Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hamlet - Gregory Doran (2009)

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Hamlet” features David Tennant as the insane Prince of Denmark, Patrick Stewart as the villainous Claudius and Brit Mariah Gale as the tragically doomed love, Ophelia.

Tennant is best known as The 10th Doctor from “Doctor Who.” Fans of the series, including this film-snob, consider him to be the finest Doctor in the sci-fi series’ history.

Patrick Stewart is famous as Jean-Luc Picard from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and more recently as Professor Charles Xavier in the “X-Men” film franchise. Mariah Gale is a newcomer, but already has an impressive pedigree on British television including roles in adaptations of “Oliver Twist” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

I am officially declaring this to be the definitive adaptation of Shakespeare’s famed tragedy.

Olivier’s Oscar-winning 1948 version is the version many cinematic purists will point to as the standard, but the film feels staged and Olivier is too stoic as the grief-mad and revenge-driven Hamlet to have much of an impact.

Then we have Zeffirelli’s 1990 adaptation starring Mel Gibson as Hamlet. It’s a good film, but Gibson overplays the craziness in the Danish Prince. I wonder if Gibson was just practicing for how he was going to behave a decade or so later when the actor lost his mind entirely.

As for Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version, the less said, the better.

On to Tuesday’s release of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation, first aired on BBC and now to be available on this side of the pond.

This adaptation of “Hamlet” is directed by Gregory Doran who also directed Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001. I would not have expected a modernized version of the play, in which the palace is a modern mansion, security cameras play a pivotal role in the eavesdropping sequences and handguns are substituted for swords to be so faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Then again, it should come as no surprise that the RSC understands the story, characters, language and above all the humor of “Hamlet.”

When Claudius makes his incredibly tasteless joke about “dearth in marriage and mirth in funeral,” the RSC understand this is not just one line in a king’s long-winded speech, but an incredibly tasteless, albeit clever, remark. And the actors have such a strong handle on Shakespearean language that it sounds natural, conversational even coming from them. Even lines like, “with such dexterity to incestuous sheets” are delivered in a way that makes their way of speaking feel organic.

The play written and produced by Hamlet to “catch the conscience of the king” is actually a pretty hilarious sequence.

There is such humor in “Hamlet” that most others have missed. This adaptation actually had me laughing out loud several times.

Every supporting performance is wonderful. Mariah Gale is sympathetic and tender, then wonderfully mad as Ophelia, as if she’s trying to match Hamlet’s craziness.
Oliver Ford Davies, you might know him as Governor Sio Bibble of Naboo, exposes Polonius for who he is: a tiresome old man who refuses to stop talking until you just wish you were dead.
And Patrick Stewart makes a formidable Claudius.

But the real treat here, what makes this adaptation worth running out and buying as soon as it hits the shelves is David Tennant’s turn as Hamlet.
His performance is subdued, manic, sulking, frightening, violent and hilarious by turns. He captures each state of Hamlet’s mind perfectly.
There are moments where his madness is nothing short of gleeful, as if Hamlet knows full well that he is losing his mind and he kind of likes it.
An idea that could easily have gone south was to have Hamlet deliver many of his monologues while looking into the camera.

We don’t feel like we’re watching Shakespeare. We are watching a grieving, bitter, angry, self-pitying and vengeful lunatic ranting and taking us into his confidence. It’s incredibly intimate.
This same technique is used a few times with other characters, Polonius in particular, with no success at all.

When anyone except Hamlet talks to the camera, it comes off as distracting and irritating, even though I do understand what Doran was going for.

But happily, those moments are very few and it’s a small complaint compared to watching sequences like Hamlet cradling poor Yorick’s skull, remembering what childhood was like when there was someone whose purpose it was to bring him joy.

Or his “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Or his reaction to Claudius’ demands that he tell him where he has stashed Polonius’ body.

Or, my favorite moment, when he merrily calls out, “Goodnight, mother!” as he drags Polonius’ corpse by its feet out of her bedroom.

Bottom line is that David Tennant is the finest Hamlet I have ever seen, on screen or on stage.

He’s even a better Hamlet than the one I envision in my head when I read the play for myself.

No comments:

Post a Comment