Despite largely avoiding Shakespeare at undergraduate level, I taught Hamlet to first-year undergraduates in a very nervous first term in Geneva. This 2009 production, that I watched on the strength of the main actor above any other specific merits, alerted me not only to the skills I have picked up since, but also to a new sense of seeing theatre. Between theatre and film, the traditional and the contemporary, I felt like I was watching something unique.
This Hamlet of 2009 is to tragedy what Shakespeare in Love of 1998 was to comedy (despite the latter, ironically, portraying a tragedy itself). A stage is but a stage, and for all the intricacies brought to the stage, theatrical productions can just be too alike. It has been time to bring the imagination alive again.
The greater the background world, the broader the context. The attempts in the 1990s to picture Shakespeare the wanton young writer struggling for ideas and inspiration, playing off patrons and theatre-owners, reinvigorated Shakespeare in popular culture. True, the exact factual details of Elizabethan theatre went astray. Women did not take to the stage until at least November 1660, when Thomas Jordan’s preface in Othello marked the occasion.
But facts were not important here. What was important was the idea of conjecture, beyond a play that has been performed to death, towards the processes of creation, scripting, performing and building that literary immortality. It is almost as though we could not before imagine the young and impervious Will Shakespeare unless shown to us convincingly before our eyes on screen. (The very same as I would struggle to believe that the metaphysical Marvell would have sported a Hull accent).
Of course, part of that background world, context, and all, is the casting. Shakespeare in Love was cast perfectly. Joseph Fiennes, who continues to be sorely underrated, carried a mischievous twinkle with a profound gaze; Gwyneth Paltrow looked in love with her part; and the BBC comedy crew (Day, Clunes, O’Donnell) with their deadpan sketch expertise brought superb support. Ironically, it is Joseph Fiennes’ brother Ralph who holds the Shakespeare credentials. The sole recipient of a Tony Award for starring as Hamlet on Broadway, he also joins Patrick Stewart in receiving the William Shakespeare Award from the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC.
Patrick Stewart might just have been the interpretive flaw in this version of Hamlet for me. The ghost was perfect; but for me, his brother – the king – was not. Not convincing enough to murder, not cowardly enough, and not guilty enough. I hoped for something approaching an older Macbeth: capable of murder, capable of holding a facade (which Stewart does), and with the capacity for breakdown. The prime candidate, at one thought, would be Antony Sher (partner of Gregory Doran, who directed the adaptation). Claudius is a hard one to place, precisely because we encounter a character who has previously committed murder but only gets exposed for it in the play.
But what Stewart’s stalwart performance does is showcase the very best of David Tennant. Tennant’s Hamlet has it all: the terror, the anguish, the frustration, the sarcasm, and the cunning. Some of Hamlet’s lines in his feigned madness sound as indignant as to bend the copybook of some of Jim Carrey’s slapstick roles (Scene 4.3 in particular). Carrey’s masterful cinematic performances (for where was ‘all the world’s a stage’ more true than The Truman Show?), demonstrate the craft of, as T.S. Eliot puts it, levity intensifying seriousness. Without the Hollywood practice ground, Tennant follows close behind. And with him, he brings a young audience that might otherwise never entertain Shakespeare. Barely has the fate of humanities needed a superhero more.
But this appeal to modernity might just be the key. This type of production, the stage play filmed on location, has barely any precedent. It wins by capturing the popular imagination. It is clear that this is not quite a film, but still too open for theatre. The genre itself is an enigmatic one, and the play – despite its three hour duration – a perfect fit. The maturity of each performance cannot be overestimated. Polonius grew on me: his prattle in the text is more enjoyable than on film, but having that interfering presence everywhere – at home, in the King’s court, in the Queen’s bedchamber – made me realise Ophelia much more as a particularly tragic victim rather than an aimless character. I learnt plenty about the play from watching this that I do not think will be overwritten again.
This production, as with many, has its selective differences, and critics are broadly divided on the merits of the production and of Tennant’s performances on stage. [See a more positive view here, and less so here]. For me, it is a great pity that 3.1.177-178 (Folger) was missing:
Love? His affections not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul…
If we slip the double negative, it implies that Claudius begins to sense more to Hamlet’s behaviour. It is an important insight, particularly given his move to send Hamlet to England, which this production could have envisaged. However, scenes across Acts 2 and 3 were dissected and merged cleverly, giving a pleasing continuity to events (and deserving of more textual treatment than I afford it now). Perhaps the climax was the most controversial moment of interpretation. Hamlet’s physical tussle with his mother in trying to assert his frustration is uncomfortable in itself, but his conscious act of reaching for a gun and firing at the hidden Polonius, rather than an instinctive reaction in self-defence, places Hamlet in a far darker plain.
With the disturbed new place of the Doctor at the end of The Waters of Mars, and the potentially murderous Hamlet, David Tennant has made two prized roles his, and the world of Shakespeare in particular is greatly in his debt.