I guess you might think that all I talk about is stuff that has to do with David Tennant. I promise that this is not the case. Mostly. He just happens to be closely connected with things I dearly love. Like the U.K. Science Fiction. Shakespeare. Hotness. I have the same problem with Patrick Stewart for all the same reasons. I’m sure you all know where this is going.


Oh yes, it’s Hamlet! As most of you know, the Royal Shakespeare Company sent SciFi/Shakespeare/U.K./Hotness fans into a tizzy a few years ago when they announced that their 2008 production of Hamlet would star David and Patrick in leading roles (Hamlet and Claudius, respectively).  The thought was stunning: The Doctor and Jean Luc Picard together on stage in Shakespeare’s home town!  I vividly remember the day I decided that I would see that show and I remember the day that tickets went on sale.  I bought a few of them and 1o months later I took the trip across the pond just so I could witness what promised to be a momentous event in pop culture and live theater history.  I was delighted by the fact that so many folks took the very same trip from all over the world.


Nightsky wrote a great review of the stage production a little while back, so I won’t talk much about that.  But I will say that the live performance was astonishing.  I’ve seen this play performed many times and this particular production was so fresh and lively. The choices made by the director, the actors, and even the set designers were all pivotal and so effective. The whole company worked together so seamlessly under Gregory Doran’s brilliant direction that it was easy to forget about the two world-famous actors and just watch as the story unfolded. (However, when David uttered the immortal line, “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” I had to hold in my gleeful laughter. But I did let out an audible snort when Patrick waved his hand and said imperially, “See that it is so.” I couldn’t help it!)


You can imagine my joy when the RSC announced that they would film this production for DVD release. Same cast. Same set. Same mood and feel and atmosphere. But this time, everyone would be able to see it. You’d think that I would be most excited about having a copy to watch over and over again (which I will). Actually, much to my surprise, I’m MOST excited that everyone else can finally see the amazing production that I saw. Starting May 4th (that’s today!) when the Region 1 DVD is released here in the U.S., I can finally show everyone what I’ve been talking about for almost two years.


Actually, I can show you now! PBS put the entire production up on their website after they broadcast it in its entirety last Wednesday night as part of the Great Performances series. I stayed up and watched the whole thing, riveted. It was so much fun to see the way they chose to adapt it to film.  Film is so much more intimate than live theater. You can see the actors’ faces, when they clench their jaws or make a slight shift of the eyes. I found myself even more engrossed this time through than when I was when seeing it live.


Some things about the film version were jarring at first such as the instances during the soliloquies when the actors clobber the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera. I actually jumped the first time it happened, but I soon got used to it. It’s easy to see the attraction of this type of acting on film. Watch David perform the ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy here.  You can see how effective eye contact is in the moments he chooses to use it.


[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzuEKkPVeBQ&feature=player_embedded 560×340]


There were moments throughout the play when it seemed as if the characters gazed into the camera, through my TV, and right into my soul. I ended up really loving this new facet of the production. I felt included in the story, as if the characters purposefully wanted me to be privy to all of their secretive plans and thoughts — as if they wanted me to understand (or even condone) their actions.  I for one was delighted to be involved!


Another great choice made in the film production was the use of second-hand visuals like mirrors, security cameras and Hamlet’s little hand-held camera. Our point of view shifts often from ‘live’ to the view through one of the cameras and back again. There were moments that actually made the audience feel like we were spying on the unfolding drama. It was really effective and created a more sinister feeling overall that pervaded the whole production, which I loved. (I also love how we get a snippet of the famous ‘Hamlet Video Diaries’ a la the Doctor Who DVDs as Tennant performs a soliloquy into his hand-held camera. My fangirl self giggled with glee at the visual parallel.)


However, with these differences taken into account, the filmed production is still almost identical to what I saw on the live stage. The sets are on location, but they look the same. The furniture, the costumes, the blocking…it’s all the same. If you didn’t get to see the live performance, rest assured that this film version is closer to it than I ever thought possible. 


Along with all of these thoughts about the technical aspects of this version of Hamlet, I can’t resist putting down some of my thoughts about the actual performances you’ll see in this wonderful production.  They were quite inspiring. 


Obviously, I love this version of my favorite play. The setting is a modern day Elsinore where a modern royal family lives and acts out the famous story. Claudius is played as a peace-making king who sends ambassadors to Fortinbras. This is in stark contrast to his murdered brother, King Hamlet, who is portrayed as the ultimate soldier. In fact, if we can ignore the fact that Claudius murders people in cold blood to get what he wants, he seems to be an able king — A likable and efficient CEO, waving messengers in and out and meticulously planning his next course of action. Patrick Stewart played this to perfection. One of my favorite scenes is when Claudius calmly talks Laertes out of his vengeful rage and the two of them begin to plan Hamlet’s demise in a cold and organized fashion, as if discussing the royal budget. 


