Reviewsday: Great Performances’ Hamlet

I’ve seen a lot of Hamlet performances over the years but somehow I missed the David Tennant/Patrick Stewart TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) 2008 stage production.

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I am always intensely interested in the directorial decisions and actors’ interpretations when Shakespeare is staged or filmed, and this production certainly had many both delightful and disappointing turns.

I had no idea, for example, why the first “appearance” of King Hamlet’s ghost in Act 1 was shot from the ghost’s point of view, nor what purpose the occasional flips to a security-camera perspective served; though a couple times it was fun that the ghost didn’t show up on the security cameras, the use of the technique was inconsistent, and made me wonder who was watching behind the scenes (spoiler alert: no one, apparently). On the other hand, the bedroom scene (and particularly the ghost’s appearance) was nicely done, and the way Hamlet was sent off to England was a great choice. But I don’t know how the fractured glass from that scene made it into the main hall through the rest of the play or why the often-deleted Fortinbras subplot was kept while his appearance at the end was cut.

I think Tennant is a wonderful actor but at the risk of blaspheming, his Hamlet didn’t win my empathy in the early going, so I had less patience with his “antic disposition,” which sometimes came across as silly (such as his clowning on “Except my life”). And the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, though well-acted, was very subdued, dreamy even–not like someone who is thinking of ending his life. At numerous other points, however, I thought his delivery was sharp and insightful.

Predictably enough, Sir Patrick was excellent as Claudius (though the decision to have him also play the ghost made for some disconnect between words and images). Penny Downie’s Gertrude and Mariah Gale’s Ophelia were just right. Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius was perfect, and I loved the way Polonius’s “few precepts” soliloquy was played, with Laertes and Ophelia showing that they’d heard it all many times before. Edward Bennett (Laertes) and Peter de Jersey (Horatio) also turned in strong performances.

And they did it all in three hours, an amazing accomplishment. It is not the most moving Hamlet I’ve seen but it was worth every one of its 360 minutes.

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About writerhoss

I am a writer from southwestern Ohio, and a frequent speaker at churches, conferences, and retreats. My books include The Bard and the Bible (A Shakespeare Devotional).
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