one perhaps not merely romantic in a remote way: with just a touch between them at the end of the first court scene, a sort of intimate expression of solidarity, they hint at a more physical relationship than the play usually suggests. (Her scene with Laertes [Edward Bennett], when he’s departing for France, contains a delicious bit of prop comedy that indicates she’s no innocent.) Which also suggests that he’s being more than unreasonable later on, when he denies all feelings for her — this Ophelia cannot possibly have misinterpreted their relationship, and has every right to be angry with him… and she is. No delicate flower, Gale’s Ophelia is bitter and raging, almost more so than Hamlet himself.

Ophelia’s insanity here, in fact, almost feels like a kind of outlet through which Hamlet’s pretense expresses itself as genuine. For this Hamlet is not mad. Not at all. Not even in the end. He may be deluded: Patrick Stewart delivers that bit as the Ghost, in which he laments how unexcellent a man and unworthy a king his brother is, no match for Hamlet Sr.’s own distinction, with the kind of bombast that makes him sound like an unworthy and unexcellent braggart. It’s funny, how we suddenly see the dead king as a man with deficiencies of his own, but it also suggests that Hamlet doesn’t appreciate how wrong he may be about his father.

Hamlet does, at least, have the sense to wonder whether to believe the Ghost’s accusations of murder — he doesn’t truly suspect Claudius until the play-within-the-play. And why should he? This Claudius is a cheerful politician, but a bit dim: his Gertrude (Penny Downie) is the power behind the throne — giving another more dynamic thrust to the female characters here — whispering in his ear, guiding everything he does. It’s astonishing that Patrick Stewart, reprising Claudius from Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet, is completely different here than he was there. It’s even more astonishing that we can suddenly wonder whether it wasn’t Gertrude herself who instigated the murder of her husband.

I could go on and on: it was positively electric, watching this production of Hamlet, because I felt like I was seeing all sorts of new things in it. (I’m so glad I read the play half a dozen times over the last few months, and that I watched so many movie versions of it: it absolutely deepened my enjoyment of this one.) This is the funniest, bawdiest Hamlet I’ve ever seen — the dumbshow players are a riot; there is no punning, just straight-up vulgarity-with-a-point on the “country matters” line. I’ve never felt more that this is a play about perception: how we see ourselves, how others see us, how what we think about those things impacts how we act. (The T-shirt Hamlet wears for the “to be or not to be” solliloquy? It’s one of those printed with fake six-pack abs, as if the skinny Tennant-Hamlet is trying to project an image that is stronger than he feels. The pictures of his father and Claudius that Hamlet demands Gertrude consider are photos in a newspaper, far more public projections than the personal mementoes usually used in the scene.)

Ah, gods, there’s suspense in this Hamlet: When Hamlet, in this faux middlish 20th-century modern-dress staging, accidentally kills Polonius, he shoots him with a gun… it made me wonder for the whole rest of the play: Will his duel with Laertes at the end be with guns? As the first half of the show began to linger on longer than I thought it would, I began to wonder at which point director Gregory Doran had placed his intermission… and where it came is shocking. It’s truly a cliffhanger, and even if you know the play, you’re left with a sense — at least for the 20 minutes of the interval — that things might actually go in a different direction than we think they will.

Alas, poor Yorick:

How Tennant delivers this speech is wonderfully indicative of the ethos of his Hamlet: emotional but practical. He mourns his old friend and wonders at the strangeness of death, but in a “huh, whaddaya know, ain’t life weird” kind of way.

I attended the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran, on Friday, September 26, 2008, at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. See the RSC’s site for more information on the production.

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

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  • CMartin

    Thanks for this detailed review. Enjoyed it a lot. Grew up with my dad taking the family to live Shakespeare performances and have loved it ever since. Really was hoping to see the current RSC one, but circumstances (my dad’s death, actually) meant that I wasn’t paying attention when they all sold out and it’s probably unwise to fly over to London and hope to get a ticket in this economy. Still, your review made me entertain that possibility once again. Sigh.

  • t6

    That was a great piece of writing MAJ! Thanks for that!

  • SoniaDee

    Yes! I must say I agree with everything you so beautifully wrote. I remember at the end of the play thinking- huh, I forgot that Hamlet could be funny. And while everyone was wonderful, DT left me feeling so rewarded for having been present at the performance. Thanks for that review, you hit the nail on the head.

    And now I’m really sad I can’t go back and see it over and over again. :-)

  • melinda

    I enjoyed the show – but found it a bit problematic – not the best Hamlet i’ve seen. Here is my review…

    “The show was very good – not mind-blowing or flawless by any means. It was too…light – the humor very hammy/silly which I felt was ok for some bits – but detracted from the overall feel of the play. Tennant did shine with the serious moments – but his hammy goofiness became a bit distracting. He and the actress playing Ophelia had ZERO chemistry and her character made very little sense because of it – you never saw her tormented by Hamlet’s on/offness – because he really didn’t do the on/offness – like i said, too much hammy humor not enough pathos.”

    though i loved their quick hand-squeeze at the end of the first court scene – i thought that would be a sign of more to come – but instead it was almost like a red herring, given the rest of their scenes together. I’m glad you enjoyed it though. My friend who I saw it with had never seen Hamlet before – and had no idea who David Tennant was – and we pretty much agreed that it was very good – but not incredible.

