Hamlet. BBC/RSC/illuminations. 2009.

I never got to see David Tennant’s Hamlet on stage so I was very pleased to see it on film. It is beautifully shot, mostly in a sumptuous ballroom location, with some lovely camera work, using close ups, asides to camera, and a cracked mirror to great visual effect. There is no weak link in the cast, although I was a little disappointed by Mariah Gale as Ophelia. She looks beautiful but sometimes lacks conviction, and her mad scene is rather too beautiful for my taste. The gravedigger could have found more depth in his part too. Penny Downie and Patrick Stewart, both hugely experienced classical actors, are excellent as Gertrude and Claudius and work extremely well together using body language and eye contact to suggest the details of a relationship which are not always laid out in the text. Oliver Ford-Davies makes a very good Polonius, an aging man who is fighting against the fact that he is beginning to be seen as an old dodderer by his children and some of those at court but still has the capacity to be dangerous. My favourite performance was that of Edward Bennett as Laertes, heartfelt and believable, a loyal brother and dutiful son who is never in any danger of thinking too precisely on the event.

As Hamlet himself David Tennant starts off very well. He has an intensity as an actor which works well for him in the early part of the play and he is believable as a grieving son who has been pushed over the edge by the loss of his father and the behaviour of Gertrude and Claudius. The early soliloquies are very well handled and are beautifully shot in close up. He reins himself in and we are drawn into his grief and confusion. Later on, as he feigns madness and begins to toy with the people around him I found him rather too manic and lost that intense identification with him that I felt at the start- for me it became a performance full of sound and fury which didn’t signify nearly enough. We need to see Hamlet as we see him at the beginning from time to time as a foil to his game playing and I didn’t feel that we quite did. Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I started beautifully as Hamlet destroyed the security camera which had shown us some of the action and flung himself down on the floor to think, but it ended in a rush of activity and gesture which I could have done without. There are some beautiful directorial touches which are carefully preserved in the film and I admire Greg Doran’s work very much but I would have been tempted to rein his star in a bit and let the fierce intensity which David Tennant can project do the job. Shouting and running around pulling faces is no substitute for his natural presence as an actor. It may well have worked better on a large stage where there was plenty of empty space for him to fill. A very good Hamlet then, but not a great one.

Having said all that any production of Hamlet is always something of a curates egg in that however it is approached there will always be gains and losses. The Player King and his troupe suffered a little from the way that they had to slot into the whole style of the production and John Woodvine- a very talented and experienced Shakespearian- was not able to run at his part with relish as he might have done in a different production. For me this production had a lot to enjoy but didn’t quite hit the mark. I always come away from Hamlet feeling that- it’s one of the reasons why it is worth going back to it- so that doesn’t take away the fact that I enjoyed it very much and I am very glad that it has been recorded so skilfully on film.

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3 comments on “Hamlet. BBC/RSC/illuminations. 2009.

  1. Catherine says:

    I’ll forgive David Tennant’s Hamlet anything for the gravedigger scene. I’ve never before seen a production of Hamlet where I felt that Yorick was ever a real, living man. How can you feel his death — and therefore Death — if Yorick never lived? The definition of Yorick is that he’s a skull. I knew Yorick was a skull long before I knew he figured in a play called Hamlet. As a child in the ’50’s I declaimed Alas poor Yorick for laughs while holding rocks and Halloween skulls and dolls’ heads. What a tough job for an actor, to convince me that Yorick was ever alive. I’ve seen Hamlets who recited the lines beautifully. I’ve seen Hamlets who looked marvelously pensive while reciting. David Tennant made Yorick live. Unpacking all of his performance would take too much space here but it was brilliant. Life and death were present and accounted for and held in tension — that living movement of the eyeless skull in Hamlet’s hands, to give just one example.
    The DVD was apparently shot very fast. With more time Tennant might have worked out a more nuanced performance for the second half of the play. But he gets a pass on the scenes that could have been a bit better when I think of the scenes that were just astonishingly right.

  2. patricia1957 says:

    Thanks for your response Catherine. I thought that he was just wonderful in the early part of the play. It is so fascinating to watch different actors tackle the part. I wonder if there will ever be someone who gets it exactly right? My guess is certainly not- and that’s what makes it Hamlet.

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