Hamlet (BBC2, 26th December 2009).
In the Doctor Who two parter, ‘The End of Time’, the time is clearly ‘out of joint’ for the Doctor. He has been having fun instead of being there to sort out the Master’s usurpation of the human race. In trying to set this right, the tenth Doctor hurtles towards his own death. Does this remind us of the fate that befalls the Prince of Denmark? With the scheduling of David Tennant and the RSC/Illuminations/BBC Hamlet over Christmas and New Year, making some connections between the two roles will be inevitable (see Mark Lawson in The Guardian).
Part 1: Space and place
As Hamlet ‘lugs the guts’ of Polonius ‘into a neighbour room’ through the corridors of Elsinore, I was reminded by Turner’s interior of Durham Cathedral which is exhibited in the Tate’s Turner and the Masters’ exhibition. Sun streaks through the windows in the gothic scenes. Greg Doran’s production is a modern dress production, but not specifically set in a particular place or time. Like Turner’s image it deceives us into thinking it is about a specific time, but it is actually timeless.
I wrote at length about the BFI screening of the RSC/Illuminations/BBC Hamlet, where I discussed the occasion and my first responses to the screening. Here I wanted to spend a little more time in thinking about some of the production decisions. The move from stage to the film location made me think about how a sense of place and space are so important in this interpretation of Hamlet. The mood of the production is set from the start and we realise that this is not a pleasant place when we become aware of the CCTV cameras zooming in and out. The play opens in the bowels of Elsinore and this is a semi private moment. The watch are nervous and jumpy. The viewer is directed by the camera and follows Francisco along the corridor. As in the stage production, we hear clanging and clashing of the munitions factory at work in the background. The reminder that the country is at war and the sound of weapons being manufactured continues throughout the scene, could be one possible reason for the nervousness of the apprehension of the men on the watch. At 1.1.9 Barnardo emphasises the word ‘had’ as if they expect something to have happened, but it is quiet and ironically at that point ‘not a mouse [is] stirring (1.1.10)’. We view the scene through a mix of the RED camera and the CCTV cameras which creates a feeling of foreboding and preparing the viewer for the entrance of the ghost. The CCTV cameras don’t pick up the ghost, but the audience is also made to wait for its appearance at Horatio’s line, ‘ but soft, behold, lo where it comes again (1.1.126)’.
In contrast, in the next scene we move from the cold dark corridor to a very public scene and to the extravagant main throne room (1.2). This room seems to be about the same size as the Courtyard stage, and much of the blocking in the scene seems to have been transferred from the stage production. The chandeliers, which were in the stage production, and the mirrors frame Gertrude and Claudius who are supposedly the focus of the first part of the scene. In the stage production, it was much easier to watch Hamlet’s entrance as he gently brushes Ophelia’s hand as he walks by her and takes his glass of champagne. Here the main focus for the first part of the scene is on Gertrude and Claudius with shots of Hamlet looking sadly on. In this very public scene we see Patrick Stewart’s master politician Claudius at work, and Gertrude is clearly at Claudius’ side supporting him. She prompts him to remember that Hamlet studies at ‘Wittenberg (1.2.113)’, and she looks nervously as Claudius toys with Hamlet, and pretends to address him but turns to speak to Laertes (1.2.51). Hamlet stands to the side in his formal suit and slicked back hair. He will also be in the same place for the ‘Mousetrap’ later with his hair is spiky, he will be barefoot, and actively goading the king. Where the film differs from the stage production, as I noted in my BFI posting, is that the camera directs to particular points in the scene. The Polonius family have clearly worked together on the response that Laertes will give to Claudius and as Laertes pauses at ‘and bow’ (1.2.56), he is promoted by Polonius who stands beside him mouthing the words they have agreed to say.
In the third scene, we move again into a different place, and another private moment, as the Polonius family goodbye scene is in the hall at the bottom of the stairs. The Polonius family have their own in joke mouthing Polonius’ words as if they have heard them so many times before. Ophelia draws attention to her brother’s dual standards when he requests that she protects her chastity, by revealing two condoms packed in his case. I always felt that Mariah Gale set up the scenes of Ophelia’s madness very well in this scene on stage. I felt that could really believe that the woman who falls into madness was this feisty woman, who is so close to her brother and father in 1.3. There is clearly a difference in the way Polonius responds to his daughter than he does to his son. Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius is curious to know what Laertes (Edward Bennett) has said to Ophelia and his tone is sharp as he asks, ‘what is’t, Ophelia, he hath said to you (1.3.88)?’ Oliver Ford Davies is a really funny Polonius. At times forgetting what he is about to say, and having to be prompted by those around him, but also truly loyal to Claudius.
