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.
The 2009 film adaptation (dir: Gregory Doran), that I watched on the strength of the main actor, alerted me 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 it’s useful to be reminded of what imaginative twists a film adaptation can bring.
The greater the background world, the broader the context. The attempt in the late 1990s to portray Shakespeare the wanton writer struggling for ideas, negotiating with patrons and theatre-owners, reinvigorated Shakespeare in popular culture.
True, the factual details of Elizabethan theatre went astray. 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 notion of ‘behind the scenes’ for a play that has been performed countless times. 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 struggle to imagine the metaphysical Marvell with a Hull accent.)
Of course, part of that background world is the casting. Shakespeare in Love was cast magnificently. Joseph Fiennes combined 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 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 2009 Hamlet for me. The ghost was ideal; 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 would be Antony Sher (partner of Gregory Doran). 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 wouldn’t sound out of place in a slapstick Jim Carrey movie (Scene 4.3 in particular).
Tennant also brings a young audience that might otherwise never entertain Shakespeare. Barely has the fate of humanities needed a superhero more.
This type of production has limited precedent. It feels not quite a film, but too open for theatre. The genre itself is enigmatic, and the play – despite its three hour duration – a perfect fit. Even 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 more as a tragic victim rather than I had before.
This production, as with many, has its critics. 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, this implies that Claudius begins to detect more to Hamlet’s erratic behaviour. It is an important insight, given his move to send Hamlet to England.
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 here).
Perhaps the climax was the most controversial moment. Hamlet’s physical tussle with his mother in his frustration is uncomfortable enough, but his conscious act of reaching for a gun and firing at the hidden Polonius is far from an instinctive move in self-defence. It 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 is greatly in his debt.