Home > Reviews > Hamlet with Time Lords and Picard, Version 2

Hamlet with Time Lords and Picard, Version 2

Well, with Time Lord and Picard, since there’s only one this time, but I’m following the precedent of my earlier post on the 1980 Derek Jacobi/Patrick Stewart Hamlet, which was loaded with Doctor Who cast members, many of whom played members of the Doctor’s race.  This time, in the 2009 production which made its American debut on Great Performances last night, the Tenth Doctor himself, David Tennant, played the Prince of Denmark, with Sir Patrick Stewart reprising his 1980 role of King Claudius, this time doubling as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.

Tennant’s the only Time Lord this time out, though overall this production has nearly as many Who-universe veterans as the 1980 version.  John Woodvine, who is the Player King here (fittingly, for he played Claudius in a 1970 production of Hamlet), was the Marshal in 1979’s “The Armageddon Factor” (the Who debut of Lalla Ward, who was Ophelia in the 1980 production).  Roderick Smith (Voltemand, one of the ambassadors to Norway) was Cruikshank in “The Invisible Enemy” in 1977, while Andrea Harris (Cornelia, this production’s version of Cornelius, the other ambassador) was Suzanne in the new series’ “The Stolen Earth” 31 years later.  Reynaldo, the servant whom Polonius sends to spy on his son Laertes, is played by David Ajala, who just recently appeared as Peter in “The Beast Below” (and who was a bounty hunter in The Dark Knight).  Robert Curtis, who plays the soldier Francisco at the opening (and is credited on IMDb as Fortinbras, though that character’s appearance at the end is not in the version aired on PBS), played a “Security Man” in “Prisoner of the Judoon” in the Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures.  And Zoe Thorne, who has a nonspeaking role here as a lady-in-waiting, has ironically done two voice-only roles in DW, the Gelth voice in “The Unquiet Dead” and the Toclafane voice in “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords.”  Meanwhile, Oliver Ford Davies (Polonius) lacks Whovian experience, but he was Naboo Governor Sio Bibble in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

This production is not as complete as the 1980 version, with a number of things cut out, including most of the Fortinbras subplot and the entire explanation of how Hamlet escaped his exile and death sentence (so that the revelation that “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead” is without context or explanation).  More on the cuts later.  The play is updated to a modern-ish setting, maybe c. 1980 give or take, but with a more multiethnic cast than would be expected from that era.  Elsinore is interpreted as an oppressive place filled with surveillance cameras, an extension of the play’s themes of secrets and spying.  An interesting idea, but I found the cuts to the security cameras’ POV to be distracting and gimmicky, and the ubiquity of surveillance devices makes all the hiding behind arrases seem rather redundant.

But what about the Doctor and the Captain?  They’re the ones we came to see, right?  Well, David Tennant was, and I can hear his Doctor saying the word in my head, “Brilliant.”  As usual.  He ran the full gamut here as only he can.  When first we meet Tennant’s young prince, he’s sullen, subdued, hair slicked back so you hardly recognize him, teetering on the edge of heart-wrenching despair.  His usual manic energy is completely buried.  But when the visitation from his father’s spirit (whose armor is constantly smoldering, cleverly suggesting his sins being “burnt and purg’d away”) overwhelms him, Tennant outdoes even Jacobi’s mania.  From then on, he runs the whole gamut.  Mostly he’s more naturalistic and subdued than Jacobi was, or than Tennant’s Doctor was, but when he’s feigning madness (or maybe not entirely feigning it, at some points), he pulls out all his comedy stops, even indulging in some Jim Carrey-esque mugging that I could’ve done without.  Sometimes, shades of the Doctor peeked out, but even when he was at his most manic, he didn’t quite use the same speech rhythms and mannerisms that his Doctor had.  Overall, a richly layered and dynamic performance, as energetic and compelling as you’d expect from David Tennant.

