Between His Madness and Grief and Between Grief and His Grave—Ah, Poor Hamlet!

[18 May 2010]

By Christel Loar

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008-2009 season produced a wildly successful staging of Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran and starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. The production was so well-received that the RSC teamed with the BBC to translate it into a film, which was broadcast at Christmas 2009 in the UK and in the spring of 2010 as part of Great Performances on PBS stations in the US. Though there have been several other stage productions starring high profile actors recently (including Jude Law last year and John Simm upcoming later this year, to name two), this RSC rendition has overshadowed them all. Since the release of the film, Tennant’s depiction has been hailed as the definitive Hamlet for a new generation. 

The previous standard bearer is a matter of widely varied opinion. One could spend days debating on the subject simply because there have been such a great many film versions over the years, but that’s part of what makes Shakespeare, and particularly Hamlet, so enduring. From a two-minute French picture made in 1900 starring Sarah Bernhardt as the Danish prince or a 1920 adaptation in which Hamlet is born female but disguised to protect the royal lineage, to the 1948 Olivier classic or the stunning 1964 Russian translation, from Burton and Gielgud or Gibson and Zeffirelli to Ethan Hawke’s modern allegorical effort or Kenneth Branagh’s faithful, and unabridged, four hours, Hamlet is perfectly suited to almost endless alteration and interpretation.

Where Branagh chose to play upon a grand scale, both with lavish sets and costuming, and in the attention paid to the political climate and surrounding consequences, Doran and the RSC opted for a starker setting. The recurring set details of reflective surfaces, cracked mirrors and closed circuit cameras further enhance and enforce themes of introspection and isolation, as well as imparting the paranoia of a police state. Doran also employs a more intimate focus on the characters’ inner workings and interpersonal relationships than most prior directors.

While the 1996 Branagh version is often cited as superior because it is more complete as far as the Bard’s written words than others; unfortunately, it still seems to be lacking something of the spirit of the play in the performances. This newer Hamlet, however, has more in common with the passionate performances of earlier works, such as the 1964 production starring Richard Burton, with Stewart, Penny Downie and Tennant, especially, embodying all the energy and emotion within the words. 

Patrick Stewart has played Claudius on film before (to Sir Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet in the 1980 television production The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), but where that previous portrayal was stern and straight-off-of-the-page in a manner one might expect of an actor 30 years younger, this one is much more nuanced, clearly benefiting both from Stewart’s greater experience, as well as his probable deeper understanding of the play as a whole. That this production also casts Stewart in the role of the Ghost also surely informs his Claudius.

The contrast between the two characters gives Stewart room to breathe a great deal of life, as it were, into the new king. This Claudius is not only commanding and calculating, but he’s open, affable, and even somewhat sympathetic, which makes him all the more sinister a villain. His sly, usurper-king is also a brilliant balance to Tennant’s conflicted prince, his calm, assured demeanor demonstrating how the court could come to trust him, and how easily he might sway even a queen against her own son.   

Queen Gertrude is sometimes portrayed very passively, at least until her final scene, but thankfully, not so here. Penny Downie is formidable, and not a little terrifying at times, as she goes from composed monarch to concerned mother and back again in a blink. In her, the expression of Gertrude’s conflict is as palpable, as affecting, as Hamlet’s, which is wonderful to see.  It is one of the best things about Doran’s staging, as well, that the audience is able to see Gertrude slowly crumble under the weight of her guilt even as the realization of her part in the situation is still yet to come.

The closet scene between Gertrude and Hamlet is harrowing and magnificent! Downie matches Tennant step for spiraling step, perhaps even exceeds him, as tensions escalate until both are tumbling over an emotional edge in an attempt to reconcile something they’ve lost. It is the pivotal scene in this production, and it turns on Downie’s performance. Actually, the whole play does, because for all of the plotting and play-within-a-playing, for all of the melancholy and manipulation, the queen is what links Claudius and Hamlet. More than a dead king and a stolen crown, more than madness and revenge, Gertrude is the point around which they revolve. Her tragedy is that she’s caught between them. 

Hamlet is caught too, of course. Between his duty and his desire. Between love and loyalty. Between his father and mother, and his mother and uncle. Between his madness and grief and between grief and his grave. The ease with which Tennant conveys these torments is astounding. He shoulders the gravity of the darker moments with astonishing intensity. The depth of presence, in the private moments of the soliloquies particularly, is mesmerizing. This is helped and highlighted by the closeness of the cameras and the way they are sometimes directly addressed, but the pathos is purely Tennant, His facility with the language is fabulous, naturally. Not only can he “Speak the speech”, but his delivery gives a clarity to even its most subtle meanings (For all the 15-year-olds out there currently cursing their English teachers, this is the Hamlet that could change your life).

Hamlet’s subterfuge is clear as well, and quite distinct from his true psychosis, as Tennant is quite adept at displaying the varying measures of madness. Yet, as much as there is, the mania isn’t overplayed, like it can be in some productions. It’s not all melancholia in Elsinore, either. Despite what he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet has not lost all his mirth. As you might expect, Tennant excels in this area, plainly delighting in the comical moments, especially the exchanges with Oliver Ford Davies’ pitch-perfect Polonius. Their bandying is brilliant! It’s so refreshing to see two actors getting the tone of that relationship right.

Another relationship this script got right is that of Hamlet and Horatio. Peter De Jersey is excellent. He exudes a quiet confidence as Hamlet’s one true companion, and the feeling of respect and equality is evident in the way the friendship of the two is presented, and in the way their scenes are staged. Not everything in Hamlet hits its mark, however. Laertes, played by Edward Bennett, never seems to feel justified in his rage, and this takes the sting out of his sword, leaving his confession to fall weakly and depriving the fight scene of its necessary tension. Likewise, one feels that Ophelia is never fully committed to her declarations or her own descent (though, this is often a problem with Ophelia, and likely has less to do with Mariah Gale than with Shakespeare), and so both Hamlet and Laertes are robbed of that aspect of their motivations.

Still, this is an exceptional Hamlet, and it truly deserves all the accolades it has received. The principal performances are nothing short of phenomenal and the entire company should be praised for a momentous accomplishment in bringing it from stage to screen. The audio commentary track comes from Doran, producer Sebastian Grant and DP Chris Seager, and it’s interesting to hear them talk about all the little details that you may not have noticed, but which added so much atmosphere to what the actors were doing. It’s also interesting to hear them not talking, as they occasionally get pulled into just watching the performances, too. The Making of Hamlet and an ad for the RSC round out the DVD features.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/125483-hamlet/