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DVD Review: Discovering Hamlet

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It was 1988. Kenneth Branagh, now one of the stalwarts of the British theatre, was still in the process of making a name for himself. A year earlier he had started a theatre company of his own, The Renaissance Theatre Company, and for its second season he wanted to stage a production of the greatest of all the plays in the English language, Hamlet, with himself in the leading role. He persuaded celebrated actor, Sir Derek Jacobi, a successful Hamlet in his own right to make his directorial debut in the production. The story of that collaboration from its production meetings, through its rehearsals to its dress rehearsal and opening night is the subject of Mark Olshaker’s 53-minute documentary narrated by Patrick Stewart, Discovering Hamlet, soon to be available in a two-DVD set from Athena.

The actual documentary is supplemented by more than three hours of interviews with Jacobi and the cast and crew together with backstage footage of rehearsals, director notes and even the opening night cast party. Anyone at all interested in the process of taking a play from the page and putting it on its feet will be fascinated by the insights gleaned from both the final product and the extensive collection of additional material. It should be noted that most of what is here seems clearly to have been unused footage shot for the documentary. Indeed, bits of interviews and shots from the rehearsals cut into the film can be seen in their original context. What is left for this supplementary material is often very raw footage. Sound, especially during the notes and some of the rehearsals, is not always up to par, and the camera jumps about at times. This is the price one has to pay for this kind of intimate access behind the scenes.

In his several interviews during the process as well as one 30-minute interview many years later, Jacobi shares some of his thoughts about the play and the playwright as well as the relationship between the actor and the director. It is interesting that this was his first and indeed his only attempt at directing. It is not, he says, that he was unhappy with the experience; it is more that he finds that experiencing the audience’s reactions is an important part of the process for the actor, and that is something the director never experiences in the same way. Asked about the importance of the play and the significance of Shakespeare, he sometimes tends to fall back on generalities and platitudes. The play is universal. The playwright knows so much about human nature. Asked to define Hamlet in two sentences, he finds he can’t do it. He can’t even try. It either says something about the complexity of the play, or the silliness of the question.

This is not to say that he has no interesting ideas. There are as many Hamlets, he says, as there are actors ready to play the part. In other words there is no one way to play the Dane. It is a role that is open to a variety of interpretations. It can be played by a wide variety of actors. The play, he feels, is essentially about acting—there is the play within the play, but more importantly because all the characters are pretending to be something they’re not. Claudius is a political charmer, and the audience must see that in him. Polonius must be treated seriously and not as a buffoon, as he is in some productions. Then there is his one great innovation: he wants the famous “To be or not to be” speech spoken to Ophelia rather than as a soliloquy. When Branagh does it in rehearsal, it does work very effectively.

Jacobi spends a lot of time on the stage with the actors when he directs. At times you can see him mouthing the lines along with them. This is so noticeable that Olshaker even asks him about it in one of the interviews. Jacobi sort of dismisses the subject by pointing out that other directors tend to sit in the audience and take notes. The actor in him seems to force him onto the stage. The problem is that from that perch he tends to show the actor the movement he wants and even give line readings, something many actors frown upon.

Perhaps because of his relationship with Olshaker, perhaps because Branagh had not yet realized his stardom, Jacobi is the ‘Hamlet’ of this documentary. Branagh is around, but the focus is on Jacobi. In a little pamphlet included with the DVD set, Olshaker points out that Branagh wasn’t completely satisfied with his performance. He quotes him as saying about ten years later: “I produced a hectic Hamlet, high on energy but low on subtlety and crucially lacking depth.” What he lacked, he felt, was Jacobi’s life experience. Nonetheless, the critical reception of the production was quite good. Even in the rehearsals it is easy to see the electricity of his performance.

Anyone interested in acting and the theatre, anyone interested in Shakespeare will find Discovering Hamlet a goldmine. It is not often one gets to see what goes on behind the scenes. They say that once you’ve seen how the sausage is made, you’ll never eat sausage again. Hamlet is no sausage, and once you’ve seen how meticulously this Hamlet was made, you will have nothing but respect and admiration for those who made it.

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