So how was he in the soliloquies?  Pretty good, but it’s hard to judge fully, since at least two of them, “To be or not to be” and “How all occasions do inform against me,” have been cut down!  The former goes right from “whips and scorns of time” to “But that the dread…”, and the latter skips right from “Even for an eggshell” to “From this time forth.”  It’s rather startling that even an abridged production of Hamlet would abridge the soliloquies, especially “To be or not to be,” which is probably (as Tennant pointed out in the behind-the-scenes featurette at the end) the most famous piece of literary writing in the entire English language.  It borders on blasphemy.  Anyway, what there was of the soliloquies was handled well, though Tennant doesn’t agree with my interpretation of “Thus conscience does make cowards…” any more than Jacobi did (see my earlier review).  I guess my take is an unusual one.  Tennant’s soliloquies are generally more subdued than Jacobi’s, though his “How all occasions…” isn’t as flat; though quiet, it has more of the building frustration beneath the surface that it should have.  As with the Jacobi version, the soliloquies (and Polonius’s asides) were directed to the camera, but somehow it seemed more natural here, maybe because I’m more used to it now or maybe because of the modern dress.

In my review of the 1980 production, I expressed some disappointment at the 40-year-old Patrick Stewart’s performance as Claudius, which I found superficial and rushed, more of a recitation of memorized speeches than a thoughtful interpretation of their meaning.  I expected that the far more experienced Sir Patrick of today (though I don’t think he’d been knighted yet when this was produced) would bring far more to it.  And boy, was I right.  The 2009 Claudius is the diametric opposite of the 1980 Claudius.  Stewart takes his time and brings meaning and weight to every line.  His range and his intensity are so much greater now, and so is the believability of his characterization.

If anything, he’s too good for the role.  It’s ironic to see him playing both Hamlet Sr.’s ghost and his brother Claudius, given how both Hamlet and the Ghost lament at how much less of a man Claudius is than his  brother, lacking the old king’s looks, intelligence, charisma, etc.  But Sir Patrick’s Claudius here is so commanding and impressive that, aside from the whole assassination business, it doesn’t really seem like such a bad thing that he’s the king.

The one thing I didn’t care for in Sir Patrick’s performance here was his very last moment, a bit of business that Sir Patrick apparently did in the stage production as well.  The text of the play in Act V, Sc. II is unclear on the action when Hamlet tells Claudius “Drink this potion!” followed by “[King Dies.]”  It’s often interpreted as Hamlet pouring the drink down Claudius’s throat.  Here, Hamlet has Claudius at the point of the poisoned foil, and of course Claudius has been cut already by the same foil and is doomed anyway.  Hamlet puts the goblet in Claudius’s hand and demands that he drink it.  Claudius considers what to do for a moment, then shrugs, takes the drink, and dies.  It’s an interesting interpretation, I guess; is it because he’s dying anyway and wants it to be quicker, or is it that he feels guilty and fairly defeated and decides to go out like an “antique Roman”?  But the problem is that Sir Patrick’s shrug is just too broad.  It gave the moment an incongruously comical effect.  I think he could’ve conveyed the same acquiescence with a subtler expression or gesture.

Ophelia here is Mariah Gale, who gives a much better performance than Lalla Ward did in 1980.  Her Ophelia comes off stronger and more assertive, which somewhat mollifies her submissive actions and mental fragility in the text, even if it clashes with them a bit.  She’s not quite as weepy and hopeless in the first few acts.  And when Polonius’s death drives her mad, it’s a more self-possessed madness with genuine rage and accusation behind it.  Indeed, Gale’s performance makes me wonder if this Ophelia was pulling a Hamlet, feigning her lunacy in order to get people off their guard while she sought answers.

Hey, there’s an interesting thought.  What if Ophelia was getting too close to the truth… and Gertrude wanted to protect Hamlet from exposure… and she met Ophelia out by the willow by the brook and pushed her in?  If so, she certainly managed her coverup more cleanly than Claudius did.

My reaction to Penny Downie as Gertrude isn’t too different from how I described Claire Bloom’s 1980 performance — solid, not a standout, notable for a distractingly plunging neckline.  But I think Bloom gave a clearer sense of Gertrude’s allegiances, having her choose to protect Hamlet and not tell Claudius that Hamlet knows of his crime.  Here, I’m not sure if those lines were cut or not, but I didn’t notice the same clarity.  Gertrude seemed to be equally devoted to both men and didn’t show any clear choice between them — except at the end, where Downie’s expressions show that Gertrude realizes the goblet is poisoned and chooses to drink anyway, perhaps to protect her son and expose Claudius.

