I was incredibly excited for the new RSC’s film of Hamlet. The wonderful David Tennant starred in the title role with Patrick Stewart in the role of Claudius.
The production was very solid, but didn’t completely live up to my wildly high expectations. For one horrible moment, I thought I might be tired of David Tennant, but I realized that I am actually a bit tired of Hamlet. That play has followed me for years and after heavy scholarly and theatrical study, I can never look at certain passages the same way and cannot keep from analyzing as I watch.
I must say that Gregory Doran and the cast did explore many linguistical nuances in ways I’ve never seen in a film or stage production of Hamlet before. While some aspects of the production may have lost a certain amount impact when moving from the stage to film, Doran used the film medium to its fullest being appropriately subtle with many portions of it, not trying to replicate or simply film a theatrical performance. Visually, he explored images of mirrors and then their shattering during the latter part of the play as various characters experience cracks in their sanity or perception of identity- reflecting the distortion that fills the play. The use of cameras in the film even beyond the paranoia inducing surveillance cameras around the castle, but also in Hamlet’s own attempt to record events and through an introspective video diary style conversation during some moments of soliloquy, are unique.
The first appearance of the Ghost is only shown by the reaction of Horatio and the guards, my hope was that he wouldn’t be revealed until the meeting with Hamlet late in the first act. Unfortunately he was shown later in the scene to limited impact in my opinion. David Tennant’s Hamlet starts out as a depressed, overgrown schoolboy, more full of tears than fire. I think that it was an effective approach, he is already in a contemplative and melancholy place in the first moments of the play. Once bent on revenge he gains energy and his “antic disposition” seems less like an act and more like a true affliction of his own unraveling.
The castle of Elsinore is a contemporary setting with glassy floors, surveillance cameras and two way mirrors. Hamlet is playing a role, aware that he is seldom unwatched. Before the “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech he literally tears a camera off the wall and then utters, “Now I am alone.” Tennant’s “Get thee to a nunnery” scene is charged with more than just Hamlet’s play acting, but with true hurt and feelings of betrayal.
Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius is at times mildly comical with his pontification, seeming to be a man who often repeats his little words of wisdom- to the point where other characters are mildly irritated and very familiar with nearly every lengthy phrase that escapes his lips. Sam Alexander and Tom Davey play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play Hamlet’s school friend, and quite certainly, partners in debauchery. Patrick Stewart brings an understatement to Claudius, not playing him as a great villain, and showing believable affection for Gertrude as well as guilt over his brother’s murder. From the first time we see him, it is also easy to note that he and Hamlet have never gotten along.
Mariah Gale, as Ophelia was very curious. She starts out a little playful and with a sense of independence, a trait I’ve never seen in Ophelia. As the play continues, that small stubbornness in her proves to be more like childish bravado as she crumbles inside. Though, I wish she had shown more reaction to the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene when next she sees Hamlet. At the play, she hardly registers anything being wrong until Hamlet starts interrupting the performance and acting out.
The infamous closet scene with Gertrude was where the play truly picks up momentum. Tennant and Penny Downie gave the scene incredible intensity without going in the uncomfortable and largely unwarranted incestuous direction that so many production go in thanks to Freud and Lawrence Olivier.
Though my favorite RSC is probably still the Macbeth with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench from the 70s, I can say it definitely topped the Mel Gibson Hamlet and could be a great tool for studying the play in an academic setting, though enjoyable for pleasure watching as well.