– defend us.
Which, yes, is a line I’m fond of from Star Trek IV. That’s part of the fun of and also part of the distraction found in watching Shakespeare: That line was the title of an Edmund Crispin novel; that’s one of the most famous lines anywhere; “Conscience of the king”, haven’t seen that Star Trek episode in ages; oh, look, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not dead yet…
Last night PBS aired something I’ve been salivating for: the film adaption of David Tennant’s stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company as Hamlet. With, I was slightly giddy to see, Patrick Stewart as Claudius. I was (obviously) excited – and I was really disappointed that they were airing it on a Wednesday night. I didn’t think they usually did Great Performances then – I suppose they do, I just haven’t been paying attention. Oh well – I watched it. I enjoyed it, by and large. And, being me, herein I shall discuss it.
Something that always confuses me is the complaint by – oh, a whole lot of people, that they can’t understand a word of a Shakespeare play. Maybe I’m just peculiar (maybe?) but I generally have very few problems. Granted, a line like “Against the which, a moiety competent Was gaged by our king” is more easily comprehended on the page than otherwise, but obscurities can usually be defined by context, or they’re past so quickly that whether or not you catch every word is irrelevant. The main reason I had to scamper to catch up with this rendition was that it was extremely fast-paced – David Tennant in particular, when he gets a full head of steam, speaks very quickly. An example of that – both speedinesses – was when the ghost kept intoning “SWEAR!” and Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus kept scrambling from place to place; they lost me completely.
All in all, to my surprise, this wasn’t my favorite version or favorite performance of Hamlet. That still goes to Derek Jacobi, in the BBC Complete Works set (in which Patrick Stewart played … Claudius. With curly hair). That was mind-altering; it shifted the light and shadows of the play and moved me to tears. I really kind of expected this to pull it off. It didn’t… I love David Tennant. And I think he was very good; a drawback for me was occasionally hearing that tone in his “mad” voice, and instantly flashing to Doctor Who. He can’t help it: it’s his voice. And I can’t help it – he was 10 for five years. I think his “to be or not to be” was lovely – he’s exhausted. Several times in the play Hamlet references bad dreams – it’s not hard to figure that they’re either fouling what sleep he is getting or keeping him from falling asleep for fear of “what dreams may come” (there’s another one, and yes I do know the quote refers to death). My main problem with it, the whole act, was that t-shirt. It’s hard to focus on a tragic monologue when the monologuer is wearing a T limning a wicked six-pack. (I admit it – I do have some issues with modern-dress versions of Shakespeare. But this shirt was especially problematic.) But before the shirt hove into view, the use of the backlit three-quarter profile was just gorgeous…
In that monologue it felt a true moment of Hamlet, off-guard, unguarded. He did a lovely job with it, I think. That is a man who is beaten down by exhaustion, grief and fear, fury and revenge, compunction and duty…
And in the scenes that immediately follow I feel like the character is really defined. He does love Ophelia – and Tennant’s face and voice show this when she comes on. He thrusts her away because he can’t afford the distraction, perhaps, or he’s cutting ties; or simply as another arrow in his crazy quiver. I don’t think he ever cared for Polonius – I would expect he was fairly put out with him for continuing on in his post and serving Claudius as he did Hamlet’s father – so the childish japing with him probably was rather fun for him… And then come Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or Guildenstern and Rosencrantz). That scene is heart-breaking. They are his friends – he loves them; they seem like an odd trio, with Hamlet as sharp as he is and the other two so very dull, but perhaps they’ve been friends since they were very young. And gradually he realizes that they’re not here for him – not in the way they want him to think. R&G are miserable actors, and they can’t hide it: he forces them to confess that they were sent for. Betrayal. They lied to him – repeatedly; as soon as he knows they were sent for he knows full well they’re there as spies. Base betrayal… So, now, what have we? Father dead. Bad enough for one year. Mother remarries with indecent haste – also bad enough – but wait: marries father’s brother. And yet they wonder that he is unhappy; the question is more one of why the rest of the lot of them are fine with the situation. Into that mire comes the horripilating ghost of his beloved father to tell him that he’s not just dead, he’s murdered – by Claudius… And into the resulting roil of that comes his two dear friends, who very quickly turn out to be not on his side. I know what the latter is like (to a lesser extent); that alone is a horror. The lines between Hamlet’s act of madness and the real onset of insanity begin to blur right about there, I think – they’d almost have to.
