26/12/09, BBC 2
A Boxing Day telly version of the RSC's recent Hamlet starring the BBC's current superstar, David Tennant (who was all over the Christmas schedules in everything from this and Doctor Who to Desert Island Discs), thus giving those of us who missed it in the theatre (because we couldn't get tickets or because he got ill at the start of the London run and had to withdraw) a chance to see what all the fuss was about.
Penelope, whose enthusiasm for Tennant knows no bounds, has penned a review which I shall paste in immediately below. Before reading it I'll say that Tennant makes a fine Hamlet, and catches the man's antic disposition perfectly, pretending madness with tremendous wit and playfulness. He picks the text apart with almost Russell Beale-like intelligence, but lacks Russell Beale's way with the soliloquies: the superlative Simon seemed to me making it up as he went along, a Renaissance humanist philosopher at once fascinated and appalled by the directions his introspection took him in; the divine David looked tortured and spoke the lines prettily, but remained just a fine actor acting. But I did get a powerful sense from this production of just how impossible Hamlet finds action, and quite what a dreadful king that would have made him: both his father and his uncle would, you feel, have had Claudius for toast within 24 hours of the chat with the ghost.
Patrick Stewart was an equally fine and Machiavellian Claudius (I especially liked his "so it goes" little shrug when presented in the final scene with the poisoned cup); Penny Downie was a sexy Gertrude; Oliver Ford Davies a simply marvellous and definitive Polonius.
Greg Doran the director seemed to have made minimal changes for television, and those he had presumably made weren't entirely helpful. The occasional shots through Big Brother CCTV cameras didn't quite fit with the 1960s dress of the court and Hamlet's business with an 8mm cine camera during the play scene (we saw part of the play through Hamlet's camera too). But then Tennant's jeans, trainers and beanie hat in the graveyard scene, in which he looked every inch the noughties student, didn't fit with the prevailing aesthetic either and that, to judge from the publicity photos, was in the original stage production.
And it was a brave decision, I thought, given that this was family viewing time at Christmas, to leave in Tennant's shamelessly blunt take on the Elizabethan double meaning in "country matters". I wonder if they'll get complaints.
And now here's Penelope:
Hamlet was the first production I saw this year, twice, and so it’s fitting for me that it should also be the last, this time on television. One of the many magical things about theatre is that it’s live – the action unfolds in front of you. So, I was slightly apprehensive watching this production – filmed over several weeks this summer and reuniting the principal members of the RSC cast. But every time I see Hamlet, my understanding of the play is enhanced. This managed the delicate balancing act of TV and theatre without a false or clumsy note. The stage is replaced by a handful of key sites, but the essence of the original production remains; all smoke and mirrors, glitzy chandeliers, gorgeous costumes and a sense of impending doom. Added to this is a new theme of surveillance. Hamlet is often watched, and often by those who wish him harm. So there are CCTV cameras everywhere and the audience becomes the camera’s eye at several key moments. As a device, I thought it worked well.
David Tennant is Hamlet. And it’s an extraordinary performance. In the theatre, you get a distant view of the actors and you see them from only one perspective. In television, you get close ups and see them from different angles. In this case, it really helps the storytelling. Tennant has the range for Hamlet – at times quiet and tender, anguished, confused, outraged and in feigning madness. He acts with his entire body, not just that hyper-expressive face but with arms and legs too. During the ‘coward speech’ where he’s trying to decide how to deal with Claudius, he moves around the set, bare foot, waving his arms, beating his chest, covering his face while talking about his dear murdered father. Hamlets are judged by how they deliver the famous “To be or not to be speech”. I thought it was an incredibly brave decision by the director, Gregory Doran, to film the beginning of this from behind, in silhouette. So as Tennant, very quietly, starts “To be…..” we can’t see his full face. What we have are the words. And they are such powerful words. Hamlet is wretched, he cannot decide if it’s better to live or die. As he starts to ruminate about sleep and death, the camera turns to his face and Tennant looks and it (and us) as he talks about shuffling off this mortal coil. The effect was breathtaking.
Hamlet pretends to be mad in order to expose Claudius as his father’s killer. Claudius (and the father) are both again played be Patrick Stewart, who is majestic, and makes Shakespearean verse sound like normal speech. Polonius has to be one of the most irritating and amusing characters and Oliver Ford Davies accomplishes both wit and grief with aplomb. I found myself once more enjoying Peter de Jersey as the ever faithful Horatio and Mariah Gale shines as Ophelia.
Betrayal, madness, murder, loyalty and love – these are the central themes of the play. Many of the play’s central characters are dead by the end. As Hamlet lies dying in the arms of Horatio, Tennant should be able to wring a tear from the hardest heart with “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story”.
Hamlet may not be conventional Boxing Day fare, but this production is very special. One can only hope that the RSC and David Tennant are reunited before too long.