Davies’ Polonius is solid, suitably pompous and dissipated, but not quite as charming as Eric Porter’s 1980 version.  Peter De Jersey as Horatio is merely okay, not the most sympathetic Horatio I’ve seen.  Mark Hadfield’s Gravedigger isn’t the showstopper the character should be.  But John Woodvine is outstanding as the Player King.  The 1980 production chose to go with an actor less impressive and accomplished than the leads, so that Hamlet’s soliloquy about the Player’s brilliance came off as incongruous.   Here, they made a wise choice of casting a highly accomplished RSC veteran in this role, and Woodvine’s recitation of Priam’s slaughter is superb, befitting Hamlet’s awe.

One other thing still bothers me, but that’s about the play itself, not the interpretation.  I mean, it all kind of loses focus in the last act or so.  It starts out as this thriller concentrating on Hamlet and Claudius, and it’s kind of a whodunnit, or rather a “did he do it?”  We have the Ghost’s accusation of murder most foul, but Hamlet isn’t just going to go off and kill a monarch on the word of an apparition that might be satanic, so he basically invents Lt. Columbo, adopting a flaky persona to get people off their guard while he investigates and gathers evidence against his prime suspect.  Okay, so when he accidentally kills Polonius, that admittedly changes the game.  And yeah, I can see how Laertes’ desire for vengeance grows out of that, and how Claudius is using Laertes as a pawn to get Hamlet killed, once his England gambit failed.  But the last act is all over the place.  First Hamlet and Laertes are at each other’s throats over Ophelia’s grave, but then nobody finds it odd that the very next thing the King does is to arrange a swordfight between them?  Where’s Admiral Ackbar when you need him?  And the whole Hamlet-vs.-Claudius throughline of the play is kind of lost in the chaos, almost a sidebar rather than the climactic confrontation you’d expect.  It reminds me of modern movies, where a strong story in the first two acts is often lost beneath obligatory action and spectacle in the final act.  But then, Shakespeare was probably subject to a lot of the same creative pressures.

Indeed, there’s a lot of stuff thrown into Hamlet that distracts from the core story — minor characters who have their bits and then vanish, pieces of business that have nothing to do with anything else.  It feels like Shakespeare was keeping his whole repertory company in mind and writing in scenes that played to all their strengths.  Maybe the regular Globe-going audience got to know these players and wanted to see their favorites have their moments, so WS made a point of writing in cameo scenes that let them do their schticks.  Heck, it’s not like he expected this to be great literature that would be remembered and studied for centuries.

So that’s the second Patrick Stewart/Time Lord Hamlet.  Is it better than the first?  Hard to say.  Jacobi and Tennant are both brilliant Hamlets in their own distinctive ways.  I’d say Tennant’s style was more modern, a lot of his delivery more convincing and natural, and he avoided the few flaws in Jacobi’s performance.  He mugged and goofed around a bit too much, but so did Jacobi.  But in terms of which performer is the most compelling to watch and listen to, it’s a tossup.  Maybe Jacobi has the edge in the listening department and Tennant in the watching department.  As for Sir Patrick, he’s immeasurably better here than he was 29 years earlier, and he’s in two roles.  Plus we have the far superior interpretations of Ophelia by Mariah Gale and the Player King by John Woodvine.  So in terms of performances, I’d give this one the edge by a good margin.  But the modern setting doesn’t always work, and the editing is misjudged; too many significant parts were cut out, and some unnecessary parts were left in.  (For instance, given the removal of Fortinbras from the bulk of the play, the whole “ambassadors to Norway” bit served no purpose.)  Still, I’d say both are definitely worth seeing, as much for their contrasts in interpretation as for their individual merits.

So am I the only one who, after Hamlet died, kept expecting him to regenerate?  “The rest… is silence.  I don’t want to go!”

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