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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

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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