“A Mirror Up To Nature”: Hamlet (2009)

"A Mirror Up To Nature": David Tennant in the RSC's Hamlet (2009)

“A Mirror Up To Nature”: David Tennant in the RSC’s Hamlet (2009)

Despite largely avoiding Shakespeare at undergraduate level, teaching Hamlet to first-year undergraduates during a very nervous first term in Geneva gives the play special personal significance.

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, this felt like 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, theatrical productions can just be too alike. It was time to bring the imagination alive again.

The greater the background world, the broader the context. The attempt in the late 1990s to picture Shakespeare the wanton young writer struggling for ideas and inspiration, acting the wheeler-dealer with patrons and theatre-owners, reinvigorated Shakespeare in popular culture.

True, the factual details of Elizabethan theatre went astray on occasion. For instance, women did not take to the stage until at least November 1660, an occasion marked by Thomas Jordan’s preface to Othello.

But facts weren’t so important. What was important was the idea of conjecture, creating the ‘behind the scenes’ for a play that has been performed to death. It is almost as though we could barely imagine the young and impervious Will Shakespeare unless it was shown to us convincingly 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.

Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love (1998)

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.

David Tennant: Doctor Who - The Waters of Mars (2009)

Some things you can’t save. Others, Doctor, you can.

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5 thoughts on ““A Mirror Up To Nature”: Hamlet (2009)

  1. I find the Danish play stifling and compelling. With every line I feel I am missing something. Alongside this is the worry that to be anything other than reverential feels perilous and transgressive. (This is shared with the revived Doctor Who.) There is too much to say, so I will simply quip that the performance in question ends, in the absence of Fortinbras’ ingress, with an Horatian ode.

    Also, a comment on the closet scene. When Hamlet fires, he must surely be staring at his reflection – and just moments after telling his mother that he would set up a glass for her to see the inmost part of herself. The presence of a loaded gun in Gertrude’s bedside cabinet, and Hamlet’s apparent knowledge of this, have intriguing implications themselves.

    If you haven’t seen it, you may appreciate a 2007 episode of Tennant’s tenure in Doctor Who entitled The Shakespeare Code, in which the eponymous figures encounter one another in 1599.

    Joseph Fiennes has of course taken David Tennant’s course in reverse, moving from Shakespeare’s realm to so-called cult sci-fi. One national newspaper has described his performance in Flashforward as ‘acting by numbers’.

    • Thanks. So much substance, as ever! Shamefully, I think I commented with greater eloquence on facebook about the language. There is a great richness about the language that the structure almost demands should be lost. Therefore, to me (that which may help to justify the stifling and compelling adjectives), this is a play that demands attention, and also upholds separate qualities, as a text to be read as well as drama to be performed.

      In my one-dimensional capacity in preferring to write in praise, I think this overview is written conscious of my current taste for the spectacular over subtlety. Fiennes is more subtle than spectacular: in fact, I loved his role in Enemy at the Gates precisely for that. Marvell’s ‘royal actor’, the executed king, is celebrated for his quiet austerity. But a story that is written sublimely for grandeur and the agent to enact that formula: a Hamlet, the Doctor, a three-forked lightning Cromwell, puts in a sense of the very limits of human possibility, and breaking those limits. Perhaps that’s another weakness of mine at the moment: I find less feeling from subtlety. I am moved by big characters and great moments. That will explain why I find Tennant’s Hamlet captivating and Patrick Stewart’s Claudius too staid. Perhaps Doran doesn’t allow the subtle tones to Hamlet, but I did not at all see him as ‘overplayed’. To the other subject: the end of The Waters of Mars is one of those great moments. Although the line is removed (shamefully), Hamlet is aware of fate’s control; the Doctor appears to be no longer. I am shaken by a character who finds a way to defeat the very confines of fate. The great lines of Marvell speak again [thank you for bringing up the revised Hamlet ending!]

      Though Justice against Fate complain,
      And plead the ancient rights in vain―
      But those do hold or break
      As men are strong or weak―

      Nature, that hateth emptiness,
      Allows of penetration less,
      And therefore must make room
      Where greater spirits come.

      In a blindingly different context, the Doctor of 2009 finds a similar role to the Cromwell of the ode. Only, he transcends it. Not content in complaining against fate and the laws which govern the fate of man, it is fate itself which breaks when a greater spirit comes. Then, at the end of The Waters of Mars, his Boromir moment. Lost in the moment of heroism and achievement, he loses the sense of the consequences of his own power, and his own ‘anagnorisis’, if one can land in a conclusion, comes, just like Boromir failing to take the ring. Could that have been achieved by anyone other than David Tennant?

      Ironically, while Marvell’s Ode reflects on war, I preferred that Hamlet ended without (and widely overlooked) the Scandinavian conflict. It is a context too far removed. What was there was ample. I love the extra implications you raise. Hamlet is so full of ambiguity: language, punctuation, diction. As with Marvell, I love that there are ever more and more questions: it serves to appreciate the quality of the elusiveness.

      I haven’t seen The Shakespearean Code. I am a recent Who recruit, but I will certainly be interested in seeking that out. How very interesting that David Tennant said on the Graham Norton show just last month that “Russell T. Davies is the Shakespeare of today”. [Features on the highlights show, still on iPlayer for just a little longer [13:00-13:35]].

      As for the good Mr. Fiennes, I did not know of the role reversal (so thank you for that), and I’ll be glad to suspend judgement without blotting his copybook in my own head. As the Guardian showed here in one simple example, one man’s poor is another man’s fine. At the very least, I love the title: ‘Flashforward’. Intriguing though: Tennant’s next step is a pilot for a US legal drama. Out to prove himself all over again…

      • Thank you for your reply. It is sad to think that Patrick Stewart never got to play the Dane himself, and ironic to think that one the earliest roles to bring him renown was in I, Claudius. Given my tremendous regard for him, I was initially resistant to your criticism, but now see that it is not invalid. It does seem that Shakespeare gives us a character who raises questions that his words and actions cannot answer. We learn from the Gravedigger that Hamlet was king for at least thirty years: did Claudius really spend three decades sitting around Elsinore in jealousy of his brother and love with his sister-in-law, before thinking, ‘Oh sod it’ (make that ‘Fie on’t’) and lobbing a bit of poison into a convenient regal orifice? Give me some light! I am keener than ever to investigate Gertrude And Claudius, John Updike’s 2000 prequel to Hamlet, of which I learnt from a question on 15-1. When all’s said and done, I will remember Stewart’s Claudius most for his staggering shrug-and-chug in the final scene, though it was a long wait for such insight.

        For me, a stand-out production of the play will be one not only defined by its prince, but one in which I can watch Polonius without, if I may be frank, thinking what a t-word he is. Again, I want to know more about him than Shakespeare would have us know: for how long has he been a single father, if ever? Has he always served Claudius, or does he serve whoever is king? I also want to find more significance in his name than perhaps there is to uncover.

  2. Pingback: “Trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven”: Teaching Shakespeare at Leicester « Writing Privacy

  3. Pingback: Marvell, Glass, and ‘Upon Appleton House’ « Writing Privacy

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