Home > Reviews > Hamlet with Time Lords and Picard, Version 1

Hamlet with Time Lords and Picard, Version 1

Like many US fans of SF and Shakespeare, I’m looking forward to seeing PBS’s April 28 broadcast (on Great Performances at 8 PM Eastern) of Hamlet starring Doctor Who‘s David Tennant as the melancholy Dane and Sir Patrick Stewart as both Claudius and the Ghost.  But I recently learned that Stewart has played Claudius before, in a 1980 production that was part of the BBC’s The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare series.  I remember seeing that version, starring Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, when it first aired on PBS; in fact, it’s the first time I ever saw Jacobi.  But at the time, I didn’t know who Patrick Stewart was yet.

So I decided to rent the DVD from Netflix, not just because of Stewart, but because it has a whole passel of cast members who have appeared in Doctor Who previously or subsequently.  (In 1980, I’d never even heard of Doctor Who.)   Jacobi (Hamlet) was Professor Yana/The Master in “Utopia.”  Claire Bloom (Gertrude) just recently appeared in “The End of Time” as an unnamed Time Lady.  Ophelia was Lalla Ward, who at the time of this production was appearing as the second Romana (and was teased by Stewart for slumming in a sci-fi production — little did he know).   Geoffrey Beevers (Third Player/Lucianus) was the Master in “The Keeper of Traken.”  That’s four Time Lords in the same production (or technically three, since Beevers and Jacobi played essentially the same character — even just two if you want to think Bloom was playing Romana in “The End of Time”).

As for non-Gallifreyan Doctor Who vets, Geoffrey Bateman (Guildenstern) was Dymond in “The Nightmare of Eden.”  Emrys James (the Player King) was Aukon in “State of Decay.”  Stuart Fell, a fight arranger and stunt performer for Doctor Who, was one of the Players (presumably the acrobat).  Peter Benson, the Second Gravedigger, was Bor in “Terminus” (no, I don’t remember who Bor was either).   Also, the music was by longtime DW composer Dudley Simpson.  (Meanwhile, Polonius was Eric Porter, who was Professor Moriarty in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series.  Not SF, but worthy of note nonetheless.)

It’s an interesting adaptation.  When they say “Complete,” they mean it.  It’s the whole play, three and a half hours’ worth, nothing abridged.  Jacobi’s Hamlet is more manic than melancholy, full of bitter humor and youthful passion.  As always, his voice, his delivery, is marvelous to listen to.  If anything, he’s a little too broad; when he advises the Players to “o’erstep not the modesty of nature,” i.e. to avoid overacting and deliver their lines naturalistically, it comes off as rather ironic given how over-the-top Jacobi’s performance gets.  It’s still a lot of fun to watch and listen to, though.

I was actually kind of disappointed in Patrick Stewart’s performance.  He had the same fantastic, declamatory voice — indeed, it’s amazing how little his voice has changed in 30 years, unlike Jacobi’s, which has grown deeper and fuller with age — but his delivery wasn’t what I would’ve hoped for.  The main thing that stands out about his performance was how quickly he talked, as if he were in a hurry.  In Claudius’ more contemplative moments, such as Act III Sc. iii when he prays, Stewart gave a somewhat more solemn performance, but most of the time Claudius came off as pompous and shallow, so his moments of guilt and repentance seemed incongruous.  It was the work of a Patrick Stewart who was much less experienced, only 40 years old — ironically, 2 years younger than the actor playing his adopted son, Hamlet.  It will be interesting to compare this to his performance as Claudius in the 2009 production.

Lalla Ward was also disappointing as Ophelia, though that was more a directorial problem, I think.  She mostly gave a rather one-note weepy performance, which seemed incongruous with the tone of the first two acts.  I mean, it’s interesting — poor Polonius goes through his entire tenure in the play mistakenly believing he’s in a romantic comedy rather than a tragedy.  He’s convinced that Hamlet’s madness is a young man’s distraction from love, and is spinning madcap schemes and hiding behind arrases in hopes of bringing his daughter and the king’s son together.  And it’s that terminal lack of genre-savviness that puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time, spying on a man he thinks is lovestruck but is really vengeance-crazed, and gets him killed.  I think it would be a better fit if Ophelia were played the same way — concerned for Hamlet, naturally, but not in this sobbing, despairing way, not this soon in the play.  If she’s played light early on, it makes it more shocking to see her sunk into madness later on.  Instead, Ward’s Ophelia is so tediously lachrymose that it’s refreshing when she goes looney-tunes and finally seems to be enjoying herself.

