television, theatre

“Heaven Make Me Free Of It”: Doran and Tennant’s Hamlet

"Should I gurn yet, Gregory?"

I had a ticket to see David Tennant’s Hamlet at Stratford. Work commitments and the vagaries of the British rail network meant I had to leave my seat vacant, though – so hurrah for the BBC, who on Boxing Day aired a 3 hour film version of Gregory Doran’s production.

‘Film version’ over-emphasises the concessions to the medium made in transition: there are no real camera tricks here (a few shots of the action seen in CCTV footage notwithstanding), and the frames hold langurously to the actors and their lines. What mininal reaction shots there are are beautifully chosen – early on, for instance, Tennant’s face is shown several times as Claudius speaks of his grief. Occassionally, too, characters speak direct to camera, though tastefully always during soliloquys and always fleetingly – “Aye, there’s the rub,” Tennant admits to us in a moment of affecting eye-contact candour.

The main joy of the transition is in the location – the house in which it is set, all black marble and dark woods, is shot gloriously, and is in perfect tandem with the indeterminately modern dress and the direction of key scenes (particularly, for instance, the ‘nunnery’ scene or that in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question Hamlet about Polonius’s corpse). In blue and black hues, the film encourages paranoia and foreboding – those CCTV cameras feature heavily – and the unshowy framing nevertheless exhibits variety enough to entertain.

Largely, though, this is a cleverly filmed play, static and concentrated on language and the actor’s physicality. This is all the better, because the film’s purpose is clearly to record, in the way of Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen’s King Lear, the gathering of a rare cast in a landmark production. The character of Hamlet is often put into relief by those who surround him, and Tennant’s is well served by the supporting players: Penny Downie’s powerful Gertrude and Mariah Gale’s fragile Ophelia, Peter de Jersey’s doleful Horatio and John Woodvine’s sonorous Player King, but especially Oliver Ford Davies’s subtle and memorable Polonius. Even Osric (played with obsequious glee by Ryan Gage) is done rather well.

Patrick Stewart, though, as almost all the reviews at the time pointed out, is a quite singular Claudius: sympathetic but also monstrous, regretful but relentless. His ‘my offence is rank’ speach is quite simply a masterclass: full of emotion but far from declamatory, all control and restraint whilst also deeply affecting. His wolfish half-smiles at Ophelia’s funeral are beautiful; in his conversation with the newly rebellious Laertes, he is commanding but also, one feels, not a little foolhardy: there is in this King something of the Prince, just far better repressed. Stewart’s Claudius, too, longs for the bare bodkin.

The comparison between Claudius and Hamlet is less kind to Tennant. His Prince is at times furiously convincing – in the Closet scene he is rivetting, as in his ‘I am alone’ soliloquy and his confrontation over a recorder with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the exchange with Horatio in which he admits regretting “that to Laertes I forgot myself”. But where Claudius is a study in control, perhaps fittingly – but not always successfully – this production’s Hamlet spins wildly. Sometimes, it works – in that gloriously changeable scene with his erstwhile university friends, and also in some of the scenes with Polonius (though this be madness…). In others, however, it simply feels over-played or shapeless – “O, that this too solid flesh would melt” is too much too soon, and in the exchange with Claudius about Polonius’s death the madness is played more than the emnity; the stuff with the players, particularly just prior to and during their performance, is far too broad and open, whilst the “Dost come here to whine?” rant against Laertes’s grief starts well but veers into raving. Close-ups often help Tennant’s pacing – “to be or not to be” is rendered memorable primarily by its intimacy, so too his stately “how all occassions do inform against me” – but how far this is direction propping up delivery is harder to tell outside of the theatre.

Still, what Tennant achieves is a Hamlet simultaneously coherent – he is to some extent pretending madness – but also, crucially, quixotic – how far he knows himself, controls himself, becomes increasingly uncertain, though by the play’s close all has resolved into fatalism. This is no small achievement. Indeed, it’s a considerable one, and with along with the production’s other virtues makes it well worth watching, and a key contribution to the play’s storied history. This version emphasises Hamlet’s refusal to remain within a limited system – by contrast, Laertes (a comparatively weak Edward Bennett) buys into Claudius’s power structure, whilst the King’s own will to power allows him to withstand the lash upon his conscience. But, despite the bankruptcy of this acceptance, Doran is ambivalent about the wisdom of rejection, since there is no real alternative to that against which Hamlet rails. Claudius at least achieves peace where old Hamlet did not, and the effect of the Prince’s choice upon the other characters, and indeed all of Denmark, is catastrophic. This Hamlet is maddened but also, in all ways, a little maddening – and that is no bad thing.


5 thoughts on ““Heaven Make Me Free Of It”: Doran and Tennant’s Hamlet

  1. Catho says:

    Hey Dan

    I was also unable to see Tennant’s Hamlet live onstage in stratford and Like you I was pleased to find the BBC had decided to adapt it to the screen for boxing day. I pretty much agree with your review of it; Stewart’s Claudius was definetely a stand out. I was very pleased with the way Ophelia was portrayed, Mariah Gale was rather impressive I thought. I was probably more pleased with Tennants Hamlet than you were. In fact I might go as far as to say it might of been the best Hamlet I’d seen on screen! With most sreen adaptations of Hamlet I’ve always been slightly dissapointed with the performance of ‘To be or not to be’ Tennent was the first not to do this. For all the hamming up Actors seem to be incapable of resisting when playing such a glorious part, on screen I’ve found when it gets to that speech they get pulled down by the weight of great performances of the past into underplaying. Maybe it was because this was adapted straight from a stage production but Tennent was brave enough not to let that happen. Anyway glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. Forgive any errors in Grammer I’m in a bit of rush.


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  5. Finally got around to watching this – somewhat embarrassingly, though I’ve seen bits and pieces of other adaptations, this was the first time I’d seen the whole play through. I agree with most of your observations – particularly your praise for Polonius and Claudius – but I liked Tennant’s Hamlet a little more than you did. He seemed to be playing Hamlet as Holden Caulfield – furiously intelligent, and absolutely enraged at the corruption and falsity that permeates nearly everyone around him, but as you say, unable to offer a coherent alternative. His manic antics struck me as a typically teenage reaction to the conviction that everyone around him is a phony and the recognition that he is nevertheless under their power (in fact if there’s one problem with Tennant’s performance it is that, baby-faced as he is, he is clearly too old for the role – something that feels particularly blatant when the production insists on dressing him in silly t-shirts and converse sneakers).

    Without taking away from Stewart’s magnificent performance I think the added layer of complexity you identify in Claudius also derives from Tennant’s version of Hamlet. By putting such a judgmental, sanctimonious, self-absorbed take on the character at the center of the play (I was particularly struck by his inability to grasp that Leartes’s grief and desire for revenge for Polonius’s death are as legitimate as his own, as evident in his supercilious apology before their duel), the production goes some way towards validating the other characters’ willingness to compromise, even when what they’re compromising is their morals. This holds for Gertrude as well as Claudius – when Hamlet denounces her for her lust and declares that she must be too old to feel love for Claudius, he comes off as priggish, and Gertrude’s mute protest gives the lie to his youthful absolutism.

    My only real complaint was with Ophelia, which is in part a problem with the character rather than the actress, but this production’s version of her was so low-key, even when Hamlet begins abusing her, that her transition to madness after Polonius’s death made no sense to me.

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