There are many reactions when it comes to Shakespeare and his plays. When I had to read it in high school, I sort of liked it, but found it hard to follow along (thank God for Cliff Notes!). When I reached college and I got to perform some of his plays in various theater classes I loved it and learned that Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read, it was meant to be seen!
Since then I’ve really liked Shakespeare and was part of the “Shakespeare in The Park” my college put on in the summer for a number of years, which included Hamlet. Throughout the years there have been various takes on how to perform the play, including being set in modern times, the 1600s as originally produced, and more.
The great thing about a universal story like Hamlet is that the story is so well known that I don’t have to worry about spoilers. At one point in their school career students have had to read, sit through or perform in a production of Hamlet. The story has been enticing audiences for centuries; Hamlet is the Danish prince who has discovered that his uncle had killed his father, claimed the kingdom of Denmark, and married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Many actors have taken on the roles of Hamlet and Claudius over the years including Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, and too many others to list.
This Hamlet particularly intrigued me as it stars David Tennant (Doctor Who) as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: TNG, X-Men). The play was the reason there were only four Doctor Who specials instead of a full season this past year. The show was a tremendous success partly because of rabid Doctor Who and Star Trek fans; so much so that there were signs posted that no Doctor Who or Star Trek memorabilia would be signed after the show. When I heard that the BBC would be filming the show for a DVD release, I was very happy as there was no way I could have seen it otherwise.
Rather than filming it in the theater, it was filmed on location and is a modern dress production. I sat down to watch eager to how Tennant would take on the role. For the first few minutes I was watching The Doctor as Hamlet, but Tennant is an accomplished performer as well as a Shakespeare veteran and while his Doctor is manic, fun, and occasionally dark, Hamlet is dark, calculating, wears his heart on his sleeve, and is quite mad. Within a few minutes all thoughts of the Doctor faded from my mind and I was watching this tortured individual who has lost his father, been betrayed by his uncle, and concocts a plot to reveal his uncle’s treachery by pretending to be mad. But the madness overtakes him and all of Hamlet’s friends and family seem to be in on the plot from Hamlet’s POV. This role really lets Tennant flex his thespian muscles.
Patrick Stewart is a classically trained actor who was in another production as Claudius some 30 years ago and as Claudius is calculating, plotting, and the opposite of Hamlet and keeps most of his emotions buried. But Stewart lets you know there’s more going on underneath the surface and turns in a captivating performance.
And of course there’s the fact that this production is a fanboy's dream as you have Doctor versus Jean-Luc Picard, but it’s so much more than that. This version might draw in a bigger audience because of who the actors are, but it’s their talent that makes it worth viewing.
The movie is presented in 1080i/60 AVC/MPEG-4 encoding. I’m not sure this needed to be on Blu-ray as most plays filmed for video look good, but don’t have the look of the big budget films. The picture looks lifelike with flesh tones looking natural; however the background looks a bit soft with black the levels looking more grey than they should.
Hamlet is presented with a LPCM 2.0 soundtrack. The dialogue is mostly clear; however there are points where the sound gets a bit muffled and difficult to understand. That can be a problem when trying to watch a DVD, but more so when trying to watch Shakespeare, which can get complicated and you need to hear every syllable.
Hamlet comes with a commentary from director Gregory Doran, director of photography Chris Seager, and producer Sebastian Grant. The trio discusses all aspects of the production, the choices that the actors and director made and more. As someone who has a degree in theatre, I found this was truly a worthwhile listen; my only wish is that David Tennant and/or Patrick Stewart would have been part of the commentary.
“Behind the Scenes” delves into adapting the play for film, as well as interviews with the cast and crew.
Finally “Think Theatre” is a promotional spot for the Royal Shakespeare Company.