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DVD Review: Discovering Hamlet

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Having worked—read “lived, breathed and died”—in theatre for a little over a decade, I’ll never be what you would call a passive observer of the action taking place on a stage. In fact I’m probably the person you least want to sit beside when you’re in the audience of your local community theatre’s production of anything. If you thought the critic from your paper was a snot, before the first scene is over you’ll probably want to have me physically removed from the theatre. If it’s not the muttering under my breath about incompetent actors who shouldn’t be allowed on stage, it will be because of the constant shifting around in my seat as I fight the urge to stand up and demand the show be closed down.

And that’s just for those occasions when people are hacking their way through summer stock fare like Noel Coward or Neil Simon. When it comes to anybody foolish enough to try and attempt even the simplest of Shakespeare’s work, thinking if Mel can do it why can’t I, I turn from being merely insufferable to deranged. Usually the only difficulty I’m faced with under those circumstances is figuring out what is pissing me off the most, the fact nobody understands what they’re saying or how they attack their speeches like sprinters attempting a world record in the 100 meters.

I refuse to apologize for any appearance of snobbery or elitism these attitudes might convey, for having experienced the magic and wonder of seeing Shakespeare performed by those who know how to speak the language, anything less is tantamount to sacrilege. Unfortunately the opportunities to see these works performed at those standards are few and far between if you don’t live in a major metropolitan area or a community like Stratford, Ontario, which hosts a professional Shakespearean festival every year.

Well, if you can’t go to Shakespeare the next best thing is to bring it into your home. The new two-disc DVD package of Discovering Hamlet, from the Acorn Media Group, provides the viewer with not only a chance to see great actors at work, but also some insight into what goes on prior to what you see on stage opening night. The first disc is a documentary made of the rehearsal process for a 1988 production of Hamlet directed by Derek Jacobi and starring Kenneth Branagh. The second disc features extra footage from the film, including extended versions of the interviews with the actors in the play, choreographing the stage fight between Hamlet and Laertes that ends the play, and hanging out backstage with the actors at the opening night party.

In 1988 Branagh was just on the cusp of international renown, as his film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V would be released shortly after this production of Hamlet closed its run. He had already established himself as the next rising star of British classical theatre and was now set to climb the next rung on the ladder. As the director of the play, Derek Jacobi, says in an interview conducted many years after the film was made, the role of Hamlet is seen as a bell-weather mark for classical actors of a certain age. All the great ones, and he listed Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Redgrave, Burton, and then shyly included himself, took on the role at roughly the same point in their careers and it was now Branagh’s turn to put his stamp on it.

The impression we’re given is not only that Branagh was tackling one of the more challenging roles in classical theatre, he was also feeling the pressure to step into the shoes of those who came before him. So not only does he have to learn an amazing amount of dialogue and create a character, he also has to do so knowing that his performance will be compared with those who have come before and judged accordingly.

If you think that’s a daunting task wait until you hear the rest of what he’s up against. Hamlet was being presented by Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company in repertory with two other works by Shakespeare. Meaning, he was not only spending his days in rehearsal, at night he was performing in one of two other plays as well. The company has only four weeks in which to pull the production together with a first-time director at the helm. For while Jacobi was, and is still, an accomplished actor, this was to be his first, and he now claims his last, directing job. As Jacobi is the first to admit, just because someone is a gifted actor, it doesn’t mean they will have any talent for directing.

The movie, which is narrated very capably by Patrick Stewart, joins the actors and director in the first week of rehearsal and then follows them though to just before Branagh walks on stage on opening night. We don’t actually see his performance, although we do see clips shot during the final dress rehearsal, but what the movie does is show us the process both actors and directors go through in preparing a play as complex and difficult as Hamlet. If nothing else, viewers will gain a far better understanding of just how much work it takes to bring a piece of professional theatre to life on stage.

The actors not only are in rehearsal for close to eight hours a day, they are also expected to learn their lines when they’re not rehearsing, and are expected to have them memorized by the third if not the second week. (The fight scene I mentioned earlier was choreographed outside of the normal rehearsal hours, meaning the actors involved had to show up early that day.)

However, don’t be looking for anybody giving away any acting tips or hints on how to mount your own production of Hamlet. In fact I had forgotten how frustrating it can be to talk to actors and directors about their process for developing a character or staging a play. It’s not that they don’t know what they’re doing, it’s just not the sort of thing you can easily articulate to people who are not directly involved with the project you’re working on. While the woman (Dearbhla Molloy) playing the role of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, says something about drawing upon her relationship with her son to help her prepare for the role, that’s the closest any of the actors come to talking specifics about what they did to help them prepare. Even when we overhear the rehearsals via the camera, it doesn’t make much of a difference as everybody seems to be talking in a shorthand incomprehensible to those who don’t work in theatre. At one point we watch Jacobi giving notes to his actors—telling them things they need to work on to improve their performance—and while his words obviously mean a lot to his actors, the fact that he’s telling them they need to listen to each other more instead of anticipating their lines will probably mean nothing to those who haven’t worked in theatre in some capacity.

The other thing you have to be aware of is that even when the camera does capture some of Branagh’s, or any character’s, performance, it will seem like they are overacting horribly. This is when you realize the huge difference between film and stage acting. Aside from having to memorize the whole script at once instead of merely whatever pages you’ll be shooting on a given day, actors are also having to make themselves understood by people who are as much as 200 feet away from them without using any amplification when they are on stage. On film they will look ridiculous because of the medium’s tendency to exaggerate even the smallest motion. (In the interview conducted years later with Jacobi, the director of the movie asks him what he thinks is the biggest challenge facing the classical theatre today. Jacobi’s answer is actors have become so reliant on amplification few know how to use their voices sufficiently well to handle the nuances required to perform Shakespeare live anymore.)

Discovering Hamlet won’t tell you very much about the process of putting on a play or creating a character. However, this glimpse of life backstage and in the rehearsal hall does help you realize there is real magic in the world of theatre, although it might not be quite what you were expecting. The magic is how these seemingly perfectly normal-looking people, wearing jeans and t-shirts for the most part, transform themselves into princes, kings and queens.

Perhaps after watching this two-DVD set you’ll begin to understand some of my frustration with watching less-than-stellar performances of Shakespeare. For while it might not allow you to experience the excitement of seeing the play performed, the glimpse you are offered of actors preparing will whet your appetite to seek out the plays as they should be seen: on stage and performed by actors who are able to fulfill Hamlet’s instructions to the company of travelling players he hires in Act III Scene 3: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had lief the town crier spoke my lines.”

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.