  • Katie

    Oh I’m so jealous. Thank you so much for the wonderful write up. It always pains me when I read such great write ups of plays because I know I can’t just Netflix a copy of them. And this one I would dearly love to see.

    So glad your having such a wonderful time.

  • Poly in London

    This production of Hamlet plays as a new play. For all the media hype, there is purity (everyone serves the story) and richness to it (every line, every relationship is alive). It’s also a great ensemble piece, because this Hamlet, despite his alienation, is defined by his relationships. He is not alienated because he doesn’t care about relationships, he is alienated because his relationships don’t give him what he needs. Especially his relationship to his parents is full of need, love, resentment and fear. He is afraid of his father, not only because his father is a ghost, but because he has always been afraid of his father.

    I loved the scene at Gertrude’s bedroom: raw, bold, I was afraid of Hamlet and afraid for him.

    MaryAnn said: “The T-shirt Hamlet wears for the “to be or not to be” solliloquy? It’s one of those printed with fake six-pack abs, as if the skinny Tennant-Hamlet is trying to project an image that is stronger than he feels.”

    It also makes him look very vulnerable, like he is transparent, like the bones you imagine on his skinny frame are really visible.

  • melinda

    “(The T-shirt Hamlet wears for the “to be or not to be” solliloquy? It’s one of those printed with fake six-pack abs, as if the skinny Tennant-Hamlet is trying to project an image that is stronger than he feels.”

    that’s funny – in mine he was wearing a red-shirt with his rib-cage/skeleton printed on it in black.

  • Thanks, that sounded terrific!

  • Kate

    CMartin: My condolences on your loss.

  • Magess


    Either bring the production to NY or film it, guys. There’s a whole bunch of us who really really want to see…

  • Great review, MaryAnn; all the preparation you did for this really shows.

  • “that’s funny – in mine he was wearing a red-shirt with his rib-cage/skeleton printed on it in black.”

    On 17 Sep when I saw it, that was the one he had. A GenX momento mori, I thought.

  • SoniaDee

    Magess, I think you’re on to something there. We’re in need of DVDs of a performance, no?

  • Weimlady

    Write to the RSC–real letters, not phone calls, not e-mails–and politely ask them to make a mint for their building fund by selling DVDs of David’s Hamlet and Love’s Labours Lost.

    Even in this age, every real letter received counts for dozens of more ephemeral communications. At least, it does where I work. If someone actually goes to the trouble of writing it on paper and putting it in the post, they’re serious about it.

    Royal Shakespeare Company
    The Courtyard Theatre
    Southern Lane
    CV37 6BB

    Allons-y! Do it! :-)

  • SoniaDee

    Makes sense to me, I’m in.

  • Weimlady

    Actually, let’s go for the gold–ask them to make a box set of all of David’s RSC work (which, per Poly in London, they keep in the form of archive tapes).

    Wouldn’t you also love to see him in Romeo & Juliet? As You Like It? Comedy of Errors?

    I’d support their building fund in a big way for five(count ’em, FIVE) doses of David in Shakespeare!

  • SoniaDee

    Oh my. If they have archive tapes, then I need to get my hands on those! I mean, they’d make a killing so it’s a win-win.

  • Weimlady

    Exactly, SoniaDee! Poly said that you can watch the archive tapes there upon request. I checked with the National Theatre and they have archive tapes of him in The Pillowman (which I would dearly love to see) which you can also see on site only unfortunately and upon request.

  • NorthernStar

    I feel so privaleged to have seen this. From the moment DT has his first soliloquy, I knew I was watching not just a great performance (I expected that) but one that would be remembered for years to come. It *hurt* to watch him.

    The atmosphere in this play was just incredible, using the stark empty stage to great effect. The opening scenes were so atmospheric and the gunshot scene was amazing.

    I studied the play for A-levels (a loooong time ago) and re-read the play to prepare for our visit and yet so much was surprising. I had worried that knowing as much as I did beforehand would take away from the immediacy of the moment but the performances were so vivid I just got carried along.

    My daughter enjoyed seeing DT but didn’t understand why everyone considers this Mr Shakespeares best since almost everyone dies but getting DT’s autograph made her night.

    It feels base to mention it but DT’s waist making a guest appearance….yummy!

  • SoniaDee

    haha, NorthernStar, I totally now what you mean about the waist and I don’t think anyone can blame you for noticing/mentioning it!

  • The Telegraph is reporting that a deal to record Tennant’s Hamlet properly for posterity (and not with a fixed single camera, the way the RSC normally does) fell through.