As for the other Whovian players, Ms. Bloom is solid as Gertrude but not really a standout.  I remember that when I saw this back in 1980, the main thing I was noticing was her plunging neckline.  I was 12 at the time, and just starting to be aware of such things.  James isn’t nearly as impressive as the Player King as Hamlet’s dialogue would have it, Beevers’ role is too brief to register, and Bateman… well, the dude’s Guildenstern, what do you want?

Although, surprisingly, one of the real standouts in the cast is Rosenkrantz, played by Jonathan Hyde.  He takes this famously superficial role (whose interchangeability with Guildenstern is played up in the stage business) and turns it into one of the most memorable performances in the show.  Eric Porter is also quite good as an addled, long-winded, but likeable Polonius.  Robert Swann is an effectively level-headed and sympathetic Horatio; this performance remains my mental image of the role to this day.

This is the first time I’ve seen or read Hamlet in quite some years, at least at full length, and I’m noticing some things I’d either forgotten or never realized.  For instance, the fact that Hamlet, Horatio, Rosey and Guildy are pretty much college students who’ve come home for the funeral and wedding.  That would make them fairly young — although the First Gravedigger’s speech seems to peg Hamlet’s age as 30.  And Ophelia, being unmarried, would probably have to be pretty young too.  The youth of the characters would explain a lot about their actions and reactions.

I also noticed some interesting hints about the ideas of death that existed at the time.  The Ghost said that since he was murdered, sent to death with no “reck’ning made” (by which he apparently meant last rites), his sins were unabsolved and he had to bear them with him.  I guess that’s why he was “doomed for a certain term to walk the night” until his sins were purged — he was in Purgatory.  But Hamlet refused to kill Claudius at prayer because that was an act of purification and would send him to Heaven with his sins cleansed from his soul, but if he killed him at some more sinful activity, he’d go straight to “the other place.”  It sounds like there was a pretty complicated set of rules for how this was supposed to work.

I was interested to see how Jacobi would interpret “To be or not to be.”  Back in 12th grade, I performed that before my English class, and I put a lot of thought into how to interpret its lines.  I was pleased to see that most of Jacobi’s interpretations meshed with my own.  Although he diverged here and there.  For instance, he treated “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…” as a continuation of the previous thought about how “the dread of something after death” makes people afraid of it.  I see it differently, as the start of a new thought: Hamlet is speaking of himself, realizing that he’s just talked himself out of resolving to commit suicide, and is disgusted by his inability to commit to an action.  “Look at me.  Listen to what I’ve just been saying.  That’s how thinking makes cowards of us all.”  (“Conscience” in that context meant reflection, consideration.)

I also didn’t agree with Jacobi’s interpretation of the “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy.  It should’ve been Hamlet building himself up to a righteous fury, deciding that it was time to stop dilly-dallying and harden himself to the task of vengeance once and for all.  It should’ve been an escalating slow burn, culminating in an impassioned “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!”  Instead, Jacobi just did the whole thing in a quiet, thoughtful tone and only hardened it in the final couplet.

In general, the directorial choice of having Jacobi deliver the soliloquies straight to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, was a little awkward, but I guess the soliloquy is such an intrinsically unnatural and theatrical conceit that it’s justified.  It’s presumably how the actors in Shakespeare’s time would’ve delivered the speeches, directly to the audience.

Still, overall, I’ve seen Hamlet’s soliloquies handled worse.  I’ve seen actors treat them as merely recitations, delivering them in a single invariant tone throughout, rather than really interpreting the meaning and feeling behind the lines (and yes, I’m looking at you, Kenneth Branagh).  Jacobi mostly did a really good job getting the meaning across.  The performances here overall were pretty effective at seeming more like characters speaking from the heart rather than actors reciting really long poetic passages (though Patrick Stewart came closer to a “reciting” performance than most).  That’s not easy for modern performers to do with Shakespeare.

So that’s the first Patrick Stewart/Time Lord Hamlet.  A shame the second is still nearly 11 weeks away.  Not only am I eager to see what an older, wiser Sir Patrick can bring to Claudius, but  I’m really looking forward to seeing what David Tennant does with Hamlet.  I used to think Tennant was too manic for the role, but he proved in this last year as the Doctor that he can do melancholy brilliantly.  And as Jacobi proved, there’s certainly room for mania and frantic wit in Hamlet.  One thing’s for sure, it won’t be dull.


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