Hamlet (2009)

aka The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

2009 #90
Gregory Doran | 183 mins | TV | 12

Hamlet (2009)It doesn’t seem like 18 months since the RSC brought Hamlet to the stage with British TV’s biggest star actor (probably) as the titular Dane, but it is (more or less). Thanks to sold-out performances and largely positive reviews (theatre critics seem even less keen to agree on anything than film ones), we’re now treated to this film adaptation, shown on BBC Two on Boxing Day and released on DVD (but not Blu-ray, boo*) earlier this week.

Hamlet hangs primarily on its central performance — so we’re constantly told, anyway; this being only the second production I’ve seen I can’t confidently assert so for myself, but I can certainly see where the consensus comes from. Equally, I can’t accurately compare David Tennant’s performance to any other, which often seems to be a central consideration in any review of the play. In near-isolation, however, it’s a thoroughly convincing performance. He glides seamlessly from withdrawn and grief-stricken in his first appearance, to intrigued and excited by the ghost of his father, to clever and wily as he plots, and finally to an alternation between assumed madness and serious introspection as he enacts his plans.

Any number of scenes show off Tennant’s abilities, particularly the way he treats other characters. He resolutely takes the piss out of both Polonius and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, but plays each in subtly different ways: the former is like someone intelligent teasing with someone who doesn’t get it, which sounds distasteful but is enjoyable because of Polonius’ plotting and influence; while the latter is like a cat toying with a pair of treacherous mice, who are aware they’ve been caught out but struggle on regardless. Hamlet’s pair of ‘friends’ can be seen as insignificant characters by some — it’s part of what led Tom Stoppard to pen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, after all — but with a few silent additions around Shakespeare’s dialogue and the way Tennant, Sam Alexander and Tom Davey choose to play the original lines, their roles seem to have increased importance.

The other notable facet of Tennant’s interpretation of the character is humour. Hamlet’s madness here is almost unrelentingly funny — even in deadly serious situations, like capture following a murder, Tennant’s Hamlet can’t resist taunting the other characters, keeping the viewer onside by keeping his apparent insanity entertaining rather than scary or darkly intense. If anything, however, this screen version fails to capture just how funny Tennant was on stage. Perhaps it’s the loss of a bigger audience, or the energy of performing on stage, or perhaps Tennant has reined in, switching from Stage Acting to Screen Acting. He’s still funny, certainly, but its not as striking as it was live. In fact, more laughs are earnt by Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. As his lines dither on like many a real forgetful old man, it’s difficult to imagine the part played any other way.

The other stand-out is an award-winning Patrick Stewart in the dual role of Claudius and the Ghost, though the fact he plays both feels relatively insignificant. His cool politician of a King makes a perfect contrast to the crazed energy of the Prince, the latter constantly bounding around while the former remains still and collected. In my view it’s a shame Stewart has a beard in the filmed version (a necessity forced by his concurrent appearance in Waiting for Godot, I believe) — on stage he was clean-shaven and therefore somehow more reminiscent of numerous other political villains, both real and fictional, whereas his bearded visage is more reminiscent of a traditional Kingly role. Still, it’s a minor aesthetic point that doesn’t hamper his wonderful performance.

Director of the original stage production, Greg Doran, also helms this version. It’s a convincing adaptation too, making good use of sets, locations and, vitally, camerawork, rather than employing static shots of the original theatrical blocking. A quick shoot (18 days for an over-three-hours film) and single location combine to reduce the number of on-screen locations, unfortunately, though the main set is fairly well rearranged to stand in for a number of rooms. It does branch out occasionally, but it’s a shame this couldn’t have been done more often, as consecutive scenes on the same slightly-redressed main set occasionally confuse whether we’ve changed location or not.

Doran’s main screen gimmick, however, is security cameras. Every so often our viewpoint switches to a grainy black & white high angle as we survey the scene via CCTV. It’s a neat idea to convey the concept of Elsinore as a place where everyone is under constant scrutiny, and it’s occasionally used very well indeed — during the Ghost’s appearance to Hamlet, for example, or when he rips a camera down to declare “now I am alone”. Unfortunately, it’s not as consistently thought-out as one might like. When Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, they do so from behind a two-way mirror (as in Branagh’s film, incidentally) rather than, say, from a control room with a bank of security monitors, an idea which seems to naturally flow from the presence of CCTV. Following this, when Polonius talks to Hamlet he delivers several asides to camera — not the security camera, mind, just to the audience. It would have been more effective to have him offer them to a security camera, knowing Claudius to be viewing in another room. It’s moments like these that turn the omnipresent video surveillance from a clever idea to little more than a gimmick. And by the time it’s cut to during the climactic sword fight, you just want it to go away.

It’s almost certain that this production will be remembered as “The Doctor Who Hamlet” thanks to its leading man. Whether that’s unfair or not is another debate, though it shouldn’t mean this version goes ignored. Tennant’s excellent performance reminds us that he was an accomplished performer with the RSC long before he gained televisual fame, and a strong supporting cast ensure this can’t just be dismissed as a popularity-seeking vanity venture by the RSC. Indeed, if there’s one good thing about the “Doctor Who Hamlet” label, it’s that the potential viewership is increased massively, bringing some to Shakespeare who never would have bothered otherwise. Surely no true theatre aficionado could argue with that.

4 out of 5

* A Blu-ray was eventually released in April 2010. ^

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