I’m playing it on pbs.com as I write this, and my appreciation is increasing.
I was not overfond of the use of security cameras throughout – but I did love his grabbing one down and flinging it away after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave him (after the players make their exit): “Now I am alone” becomes “Now I am alone.” And then, barefoot, he drops down against the wall and monologues about passion and courage … “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” That – now, that was beautiful.
“Now I am alone” – it could so easily have been used, and likely has been used, to mean: father dead, lover driven off, mother turned harlot with uncle, two old friends turned spy for mother and uncle… Alone. There’s still Horatio – but while another old friend he is of lower status, and little regarded among the rest of them. He’s almost Hamlet’s imaginary friend.
And the recorder scene was sharp and painful, and excellent –
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of
me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know
my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
the top of my compass: and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot
you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am
easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you
cannot play upon me.
I think I really hate R&G.
The graveyard scene was one of the best.
I was less than enthusiastic about much of the supporting cast – disappointed in the RSC, really; Mariah Gale as Ophelia I didn’t entirely care for. She’s a fine actress, but I felt too old for the part, and not entirely convincing as an innocent maiden who could be driven mad by her lover’s madness and father’s death. (I want very much to see Helena Bonham Carter’s performance again.) The mad scenes should have hurt; though the very last scene nearly did (and “There’s a daisy” was actually quite funny) these were partly hard to watch simply because of the annoying trick of shooting into the broken mirror, and because Ms. Gale can’t sing very well. Laertes in other productions has broken my heart; this one didn’t manage it. And I thought the leather jacket was mildly silly. Also, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern weren’t the only ones in those skins who weren’t the best actors.
Gertrude was played by Penny Downie. The loving mother – she really is, mostly – and grieving widow – really – and loving wife – truly. I’d love to see some take someday on how she reconciled and justified the whole mess, whether she was always in love with Claudius – just how that marriage came about. She was pretty wonderful (and so were her gowns), as was Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) – and I loved how they played together. Overall the varied treatment of Polonius was very well done… He was the old windbag who really is still a valuable staff member, if not as sharp as he once was. Claudius treats him just that way, with an amused understanding and tolerance and an appreciation for his work. Gertrude, though, is utterly exasperated by him and makes no effort to hide it. Laertes and Ophelia are the adult children who know his speeches by heart, and love him however long-winded he is. He meant well.
Uncle Patrick – sorry, SIR Uncle Patrick! I had no idea. How wonderful. I love David Tennant – and I have long adored Patrick Stewart. (Wiki: “Stewart has expressed interest in appearing in Doctor Who“. Calloo. Don’t tease.) And he was, of course, lovely here… ruthless, glibly lying when necessary… Uncle Patrick couldn’t give a bad performance if he tried. The only thing I did not like, which he (according to the “Behind the Scenes” they showed at the end) was most pleased with, was the shrug before he took the cup from Hamlet … It didn’t seem right. He seemed remarkably unmoved by Gertrude’s death. He may have known it was all coming to an end, all, but I was disappointed in the whole last scene.
I was even more disappointed that, while I approved of bringing it to a close at “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”, PBS gave that line about two seconds to reverberate before they merrily jounced into the “Behind the Scenes”. It was awful – three hours of intense Shakespeare, undermined. Ill done. It was very hard to appreciate anything they had to say, however clever the whole thing with mirrors was, while still reeling a bit from the shock.
It was a strange time to be watching, because I had a bloody awful couple of days of it, Tuesday and Wednesday. What with one thing and another, I was sitting with a sort of smirk of recognition at far too much of what Hamlet had to say:
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life in a pin’s fee…
Hamlet is a peculiar thing to watch when you’re depressed.
If I have time and inclination this weekend I may well hold a mini-Shakespeare marathon. It’s been too long.