Starring: David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Oliver Ford Davies, Peter De Jersey, Mariah Gale, Edward Bennett
Review: Of all the various tragedies, comedies and histories he produced in his lifetime Hamlet remains my absolute favourite William Shakespeare play. It contains his best narrative, his most fascinating characters and without doubt his finest dialogue, much of which has now become imbedded in the national lexicon. Like many I was unable to acquire tickets to see this RSC production starring David Tennant when it debuted last year in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Fortunately the RSC, realising the mass appeal of Tennant, have team-up with the BBC to adapt the play for television which is now released on DVD.
Director Gregory Doran, also responsible for the stage production, wisely avoids the same trap that befalls many by refusing to simply record the play on the stage as it is performed. This production instead uses a mixture of studio set mixed with some location work. Doran’s Elsinore is a dark, cold and claustrophobic setting, a palace of polished black floors, shattered mirrors and security cameras on every wall. Doran takes full advantage of the camera but doesn’t resort to being flashing by showing off with cheap camera tricks. Instead he uses the camera to tell the story and showcase the performances of his cast. Many of the major soliloquies are delivered directly to the camera and often shot in continuous takes. Doran also utilises basic special effects to make Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost that little more spooky.
As the Dane David Tennant is simply mesmerizing, effortlessly capturing the character’s torment, wit and cunning. There are times when his performance is a little too David Tennant-ish but that’s a minor quibble of a truly phenomenal performance. He’s masterfully supported by Patrick Stewart as Claudius and Penny Downie as Gertrude. But it’s Oliver Ford Davis who steals the whole show as a wonderfully infuriating Polonius.
It’s not a completely flawless production. Despite the passion and conviction of the acting the whole never truly comes alive as it might do on the stage. Some scenes still feel too static and stagy for television. The subplot with Fortinbras is retained but goes nowhere and could’ve been easily excised. The final act feels rushed and unsatisfying (more Bill’s fault than Doran’s). And although many of the cast are flawless Mariah Gale is at times too theatrical as Ophelia especially in ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene.
Hamlet remains the Bard’s most performed and adapted work. To date Kenneth Branagh’s lavish four-hour epic remains the definitive screen version. This production could’ve never have hoped to match that achievement but still produces an engrossing interpretation with a towering performance by it’s leading man.
Rating: * * * *