The Play’s the Thing


Shakespeare’s meditation on death and desire has seen four hundred years of presentation and interpretation, but its most recent production by the Royal Shakespeare Company is really something quite special. David Tennant and Patrick Stewart have now taken these roles to a film version of the performance, which can be found here.  While standard filming techniques (editing, closeups, etc) are employed, it is certainly not a movie; the film medium simply allows the audience to move about the stage. However, it does allow director Gregory Doran to explore the subthemes of privacy, narcissism, and humanity, while highlighting some wonderful acting.

David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in Hamlet (

The opening scene reveals much about Doran’s Hamlet before Francisco and Bernardo even open their mouths. The guards’ attire is definitely more reminiscent of the year 2000 rather the year 1600, they carry rifles and flashlights, and the encounter is shot through a security camera. Once the observer becomes accustomed to reconciling Elizabethan English with suits and ties, the costumes and setting become much less distracting, directing attention instead to dialogue and expression. Every line has a motivation; in the middle of Shakespeare’s monologue-heavy script, conversations are built around body language. Variation of both dialogue speed and emotional pitch ensure constant engagement. The audience becomes a confidant to Hamlet in his asides, drawn into his dilemma by closeup shots and Tennant’s exceptional talent for not blinking. At all.

Simple, boldly elegant, and very public, the sets underscore Hamlet’s position as a state figure. The glassy surfaces of the throne room motivate the echoes that underlie the conversations in it, adding to the pressure  on the prince of Denmark; he cannot be a private person. This palace does not have arrases for Polonius and Claudius to hide behind, but rather one-way mirrors. When, through a security camera, we see Hamlet reach up and rip the camera out, the line “Now I am alone” takes on a whole new meaning. Fortunately for the movement of the play, the set does allow more intimate conversations, usually grouped up against a wall or pillars.

Hamlet’s acquisition of a camcorder lends another twist to the production. Initially he uses it to record the king’s reaction to the players’ story, but it later becomes a video log for the audience of Hamlet’s thoughts. As his monologues unfold, he becomes fascinated by the drama of his own plight and his masquerade as a madman. Tennant’s Hamlet is not tortured by death, but rather by life.

I could go on. I could talk about Stewart’s supurb command of every scene he walks into, of the complexity given to Polonius’ character, and of Ophelia knowing more than she lets on. I could comment on the exclusion of Fortinbras in the closing scene, and then conclude by stringing together a sentence using the words “modern”, “relevant”, “new audience”, and “classic”. I’ll spare you, and rather say: You’ve got the link, it’s summer, and you have three hours to spare. Watch Hamlet. It’s worth it.

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Alright, folks. I need another posting prompt. Otherwise I cannot be held responsible for whatever next appears on my blog. Ready? Go.


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