Hamlet (review)

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.

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Mark Dujsik
Fri, May 07, 2010 4:46pm

Thanks for the heads up on this. Top of the queue.

Fri, May 07, 2010 7:22pm

Not only did Doran give Hamlet a camera for the play within a play scene, Doran gave David Tennant a film camera. So all the shots that are supposed to be Hamlet filming the action, it’s shots filmed by David Tennant, the actor using the same positions, instincts, motivation and sensibilities that his character would use.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s not important but I think it’s brilliant and so telling of the approach the production has taken.

Fri, May 07, 2010 8:38pm

It also doesn’t hurt that Mr. Tennant has gotten quite adept with using a video camera during his time on Doctor Who, filming an in-depth video diary that was included in the box set of each series he starred in.

Interestingly, though, he is not credited as a cameraman on the film, only as the actor playing Hamlet.

Jo the Hat
Sat, May 08, 2010 6:53am

I’m still extremely jealous that you got to see the live version, but I was completely thrilled by this at Christmas. It should be compulsory viewing for anyone who says Shakespeare is boring.

Sat, May 08, 2010 10:34am

It’s fantastic. And David’s Hamlet is tres sexy in a wonderfully nerdy kind of way.

Sat, May 08, 2010 3:22pm

I don’t know about other PBS stations, but here in NYC (channel 13), they did insert an intermission at the same spot as the stage performance. It wasn’t much of an intermission, barely enough time to go to the bathroom, but it was there and i did find it a bit annoying. I’d read about the intermission placed at this particular point in the stage production, but was quite surprised to see it left in for the TV airing. now i’m curious to find out whose decision it was to leave it in and if other stations did this as well. hmm.
other than that, loved it. the closet scene in particular blew me away. i thought Tennant and Downie were mesmerizing in the range of emotions during that scene. and loved Hamlet’s “goodnight mother!” as he drags Polonious off-stage.