Posted by Sari
Hamlet is my favourite of Shakespeare's great tragedies. Its poetry is unsurpassed, and its themes are so rich that there is always room for new interpretations. It is also a play that is easily reduced into a parody of itself: an oidipal mad prince spouting a potpourri of famous quotations about life, universe and everything. It is perhaps then not surprising that none of the productions I have seen, mostly on film, really hit the mark. As a matter of fact, my favourite Hamlet on film has thus far been Iain Glen in Stoppard's film of his own play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead – partly, I suppose, because the structure of the play leaves Hamlet a mystery. Ros and Guil were never able to glean what afflicts him.
As luck would have it, Hamlet seems to be in vogue and thus there are new opportunities to meet the melancholy dane even for us living far away from the anglophone stages. BBC has adapted RSC's much lauded version with David Tennant for TV, and National Theatre streamed a live performance of their equally acclaimed version to movie theatres around the world in December.
The RSC production is the older one and already out on DVD. It shouldn't surprise anyone that The Tenth Doctor is a good Hamlet. Tennant has been doing RSC productions for quite a while, and his nervous, physical energy translates well to the part. I especially liked how he is almost unrecognisable with his solemn suit and flat hair in his first scene, and how differently he plays the first monologue compared to the others, like a breakdown. It is only after the ghost's news he transforms his sleeked back hair into the more familiar unruly mop and brings his more familiar almost manic style to play. His Hamlet is clearly a young volatile man in a situation over his head, his vulnerability underlined by his bare feet. The supporting cast is good, especially Penny Downie as Gertrude and Patrick Stewart as a cool Claudius. Mariah Gale's Ophelia was probably the best I have seen, though I have to say that to make Ophelia's descent into madness credible you have rely heavily on extra-textual elements. As it is written, her character just does not make sense as anything else except a symbol.
Gregory Doran's direction has been transferred to film fairly statically, most of the action stays in the throne room, until the scene between Gertrude and Hamlet after which - maybe mirroring Hamlet's move from introspection to action – there is lots more variety in scenery. All in all, I found the direction and staging relatively unobtrusive giving the actors room to breathe.
As interesting and succesfull as RSC Hamlet is, the National Theatre's version wins this competition hands down. There are a number of similarities between the productions. Both have a modern setting, Cornelius has been transformed into Cornelia, and as the RSC/BBC did with the cctv images marking the change of scenes, the National Theatre's version also draws attention to the act of observation, of being under scrutiny.
Hytner's direction at National Theatre takes the interpretation further. Here Denmark is a modern dictatorship masquerading as democracy, Polonius is brilliantly transformed from a bumbling fool to a sinister spymaster, and Hamlet's personal revenge is balanced with the politics of a police state. Everybody is always under surveillance in this Elsinore, everyone is maintaining a public image. Claudius' first speech is a televised address, and the whole tragic massacre seems to bring little change, as the play closes with young Fortinbras lamenting the events to his own camera crew.
The actors are almost all superb. Patrick Malahide's Claudius is a masterpiece of malevolence. ”My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” made my blood run cold. Clare Higgins' psychologically astute Gertrude, corrupted by the power structures she depends on, drowns her self doubt and loathing to drink. Ruth Negga's Ophelia made more sense than most, and her death – murdered by secret police – gave more insight into Gertrude as she knowingly lies to Laertes about her fate.
But all this would be nothing without Rory Kinnear's award-winning performance as Hamlet. He is simply blindingly good. He somehow manages to make the soliloquies sound both new and right, he deftly deleniates between Hamlet playing mad and Hamlet loosing himself, and he is able to change his register from comedy to tragedy in a heartbeat. His stage presence is hypnotic, his diction is clear and natural and the way he humanises the character makes for a coherent and extremely satisfying interpretation. The end result is the perfect Hamlet for our time.