Framed through the eye of a closed-circuit television camera, a soldier, machine gun in hand, paces a stone-dark corridor. Wheeling at a sound, he demands identification – in Elizabethan English. I have always been a Shakespearean traditionalist. Anachronistic stagings of the Bard’s plays cause me to grind my teeth. Until now.
The perfect capture of the opening battlement scene in the BBC’s film production of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet, through its closed, remote eye, brought into modern focus the chill of Elsinore following the death of the old king. While the ghost of a deceased monarch may hold little visceral threat to a 21st century mind, viewing the same scene through the lens of a camera taps into contemporary fears of surveillance and mindless technology.
While I felt that Horatio’s performance in this scene was somewhat overdone – I never pictured Horatio as much of a cringer – the scene does well to set up the expectation of an extraordinary production. And the RSC delivers. In the black gloss throne room, a court resplendent in degrees of modern dress chuckles with dignified mirth at the benevolent humor of Patrick Stewart’s Claudius. Claudius, as played by Stewart, is an avuncular titan who would not be out of place on Wall Street or at a country club. Though the words may bear the patina of time, the manipulative bonhomie of Claudius is timeless. Stewart plays this role to such effect that I found myself wanting to like Claudius, wanting to chuckle along with him, to be part of his inner circle.
Hamlet, played by David Tennant, is the dark smudge on the glittering court. In a sober, black business suit, his funereal appearance hovers at the edges of the room like an unfortunate odor. Hamlet’s uncomfortable presence reminds us why we have gathered. He alone refuses to play the game, to smile along with the sharks, to say “I’m fine” when “things rank and gross in nature” have infested his world. He will not “cast [his] nighted color off” in order to smooth over the rancor he feels at his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage to Claudius.
Tennant’s early Hamlet is an uncomfortable person to be around, simultaneously buttoned down and agonized. His pain lurches forth in disconcerting jolts, so that when he finally does enter fully into his madness, the honest expression of what has lain beneath the suit comes as a relief. Hamlet’s mad costume of salmon-colored skeleton T-shirt and faded jeans provides an unexpectedly perfect depiction of the troubled young man. One almost expects him to end his soliloquies by inserting a hypodermic into a vein. This is a Hamlet to whom anyone who has ever been 20 can relate.
The soliloquies come to life in this production with an unsettling intimacy. The camera pans in on Tennant’s face, pale with weariness, drawing no flush from the marble column, and we see the exhausted pain of the “To Be” speech for what feels like the first time. In the “Backstage” feature, Tennant and the directors talk about the impact of the camera upon the production of the soliloquies. Here, Hamlet does not project his pain to the world; rather, the anguish is turned inward, resting in the face and throat of one who has borne more of grief and guilt than his muscles can hold. In that moment, we want, for Hamlet, someone to share his pain, something besides cold marble to support him, some warmth to enfold him. We think that if only Gertrude had paused before marrying Claudius, perhaps sought family therapy or grief counseling, her son might turn to her in his sorrow rather than in an incestuously violent anger. We think that if perhaps Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) had been able to mind his own business, Ophelia would be there for Hamlet, lending her light and strength to her lover. But that is, of course, the reality that Shakespeare presents, that no one can be truly saved by another person. This reality lines the planes of Tennant’s face as it leans against the marble in the quiet desolation that is human solitude.
If only Ophelia could have saved Hamlet, or he her. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia sparkles – at least before her father’s murder – with wit and mirth. Her parting scene with Laertes is one of the richest in the play, not only for its comedic value, but for the poignancy of what is to come. Ophelia in her flowered dress taunts her brother for his overprotective prudery, promising – with the sly wink of a spirited younger sister – to be mindful over her virtue, while pulling from Laertes’ traveling trunk the condoms that spell out his hypocrisy. Once again, these anachronistic details revive Hamlet, resurrecting the timelessness of a double standard, undiminished in 400 years, held by a society that expects its young men to sow their wild oats while good girls stay at home and carefully wait to be courted by the right boy.
And, of course, Hamlet is not the right boy for Ophelia. Not by the standards of his uncle the king, nor her father Polonius, a politician more protective of his place in the ranks than of the happiness of his youngest child. Ophelia’s light begins to dim as she returns to Hamlet, at her father’s behest, the gifts bestowed by her once hopeful lover. Gale’s portrait of contained pain resonates with anyone who has ever loved with more heart than prudence. Though the gifts are returned with grace and received gracelessly, in this scene, we still sense that it may not be too late. We see a young woman so desperately in love that she trembles with the agony of relinquishing precious tokens of a bright hope, a girl bewildered by the sudden coldness of a once-ardent lover. We see a man lashing out in pain as the woman he has steadily pushed away during his mourning suddenly pushes back. We sense that the rug has been pulled out from under Hamlet, that at some level, he always expected that Ophelia would be there for him. We feel that if only Polonius had stayed out of the closet, the two might have found each other again.
The closet scene resonates with a shocking violence made possible only by the anachronistic setting. Bullet and shattered mirror tear the thin fabric of sanity with far greater effect than ever produced by sword piercing drape. Despite the power of this scene, and the pivotal turning of the plot from this point, this is not my favorite of Gertrude’s scenes. Through most of the production, the widowed and remarried queen (Penny Downie) is played with a delicate balance of cool, almost oblivious, composure and quiet compassion. The raw pain of the closet/bedroom scene treads perilously close to the edge of melodrama for this patrician character; the effect is akin to picturing Hillary Clinton running naked down the Capitol Mall.
Following the murder of poor Polonius, dragged unceremoniously from the room in an unsettling reminder of the insidious prevalence of class distinctions, the play spirals into the inevitable vortex of madness and tragedy. The final scene with its rapidly mounting body count feels somewhat overcrowded as figures fall to the black gloss floor one after the other before the impact of each death can be felt.
Despite the abrupt finale, this production lifts the humanity of Hamlet from the ruffled doublets of a dead time into a world beyond chronology or geography. With its limited number of sets, and spare scene decoration, the BBC film production keeps the theatrical feel of the play while taking advantage of the intimacy and versatility afforded by the camera.
The directors' commentary on the DVD is, like many commentaries, informative and packed with delightful pieces of trivia about the production and insights into the choices made by the directors and actors. Surprisingly, the “Backstage” feature was not a dumbed-down paean to the BBC or a blooper-filled collage of cut scenes. Instead, this feature provides insightful interviews with the cast and crew that provide an intelligent look into the making of the film and the universal tug of Shakespeare upon the human soul.
Hamlet was released to DVD on May 4, 2010 by BBC America.