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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Review: David Tennant's "Hamlet" on PBS

David Tennant is a very, very fine actor. Of that there can be no doubt.
In fact, watching him work his way through the many "slings and arrows" thrown
at any actor attempting the role of Hamlet lends even more credence to the above
claim re: Tennant's abilities. So why am I disappointed after watching the much
heralded PBS airing?

Tennant plays the "peevish manic" not well. Not that he's incapable. He
disproved that incessantly from the time he opened his mouth. Something about
his features; too angular. And practically speaking, he grimaced his way from
start to finish. At times, I thought I might be watching The Riddler (Frank
Gorshin) from the old Batman series. The only thing Tennant was missing
was Gorshin's costume with the question marks all over it. And it was difficult
to separate Tennant's manic "crazy person" from the character of Hamlet. Something way too gimmicky was going on; way too cutesy and way too "easy" in the antic disposition dept. for me. An actor with Tennant's abilities need not go the route habitually taken by him.

It undercut Hamlet's intelligence and distracted from what he was saying of
import. Energy is one thing--lunatic energy something else. Tennant had the
latter in spades, making a johnny one note performance out of the whole shebang.
But what really bothered me is that it made Hamlet totally unlikeable; sadly,
and worse, his overdone mania made me not care a hoot about Hamlet or his predicament. I kept feeling as though I needed a flyswatter as a remedy for this Gadfly on Uppers. In fact, I cared about Claudius' travails the more for Tennant's interpretation. Something very wrong here. I hate Claudius.

Sir Patrick Stewart as Claudius gave the solid performance expected of him. His
ability with the conversational aspect of Shakespeare's lines has grown to
perfection. Probably the result of cross-pollination--tv, film, and stage--as
this production skirted the boundaries of all three in design. What can one say?
He was great--until he turned into the embodiment of Alfred E.
Neuman in his 'decision' to drink the poison. A "choice" apparently thought
quite brilliant--again suffering from an apparent penchant for easy, cute,
cleverness. An action most probably explained in the program notes--but I had
none at the time. It ruined the entire moment for me--or, what was left of it.

Gertrude (Penny Downie) also proved very adept at making Shakespeare's
lines soar on the wings of understandability. Her gradual decline from hostess with the mostest to a figure withered by the tragedy all around her was an artful thing to watch, particularly since it wasn't achieved totally with the sole help of the makeup

Can someone tell me with what disease was Polonius suffering? The part, played
by (Oliver Ford Davies ) a brilliant actor in his own right, was yet
another victim of modern "cutesy". Was he in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's?
Or was he just a buffoon at these times? I have to say he handled it brilliantly,
and almost made me forget his clownishness during the rest of his portrayal of a
calculating Machiavellian. I especially liked the idea of the inclusion of the
Reynaldo scene (usually cut). But even there, his "forgetfulness" was excused
rather than explained. Polonius is a man always thinking of something else,
some other "designs", and always has too much to say to "explain" himself. He's
not, I don't think, pitiable because he's being ravaged by some "affliction"
(other than his own machinations.)

Ophelia, played by (Mariah Gale)--well, I couldn't take my eyes off of her.
No customary glamor queen (although pleasant looking enough to be desirable on
anyone's part) she was riveting. She brought a true vulnerability to the role
for me that few others have. Her plaintiff cries over the loss of her
Hamlet's " ...noble mind o'erthrown." were heart wrenching.
This was no mere statue of a child, suffering a tragedy she didn't understand
because of gross naiveté. Hers was an Ophelia quite knowledgeable of the ways
of the world, as she was able to explain and support even further in her deft
crafting of the "mad scene". Her awareness of just what it was that was happening
to her made me feel for her all the more. This is someone to watch for, all things
being equal, which they're not. Let's hope the lack of "model status" doesn't keep
this actor from the recognition I think she truly deserves.

The rest; Horatio (Peter De Jersey), Laertes (Edward Bennet), Rosencrantz
(Sam Alexander) Guildenstern (Tom Davey) were all capable enough in their roles,
as one would expect from RSC actors. But I think they suffered conceptually from
having to play against Tennant's maniacal court jester throughout.

Speaking of concept, all around I thought it was quite good in establishing the
modern setting for Shakespeare. And the clearness of the language was admirable. But ultimately, I think the gross deviations, as I see them, can also be laid at the foot of the concept person and Director, Gregory Doran. Failing to rein in Tennant (possibly even encouraging him, in view of some of the other ridiculous "crazy" choices seemingly made for both Hamlet and the other actors) gave us a Hamlet with an energetic mania too serious to be overcome by even the power of the greatest concept artist of all, one William Shakespeare. JM


  1. I am so glad to discover this blog (via Shakespeare Geek). Although we had different responses to various actors (especially Ophelia) I learned a lot from reading your opinions.

    Specifically, many Hamlets seem to even ignore the "antic" aspect, leaving themselves nothing more than brooding college sophomores. Tennant brought it alive to me, but became very coldly decisive upon his return from England.

    That brings me to a question. Neither you nor Duane commented about the structural decision to excise both the pirates aspect and the ultimate triumph of Fortenbras. I appreciated the first, but thought the second through the whole production out of balance.

    Having discovered your blog I will RSS it and look forward to learning more.