Patrick Stewart also shines in the character of King Hamlet’s Ghost. It’s unusual for one actor to play both roles, but I hope it becomes a trend. In this case it really worked.


The most exciting thing about this production for me is the new insight I gained into Hamlet’s character. David Tennant doesn’t win all of those acting awards for nothing. His portrayal of the young prince invites pity but also helps us see Hamlet for who he really is.  The romance is stripped away and Hamlet stands before us as a smart alec college kid who is really sad that his family has been split up like this. Tennant lets the childish sorrow show nakedly in his face and speeches. Two of the most moving moments in the whole play happen when, in the individual scenes with each of his parents, Hamlet throws his arms around them in his anguish; both his mother and his ghostly father hug him back in turn.  Instead of the brooding, tortured protagonist, we see a kid. A kid who wishes things could go back to the way they were before everything was turned upside down. 


We also see the funny kid who is popular with all of his college friends, who is full of physical energy. We see the annoying kid who lectures the theater troupe on how to deliver their lines. And we see the earnest, serious young man who is determined to fulfill his dead father’s wishes for revenge.


And that’s always one of the big themes, isn’t it? Revenge. Revenge and Madness. Those seem to be the two big ones when an AP English class dissects this play for study. I was struck by how desperately Tennant’s Hamlet wanted to be consumed by both of these things. He acts mad with grief, but reveals to us that he really isn’t mad. He’s actually quite sane. Sane enough to realize that he’s not insane enough to commit suicide. Sane enough to rip out a surveillance camera so he can talk to us in secret. It is only when we see Ophelia later in the play, a character truly driven mad by her father’s wrongful death, that we realize how ridiculous Hamlet’s efforts at insanity are. And, funnily enough, Hamlet comes to the same conclusion.


But he continues the farce of insanity, meanwhile trying even harder to work up his desire for vengeance. He is raving with rage! Or is he? I never realized how self-aware Hamlet is as a character until I watched Tennant run up to the camera and ask us plaintively, “Am I a coward?” Tennant squeezes every drop of meaning out of these speeches, illuminating a version of Hamlet who is desperately trying to experience a depth in his passions, but can’t quite make it. Again, it is only when Laertes shows up that we see what a real desire for vengeance looks like. Hamlet’s murderous rage seems to pale in comparison.


This view of Hamlet throws the rest of his actions into a new light. His musings on death and religion are quite in earnest. His questions are real and we see that he is actually searching for the answers instead of merely waxing philosophical for soliloquies’ sake. I loved this about David Tennant’s performance. He plays Hamlet as young, inexperienced, and even more flawed than I’d always thought. I ended up loving the character all the more for it.


You’ll see that the rest of the actors in this company have no trouble at all holding their own with Stewart and Tennant. Oliver Ford Davies plays a brilliant Polonius and kept me laughing (and rolling my eyes) throughout. Peter De Jersey’s Horatio is another favorite of mine. The dynamic between him and Tennant was so realistic and meaningful. 

Penny Downie and David Tennant


However, it seems to me that the shining star of the supporting company is Penny Downie playing Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. I get annoyed when Gertrude is played as if she believes herself to be truly blameless. “Honestly, Hamlet. I have no idea what your problem is!” Ms. Downie shows us a woman who has been swept off her feet during her time of grief by a rich and handsome man. But in her more private moments, we see that she’ not fooled into believing it was the right thing to do. The realization that she has in fact married the villain steals slowly but surely over her countenance and her entire performance as the action unfolds. By the end of the play, her last words are defiant and we see that she has always loved her son more than the viper in their midst. This knowledge is not lost on Hamlet. His doubts about his mother’s love for him are apparent throughout the play and finally laid to rest as she warns him of treachery with her dying words.


And with that reassurance, the play comes to an end. This production nixes Fortinbras’ noisy invasion of Elsinore which leaves us to ponder the intimate final moments without all that racket in the background. Hamlet almost seems relieved by the way it all turns out, even though the body count is rather astonishing (as usual). To Tennant’s Hamlet, dying might just mean that he’ll get answers to all of those pesky questions he’s been asking. He almost seems to relax as he calmly says, “The rest is silence.” We’re left to wonder just what he sees or feels right there at the end that brings him his peace.


Which means I’ll have to watch it all over again. And again. Just to see if I can figure it out.