The Royal Shakespeare Company–because it has “royal” in the title we know it’s in England. If it was “royale” it would be in a casino–staged a production of Hamlet staring David Tennant as the eponymous Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as his father’s ghost/his uncle-step-father. Other people in the cast had also been in things, but let’s be honest, the only reason I cared was because the headliners were David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. When they filmed a version for television, I was, of course, eager to watch it.
And I liked it.
Admittedly, a large part of this like had to do with the cast. I like David Tennant, and not just because he is Very Good Looking. That helps though. I like it when people who played iconic roles have a chance to successfully play other things. Seeing Patrick Stewart, someone I’ve always been impressed with, was pretty awesome. I’d never seen him do a full production, only the snippets of lines from his time as Captain J.L. Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise. While I’ve seen reviews of this production that cite things like overacting and melodrama–something I sort of feel is part of most Shakespeare productions–I’ll openly admit that my feelings towards the RSC’s 2009 Hamlet are highly colored by my desire to snog their leading man. That being said, let’s actually talk about the production. I will now also say that Hamlet is Hamlet. There are no such things as Hamlet spoilers. Everyone dies in the end.
I liked it. I like a lot of things though. I liked Mammoth and Twilight. I went in prepared to not just like Hamlet, but to love it.
And I didn’t.
The opening was slow. They’d been preforming this for months by the time it had been filmed, but it didn’t appear that way. When the show began, rather than speaking to each other, the actors were talking at one another. They recited lines as though they were collections of words and syllables rather than actual means of communication.
This made me sad.
I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare that is like this. The message gets lost in the faded complexities of the language. The actors moved around the sets -acting-, but they acted to themselves, to the audience. They weren’t showing us lives we were looking in on, they were preforming -for us-. This is something I’m more used to seeing in stage productions rather than film productions and it set me off the whole thing, leaving a preemptive bad taste in my mouth. However, luckily, it did not remain this way.
The acting picked up as though everyone was becoming more comfortable within the show as it went on. People began to talk to one another. Their lines began to hold meaning and they interacted.
There were some stylistic choices that I thought were interesting. Setting wise, the RSC placed themselves neither in the real world nor in a fantasy realm. They produced a set and costumes that balanced tradition with sleek, black modernity. In the end it created something that spoke to what they were doing–a modern interpretation of something so iconographic that any version of it requires a breaking of tradition. Hamlet is such a part of our culture that nearly everyone has a notion in their head of how it ought to be. The RSC, rather than seeming to create their own, play with this idea by mixing Shakespearean with contemporary.
And then there were the shoes.
I love the small details. They’re the parts that suck you into the world, that you don’t notice at first, but they form a part of a whole picture. The shoes were like this. In Hamlet, whenever someone was mad, they were barefoot. Hamlet starts out the film with his shoes on, but loses them during his periods of madness. When he has a brief scene during which he is returned to the world of people who aren’t insane, he has shoes on again. During the final scene–fencing–he is also wearing footwear, and during this scene Hamlet is shown as being especially lucid. Gertrude generally wears shoes, but during her brief breakdown, she is also shown barefoot. Ophelia loses her shoes as she traipses around declaring her own madness.
I thought that was kind of cool.
There’s also something to be said in here about the costuming in general. Similar to the shoes, the less properly a character was dressed, the more insane they are. When Hamlet loses his shoes, he also gains a rather ridiculous t-shirt. Gertrude is in her nightgown as she loses it. Ophelia strips down to her skivvies and dances around the stage. During the play within a play scene, Hamlet is shown wearing a tuxedo, but he is also barefoot and the cuffs of his pants are rolled up. He undoes his tie at the first available opportunity.
Whether intentionally or not, there’s a nod Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet that stars Ethan Hawke. Video cameras are incorporated into both productions as props. These allow Hamlet to directly address the audience and serve as a connection–something that in a way separates Hamlet from the rest of the proceedings around him. Through video cameras he at times becomes an observer. Rather than being a part of the action, his lens brings the focus to what he is focusing on to bring the audience deeper into the mind and madness of the Prince. Much like us, he is an observer, watching something play out on stage.
In the RSC version, cameras are also used as a plot tool for spying. We see Hamlet, and others, being spied upon through a series of CCTV cameras. It’s a little Big Brother, and a little modern London, wrapped up into one. The cameras that connect the viewer to Hamlet also separate him from them as we can view him–and therein his madness–through the same critical lens that he focuses on others.
While I enjoyed all of these little details, the careful work put into the production, I thought the pacing was off at the beginning and the acting somewhat wooden. Much like a night out (for me anyway), what started out as slow, awkward, and forced was flowing with a turbulent, natural force by the end, only to crash to a halt when there was no where left to go. If it wasn’t for the casting, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to the part where it got good. After all, I already knew what was going to happen.