The other space which is very significant in this production is Gertrude’s bedroom, and of course the bed is central to this scene (3.4). Gertrude is clearly frustrated and annoyed by Hamlet’s behaviours in previous scenes. Penny Downie plays the part at this moment as if she is at the end of her tether with her naughty child and takes the crown from Hamlet’s head. Hamlet’s language in this scene is full of sexual punning and innuendo. The scene is played with passion and anger across the bed in what is supposed to be the queen’s most private space, but again Hamlet is being spied on and when he realises he shoots Polonius through the glass. I felt that in a way this was much more dramatic on stage because I wondered how it was done at the Courtyard. I think the scene in the closet comes across well in the film, because the camera is able to give us that extra layer of intimacy. I think this scene shows Gertrude as an enormously powerful character in the play. This view of her is later supported when she attempts to disarm Laertes, as he enters the palace in a fury on hearing his father’s death (4.5). She is finally rejected by Claudius at Ophelia’s graveside. Claudius turns his back on her as he delivers the line ‘good Gertrude set some watch over your son’ (5.1.292) with such distaste because of the havoc Hamlet has caused.
The gravedigger scene and the burial of Ophelia is the only one of two external scenes in the production. The other is the egg-shell scene (4.4). The gravedigger scene is a scene has been cut and is slightly different from the stage production as the joke about who builds the stronger has been lost. One of the questions, that is sometimes asked is why doesn’t Horatio tell Hamlet that Ophelia is dead and so most likely the grave they witness being dug is for her. In this film, we see Horatio (Peter De Jersey)comforting and restraining Hamlet as he works this out for himself. Here we realise that Horatio knows he couldn’t tell Hamlet the truth, because he know how deeply hurt Hamlet will be.
Part 2: Metatheatre and Mirrors
In the stage production there were many references to the stage and in the film this has taken further with the references to film and filming. In the production, as the action then moves between the corridors and rooms of Elsinore, Hamlet realises that the CCTV cameras observe his every move. He tears down the camera placed in the throne room and ironically makes the statement, ‘now I am alone (2.2.551)’. I felt that this was nice touch, but this is a pivotal moment, because from now on Hamlet starts filming everyone else.
It is a further irony that Hamlet films the play within a play, turning the reference to theatre to a reference to film at the same time. The player king (John Woodvine) is well-practiced in performing the Priam’s slaughter speech (2.2.446). The actors can chant along with him as if they have heard and seen this so many times before. The players take their craft very seriously, and the player king and queen dress so extravagantly for the Mousetrap. Ryan Gage’s player queen gives such a look of distaste at Gertrude’s ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’ (3.2.240) remark and this is highlighted in the film version. Hamlet has clearly written some of the lines and we can see which ones they are as he mouths them in the ‘Mousetrap’ scene. I felt that there were lovely shots of the player clowns, played by Ricky Champ and Jim Hooper, as Hamlet tries to persuade the player king not to let the clowns say too much (3.2.37). In the dumb show the joke of the murdered king parodies the death old Hamlet in turning into a ghost with a white sheet over him, and leaving the scene making ghost-like noises (in the stage version he was hoisted into the flies which was very funny). Hamlet, watches Claudius watching the play, through his video camera and we see what Hamlet sees. Claudius is clearly disturbed, but he acknowledges Hamlet is playing a game by walking past him and shaking his head to signal that he is aware of what Hamlet is doing.
A key metaphor in both the stage and film productions is the mirror. In the stage production, Hamlet uses the actors’ mirror and reflects it across the faces of the audience in the theatre. In the film, he can only reflect the faces of the players in the mirror. There is some humour when Hamlet proclaims ‘well, god-o-mercy’ (2.2.172)’ when he notices the two-way mirror. In the stage production he is able walk round the mirror, but in the film he looks into it, and we see him from the other side. In shooting Polonius through the mirror, the mirror shatters. The fragmented mirror then becomes a metaphor for Hamlet’s state of mind, but also for the court breaking up and falling a part from the well rehearsed show in the second scene. By the time we reach the final scene, it feels like all the mirrors in Elsinore are fragmented and broken.
Patrick Stewart said in the question and answer session at the BFI screening that he made it a condition of playing Claudius that he would also play the ghost. This seems to make sense as the two characters are brothers. As Claudius though, Stewart is also acting two parts. He is the calculated polished performer in the public scenes, but we are also privy to his anguish in a private moment as he attempt to pray. I love the way he wretches at the moment he recognises that his offence is ‘rank (3.3.36)’. At the end of the play, Claudius realises the game is up, and just shrugs his shoulders as he drinks from the poisoned cup. Here Claudius is no longer acting, or is this his best performance of the play?
Though it makes sense to double up as the ghost and Claudius in both stage and film productions. However, taking a stage production and making it into a film means that there is the issue of all the other characters who double up. Kenneth Branagh Hamlet (1996) took the opportunity of the film to bring in large crowds and even extra characters such as Ken Dodd’s Yorick. Doran’s production stays fairly close to the stage production with using all the Courtyard/Novello cast. In the stage versions other actors doubled up as well, such as Ryan Gage playing both the player queen and Osrick and the film version did well retain some actors playing several parts.
