Anna lent us the DVD of the BBC’s 2009 production of Hamlet back when I’d just finished the MOOC I did on the play (post). We finally got round to watching it a few days ago! This is the production that has David Tennant as Hamlet, and Patrick Stewart as Claudius (and the ghost of dead King Hamlet). I think some of the others in the cast as names one would recognise if one knew about Shakespearean actors, but I don’t 🙂 As with many of my film reviews this is a selection of things I liked or that caught my attention rather than a coherent review per se.
I’m not sure I can remember the last time I watched a Shakespeare play or film adaption of one – at school perhaps? Which would make it 25 years ago, or thereabouts, as I dropped English after GCSE. Even despite having read Hamlet a few times during the course I did I still found the language a bit difficult to follow at times – particularly in some of the soliloquies where the meaning had a tendency to vanish in the word salad. Which isn’t helped by some of it being supposed to be nonsensical! Still, even though there were bits of it that I felt we should’ve put subtitles on for (and possibly read the footnotes in my book of the plays) most of it was OK to follow and we got the gist of the rest of it.
I liked the way they dressed the cast. When I was doing the Hamlet course there were quite a lot of other people on the course who got all up in arms about how modern-dress productions were ruining Shakespeare. (A few of the purists also seemed to hate this particular production anyway coz it’s got Doctor Who and Captain Picard in it, and so the “wrong” people were watching it for the “wrong” reasons …) I disagree, because I think if they’d put them all in Elizabethan dress then we wouldn’t’ve had any of the visual cues that the clothing is meant to convey. Whereas it was immediately obvious when people were formally dressed v. informally dressed and who was dressed appropriately or inappropriately for the scene at hand. Which is exactly what the Elizabethan dress would’ve been conveying to the original audiences – we just don’t know how to read that any more.
I also liked the way it was shot, and the use of cameras within the production. The security cameras, and the way they were used to demonstrate the ghost’s ghostliness were particularly neat. And again when Hamlet yanks one off the wall to say “now I’m alone” before one soliloquy – and yet he’s still observed because we’re still watching … That also makes a neat juxtaposition with the play-within-a-play, which they flag up rather nicely with Hamlet filming the play within the play (and the audience) and finally talking direct to camera himself. So you have the cameras that are our way of seeing this production, and then you have the cameras within the world as well.
Thinking of juxtapositions – Hamlet telling the actors how to act came across very “hypocritically teaching one’s grandma how to suck eggs” after the way Tennant-playing-Hamlet had been chewing up the scenery all the way through! Tho it does highlight one of the oddities of the play (for me) – the gap difference between Hamlet’s stated age (early 30s) and the way his behaviour comes across to me (teenage). I think I preferred the other actors’ performances – in particular the actress playing Gertrude. From reading the play I’m intrigued by Gertrude anyway – and her character does make it obvious how much this play is focussed on Hamlet junior. It’s unclear if Gertrude knew about the murder of Hamlet senior, it’s unclear if she marries Claudius out of love or self-protection (or self-promotion) or as part of the plan, it’s unclear if she knows at the end that the cup she drinks from is poisoned or not. Those are all things that each production and actress has to decide for themselves. And was Hamlet senior really such an all round nice guy and fantastic King and so on and so forth? We know Hamlet junior thinks so but no-one else seems to be all that bothered that he’s gone until he starts walking around as a ghost. You could construct a whole story where actually Hamlet senior was an abusive so-and-so who was also a bad King, and maybe it’s a good thing he’s gone – and Hamlet junior is too blinded by his idolisation of his father to see reality. And maybe you’d have to change how some of the lines of the play were delivered, but I’m not sure you’d have to alter the text.
One thing that struck both J and I is that the pacing feels very different to a modern film (perhaps not to a modern play, I wouldn’t know I haven’t seen one!). The choices Shakespeare made for what to include and what not to include sometimes seem strange. The Fortinbras sub-plot, for instance, feels superfluous to me – it’s set up almost as the A-plot with the as-you-know-Bob speech between Horatio and the guards in Act 1 scene 1, and the prominent mention of it in Act 1 scene 2. And then it just kinda vanishes – in this production there’s really just that one bit nearer the end with the army in the snow and then nothing. And in the rush to the climax there are some odd jumps: Ophelia’s death is off-stage and Laertes goes from pointing a gun at Claudius to plotting & scheming with him off-stage too.
It was fun to watch, tho. Maybe I’ll see if the library has some of the other recent BBC Shakespeare productions – tho I’d want to space them out a bit I think.