  • Gee

    Ha! Proper Dave – you just beat me to this article and its sad news.

    Instead, then, here’s a review of Hamlet for Tennant’s performance last night. The RSC found a few seats for the critics and the Telegraph’s conclusion is:

    “With not a single weak performance in the supporting roles, and a modern-dress staging by Gregory Doran that achieves the hurtling intensity of a thriller, this is now without doubt one of the finest productions of Hamlet I have ever seen, led by an actor of courage and charisma who has made a persuasive claim to true greatness.”


    I’m going to see this tonight! So, so excited!

  • Mo

    Aw man, I was hoping they would film it. If it’s as good as everyone says it is, it’s worth saving.

  • Poly in London

    Last October, I was in a Q&A with Oliver Ford Davies and he said that discussions for a dvd had taken place but had fallen through. My feeling is that, given recent events (DT missing most of the London performances and coming back to extraordinary reviews, the press starting to talk about a dvd) the RSC will try again. I hope that the Telegraph blog was referring to not so recents events and to the deal that fell through as far back as in October.

    In any case, some people started an online petition that received a tentantively encouraging response by Michael Boyd (artistic director of the RSC) and that was when the number of signatures were in the hundreds. Right now, the number of signatures is more than 4000. Also, The Stage paper will carry an ad for the petition next week. You can sign it if you want.

  • Katie Dvorak

    Thanks for the link Poly. I just went and signed. As someone who won’t get to see the production live I would love the chance to see it on DVD.

  • Poly, thanks from me too. I was aware of the petition but hadn’t signed, as I don’t bother to sign most online petitions because I figure they’re just cyberwanking and go nowhere. But since you said that Michael Boyd actually was aware of this one, and the press are going to be pushing it, I signed. Hard to do with fingers crossed, but I managed it.

  • I met Peter De Jersey (Horatio) after seeing the play last week. He said that there was interest in doing a DVD, but it greatly depended on finding the time in everyone’s schedules. I imagine it will be harder now that the production has ended and various people are off to other non-RSC projects.

  • Poly in London


    For anyone who in interested in the petition: it’s well above 5000 signatures and it has attracted attention by mainstream media.

    Dominic Cavendish, theatre writer at the Telegraph (one of the UK broadsheets) has been championing it:

    And the Telegraph put a link to his blog from its homepage (under Editor’s Choice):

    Theatre Voice
    and http://www.whatsonstage.com have posted news items.

  • MA–You going to see Jude Law’s Hamlet on B’way so you can give us a compare/contrast review to DT’s?

    Have you heard of the bru-ha-ha about his comments about DT’s Hamlet on Jimmy Fallon? According to him, DT was worried about being upstaged by the skull. *eye roll*

  • Sorry, keep double posting because I can’t modify a comment. *grr*

    Here’s what Law is quoted as saying here:

    “There was another production recently of Hamlet in London and the skull they used belonged to a guy who had been in the theatre and he had bequeathed it after he died to be used in the production,” Law said. “There was a lot of press about it and the guy who was playing Hamlet got a bit fed up with the way the skull was upstaging him, so he changed the skull.”

    The fangirls are up in arms, as you can imagine. Doesn’t help that the writer throws in this comment at the end of the article:

    “Law might have got the wrong end of the stick, but one must give him credit for at least turning up for his opening night. The former Doctor Who star was, by contrast, indisposed the night his Hamlet opened in London.”

    Of course, David’s “indisposition” was back surgery.

  • “There was another production recently of Hamlet in London and the skull they used belonged to a guy who had been in the theatre and he had bequeathed it after he died to be used in the production,” Law said. ”

    sounds as if Jude Law was watching the Hamlet series of “Slings & Arrows” before doing his show. that situation is exactly reflected when Oliver’s will stipulates that his skull be used in a production of Hamlet, and the new artistic director, Geoffery Tennant (yes, same last name — interesting, eh?) does exactly that, then goes on to keep the skull in his office.

    yes, having back surgery was extremely inconvenient and very naughty of david tennant; does he not know the theatre creed “the show must go on”? it just doesn’t have to go on with that particular actor.

  • Gee

    Well, there was coverage of the skull used in the RSC production, so I’m sure it was that Law was referring to and not the ‘Slings and Arrows’ film, particularly since the RSC have clarified that they did indeed continue with the same skull contrary to what Law said.

    I think Law referring to Tennant as “the guy who was playing Hamlet” is pretty ungracious but perhaps he isn’t very articulate so I won’t hold it against him.

    Anyway, this week I’ve ordered my RSC Hamlet DVD from the RSC (and thus get postcard stills of the film with it) plus I’m an RSC member so I get yet more postcard stills! No broadcast date yet for it on the BBC but the RSC have the DVD delivery date after 28 December (amazon is a week later, so it may get pushed back). I just hope the film captures at least some of what I saw on stage.

  • Karen P

    So does anyone know whether the Hamlet DVD will be available in the US? I haven’t heard anything one way or the other yet.

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