Hamlet has always seemed a masterpiece of perspective. The title character is an egotist and a sociopath who, over the course of the play, is responsible for six deaths, including an entire family’s. That audiences have nevertheless continued to read and hear his story for centuries is due partly to his sheer volubility; he gains our attention by speaking more than any other character in all of Shakespeare, let alone any other character in the play. It’s also largely due to his eloquence: Whether cursing someone off by telling them to eat a crocodile or working out the steps by which one might live or die, he offers continually dazzling displays of what Harold Bloom has called a “proleptic imagination.”
Yet the 2009 BBC recording of Hamlet (based on a 2008 RSC stage production, using the same director and same cast) also gives a poignancy to the text that I’ve rarely seen, in addition to its typical verbal wizardry. It’s not just that David Tennant’s Hamlet, with his quiet, tight lips and gigantic brown eyes, genuinely seems like a lost person; it’s that the production suddenly makes the play about love. The true tragedy of this piece isn’t that Hamlet fails to avenge his father on time, but that he and the characters around him learn to say they love each other too late.
A few strong production choices contribute to this sense. One is Patrick Stewart’s double-casting as Claudius and the Ghost. Stewart, best-known for Star Trek: The Next Generation and the X-Men films, is also a majestic Shakespearean actor (his Macbeth will be out later this year), and here he plays the new king Claudius as a sweet, catering plutocrat, deeply enamored with Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and ruling a kingdom for her. His Ghost, by contrast, is staunch and stiff, a crusty monster, shouting, whispering, and oh-ohing as he urges Hamlet to avenge him. By design, the production loses the potential tenderness of Hamlet’s interactions with the Ghost (see Michael Almereyda’s 2001 film, with Ethan Hawke and Sam Shepard, to be especially moved). In choosing to avenge his father, this Hamlet is really trying to win his love.
And he does so to the detriment of anyone else’s love. One of the most brilliant aspects of Stewart’s performance is the sense he gives that the bright, insightful Hamlet has much more in common with his stepfather than with his father. The women in Hamlet’s life suffer too. The production moves the “To be or not to be” speech, and Hamlet’s subsequent castigating of Ophelia, to earlier in the play, shortly after Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost. In most productions, what is potentially the greatest speech in dramatic literature has no narrative justification; here the choice to live or die feels like a logical thread in Hamlet’s struggle, as he chooses what his father wants for him over what anyone else does. He lashes out at his old love, Ophelia, and ultimately drives her mad, because he only knows how to make room for one love at a time. Hamlet’s realization after Ophelia’s death that he actually loved her, which so often plays as grotesquely selfish, is here quite moving, as Tennant realizes the full depths of what he’s lost.
A question with any Shakespeare production is whether it works for the uninitiated, and I think that this modern-dress show’s accessibility comes largely from how it makes the characters into recognizable types. In Ophelia, Hamlet’s lost a milk-skinned, square-jawed, fleshy-faced girl forcefully in love with him (Mariah Gale, uncovering a soliloquy—“O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”—and turning it into perhaps the show’s most moving moment, the realization that a lost love will never be regained). Her brother Laertes, in a double-breasted blazer, becomes a small-minded nice guy, a fellow who’s spent his entire life at the back of the country club and can’t help but resent Prince Hamlet for it. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Penny Downie), given twice as many close-ups as lines, looks worn down by life, the sort of middle-aged housewife who’s grateful for the chance to turn on the TV at night and drink red wine, suddenly having to choose between her husband and her son.
You get the sense that these are real people who happen to have wandered into a production of Hamlet. The show’s key line becomes Claudius’s reference to a self and to judgment, “without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts.” The characters’ main priority in this production becomes a cohesive sense of self that they can hang onto, which they try to achieve through other people, or at the very least, through love. This production’s emotional intimacy makes it far more subdued, and less flashy, than many of the more prominent Hamlet films; certainly Tennant’s terror at the thought of obligation, let alone devotion, stifles itself more than Branagh’s flouncing braggadocio or Olivier’s overplayed underplaying. This is both a strength and a weakness. Much of the show clearly takes place on a set, and when it tries for special effects (look at the fog! Check out the video cameras!), the results prove downright embarrassing. But the program still pulls off a mostly sustained dual consciousness: a strong production of Hamlet and a reference to the phenomenon of it, the weight of which these characters are finding hard to bear.
Sound is mostly good, but in trying to capture the sound of voices echoing within a castle, the audio recording periodically loses lines—a problem for an evening where language is the main draw. The images are not high-quality, but crisp, though the lighting tends to get in its own way. Overall the disc seems a 100 percent transfer of 70 percent elements.
Director Gregory Doran, cinematographer Chris Seager, and producer Seb Grant provide an audio commentary, with Doran doing most of the talking. He provides a few insights and fun facts (900 lines of verse equals about an hour of stage time), but spends most of the track summarizing the plot. A half-hour making-of doc proves more useful in discussing why choices were made and where their influences came from. Tennant offers an intriguing analysis of Hamlet’s last line, "The rest is silence"—for the Prince, Tennant says, the thought of oblivion is wishful thinking.
The play’s the thing, and it sings.