Part 3: Hamlet
In using film references, there are echoes of Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet. However, Tennant’s Hamlet is not like Hawke’s Hamlet, who is filming the court scene (1.2) from the start, and plays a moody teenager throughout. There’s an enormous amount in the blogs and on the comment boards (see The Guardian’s What did you think) about the way that David Tennant played Hamlet. I felt that David Tennant made a good job of playing Hamlet both on stage and in the film. I enjoyed the comic, energetic, and the thoughtful prince. I felt that Tennant’s strength was that he was able to bring some clarity to speeches which are sometimes difficult to understand. A very good example of this is his conversation with Rosencrantz (Sam Alexander) and Guildenstern (Tom Davey) when he compares the playing of the musical instrument to the way the two characters are attempting to manipulate him saying ‘you would play upon me (3.3.372)’. I felt Tennant was able to work through the soliloquies and pick out the changes in tone, such as in the first ‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’ (1.2.128). Here, Tennant says ‘solid’ instead of ‘sullied’ here, but there is a real show of grief in the way he delivers the soliloquy. I felt that performing the speech this way might be an enormous risk, because he falls to his knees and instead of speaking the lines clearly to the audience, he speaks them to the floor. In taking this approach there is a real danger that the words may be lost, particularly in the theatre. This is very early on in the play as well and he could lose his audience. However, he works through the shock and grief and at ‘frailty, thy name is woman (1.2.146)’, he stands up and we see his anger and frustration. From moving to a position where he does not acknowledge the audience he moves to one where he speaks directly to the camera when he talks about his ‘poor father’s body (1.2.148).
I was particularly interested in Greg Doran’s idea (see Learning Zone comment below) that characters constantly reach crossroads in the play and have to make decisions about which way to go. It’s really interesting to think of the moments when Hamlet does this. For example, the moment Hamlet chooses to put on an antic disposition on (1.5.173), when he realises that Ophelia’s father is not at home in the nunnery scene and is spying on him (3.1.115), and the example given by Greg Doran when he thinks he might kill Claudius at prayer – ‘now might I do it… (3.3.73f)’.
There are different sides to Tennant’s Hamlet. At times he could be very intense and physical. This was evident in Gertrude’s closet and as he directs the Mousetrap. Most Hamlet’s get their notebooks out to write down the ghost’s words, but this Hamlet cuts his hand at ‘set it down (1.5.108). I felt that Tennant’s Hamlet on the whole a very funny Hamlet. He is able to demonstrate how he will put on the antic disposition by changing his tone at ‘well, well, we know’ (1.5.176). Hamlet is obsessed and disgusted by female sexuality we see this in several place such as Gertrude’s closet, in the Nunnery scene, and we see this in public as Hamlet, watching the mousetrap with Ophelia, Hamlet still emphasises the first syllable of ‘country matters (3.2.125)’ as he does in the stage production. This is both crudely humorous but shocking that he could publically humiliate Ophelia in this way. He can be very cruel to Polonius and after Polonius is murdered, he behaves in the same way to Osrick. However, he is disappointed and shocked to find his two school friends ‘have been sent (2.2.274)’, and starts to mock them as well. One of the funniest moments is when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive before the play within the play with champagne and glasses and are dismissed by Hamlet 3.2.60).
Part 4: Summing up
The three hours do move very quickly and the film production we choose if we have an interval and when it will be. This means we lose the effect of placing the interval after ‘now might I do it… (3.3.73f)’. It does seem to end a little abruptly and this is probably because Fortinbras’ entrance has been cut.
I realise watching the BBC’s second and third The Learning Zone programmes, which were broadcast before the screening of Hamlet on Boxing Day, may have influenced the way I think about this production. I missed the first one and am hoping that I will be able to catch up with it at a later date. The two programmes were enormously helpful insights into the making of this production.
I do think that there were moments when it was possible to make connections between Hamlet and Doctor Who through the viewing of the Tennant’s two performances over the Christmas and New Year period. I don’t think that this is a bad thing at all. I am writing about this in other places ao won’t elaborate here.
For Tennant’s Hamlet and Doctor – ‘The rest is silence (5.2352) – that is until John Simm plays Hamlet in September at the Sheffield Crucible and Matt Smith takes over the role of the Doctor in the Spring.
All references to the Penguin edition of the text which is edited by T.J.B Spencer (of course the production doesn’t follow this text).
The Guardian – what did you think ?
Hamlet BBC Open Learn with reference to the production.
George Entwistle’s BBC Blog on the BFI screening
Illuminations – reviews blogs tweets etc about the production
Interview with David Tennant in The Observer
Mark Lawson on the TV version in The Guardian
Mark Lawson on Hamlet for The Guardian discussion about the Doctor Who Hamlet?
Mark Lawson again, but liking the comparison to Hamlet this time.
The Times on Hamlet at Christmas
David Tennant Doctor Who Greg Doran Hamlet Mariah Gale Oliver Ford Davies Patrick Stewart Penny Downie RSC Tate Britain Turner David Tennant Doctor Who Edward Bennett Greg Doran Hamlet Illuminations Keith Osborn Mariah Gale Patrick Stewart Penny Downie Ricky Champ RSC Ryan Gage Sam Alexander Tate Britain The End of Time Tom Davey Turner
I must say, there was more than a touch of the Kenneth Williams on crack about this Prince.
‘Oh that this too too solid flesh should melt!’