  2. As I wrote, I believe Tennant to be a very fine actor and I mean that. He just seemed to not be able to find his bearings with the nuances of the role. You're absolutely right, in my view, that Hamlet is too often played as though he neither knows nor cares about anything or anyone but his own inner thoughts. I think this is born from a very strong Method influence which has taken hold over the years. That, and we're still weaning ourselves from the Freudian influence that held sway for so long. It's a knee-jerk reaction to what was viewed as the "purple passion" of stage actors--Shakespearean ones in particular. Well, Tennant had the purple in spades, but it was as much one-sided in my opinion as what it was apparently a reaction against. John Barton talks a great deal about balance. I don't think Tennant found that balance either. I wrote something on Duanes blog about the fine line we walk with interpreting--and how much we can "desensitize" an audience without putting them off. To be sure, my Hamlet wouldn't be mulling around with the audience dozing after trying to figure out what he was really "feeling", but they wouldn't be attacked by him either. I applaud the attempts they made to involve the audience. I think they weren't thought through to completion in a lot of cases. Mixing the mediums that way can be dicey.

    And there's a lot I left out, you're right. But there was a lot to cover because of some of the ground they tried to break--many times unsuccessfully I think. There's more, but I've only seen it once. I have to watch it again. Speaking of excisions, "To be" was cut (a big deal in my opinion) Some scenes were scrambled (not a huge deal), and they chose to end it, as you said, without Fortinbras, who brings important closure and again, balance. Also, he lends an important bit of stature to Hamlet as a Prince. See, this is something I think Tennant and company chose to eschew about the character. I'm still asking the question "where was the Prince? Balance.

    There's more and I'd be happy to discuss it further. I'm looking forward to learning more myself. I most often do, from most people with whom I discuss any of this stuff. That's what's wonderful about the boy from Stratford. There's always something to discuss and learn further.
    Thanks for your comments. They're good ones, and I look forward to hearing more of what you think. And I never get tired of discussing this stuff. But I'm not exactly the power blogger Duane is--by a long shot. I'd rather discuss in depth and make fewer posts. Each to his own. Keep in touch and suggest a topic line if you like. I'll pick up on it and make it the subject of a post.

    Thanks for stopping by, and for the kind compliment. Cheers, JM

    What DID you think of Ophelia, exactly? :-{)

  3. Tennant made the play come alive for me. His was a very specific Hamlet -- a flawed prince who perhaps was at university far past the usual years because his father, not respecting him much, stashed him there to keep him out of the way. He was a prince who had unrealistic beliefs about his father. He was a prince who had not yet grown into a proper man. These are all choices one can argue with, but they are deliberate choices and were played extremely well. It was a nice blurring of age, given the character's contradictions. Tennant was a 38 year old playing a 30 year old who was at heart still a teenage boy. I didn't think he was overly manic. He has a sense of pacing that allows him energy and speed without sacrificing clarity. Every thought is audible and visible. Beautifully done. But the prodouction was flawed, I agree. In cutting the running time so drastically, much was lost. It was a production of terrific scenes where David Tennant shone. But the whole was less than the sum of its parts. Events seemed rushed. "To be or not to be came too soon," and without any lead-in that would have given it emotional coherance. Fortinbras's entrance at the end should never have been cut. One could go on. Still, the scene with Yorick's skull was worth the price of admission. I was moved in ways I've never been before. All the other great scenes are just gravy. The DVD adaptation was filmed in haste. I wonder what it might have been if they'd had more time.

  4. I liked Tennant. I just didn't like Hamlet so much. Why? Because it was so strongly about his antics it overshadowed the many other things Hamlet IS.

    You mentioned emotional coherence. Somewhere in the notes I hastily scribbled is written "...the director is the culprit." And you wrote, "It was a production of terrific scenes where David Tennant shone." Agreed. But this is not what The Play is entirely about, nor what any play is about for me--an assemblage of scenes disjointed from the rest of the play, and sometimes even from each other, where one actor shines at the expense of everything else. Statements about "who Hamlet is" or "how he must feel" or "what is his situation and what might it have done to him?" can be made without going overboard and out of balance; playing a "generality" extremely well, but to an extreme that sets it out of balance with the rest of the play. Shakespeare does the "who is Hamlet?" thing quite well enough for us already, and much more well-rounded in its facets, if we but look. Tennant's "antic disposition" would have "played" better for me (he's awfully masterful at it) if the director might have removed his blinders every so often while making such strong, one-sided statements.

    All in all, I think we agree on more than it would appear on first look--possibly from very different standpoints.

  5. i loved david tennant hot hot hot

  6. I saw this production at the theatre and his mania seems to fill that larger space with more reality. However, in both the play and the TV adaptation I felt I was watching Hamlet for teenagers. I enjoyed it, I just wasn´t moved. Now Peter Brook´s Hamlet with Adrian Lester...

  7. HOW could I have possibly overlooked the Adrian Lester Hamlet? Much to my dismay, I haven't seen it!!! But simply from reading about it and watching a clip I must see it in full. I can see (hear) from the clip how the WORDS are being given the forefront (thus, so too, Shakespeare) Thanks, Anon, so much, for mentioning this one.

    1. The comment from "anonymous" February 10, 2011 re "I felt I was watching Hamlet for teenagers" seems to be missing the point. From my experience as a teacher of English, what makes this performance a great one is the very fact that teenagers will be able to understand this complex play!
      Hamlet is an extremely complex play as we all know so this particular performance will reach out to a wider audience - especially teenagers. BBC productions are renowned for their ability to make it easy to understand for all ages. Methinks anonymous is being a little pedantic.