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.