Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Modern Take on the Melancholy Dane

The only reason I watched the new TV adaptation of the recent Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of "Hamlet" was for David Tennant in the title role. I'm glad I did.

I don't dislike Shakespeare, and I've seen "Hamlet" performed live before, as well as about half a dozen filmed adaptations. The trouble is that it's always been out of a sense of obligation. I read the play in class during high school, playacted a few scenes for assignments, and watched film clips for reference - none of them very engaging for an adolescent viewer. The Mel Gibson, Niccol Williamson, and Laurence Olivier versions were too remote in the past, and the Ethan Hawke version was still to come. The five-hour 1996 Kenneth Branagh production had just been released, I think, though I don't remember if I watched it in theaters or on video later. I do remember that Branagh's "Hamlet" came off as overly grandiose and stuffy, though I did appreciate the celebrity cameos by Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, and Billy Crystal as the gravedigger. But for a play where the hero shouts accusations of incest and murder, and the last act features about half-a-dozen onscreen deaths, it was a remarkably tame experience.

So roughly fifteen years later, after reading a lot more Shakespeare in college and becoming mildly infatuated with Julie Taymor's spectacularly bloody "Titus Andronicuis" adaptation along the way, I was ready to give the melancholy Dane another go. The new RSC version version that aired on many PBS stations last night was a modernized update in all respects except for the original language, and trimmed down to a brisk three hour length. And I loved it. Not only was it gratifying to see the play again, but I realized that I now understood nearly all the language, the puns, the wordplay, the humor, and the naughty bits that had been too obtuse for me to grasp as a teenager. The dialogue was rattled off in conversational fashion instead of recited, mostly, which made it far easier to grasp. I could remember sitting in English class, listening to my fellow inmates droning through the then-impenetrable lines with all the vigor of boiled noodles. And what an amazing contrast to hear the same lines again as natural speech, shrieked or sighed or simply thick with sarcasm. You could understand what was going on from the characters' behavior even if you couldn't decipher the words.

David Tennant might have come acoss as too manic for some, but he brought an energy and a vitality to the role I thought was sorely missing from most of the other versions I'd seen. His Hamlet broods only briefly, before throwing impulsive temper tantrums and aggressively pursuing his reputation for madness. Maybe it's because I'm older now, but Hamlet as a character never seemed younger, a grieving son called home from school to the unpleasant shock of his mother's remarriage. In one act he pads around the set barefoot, in a printed orange T-shirt and skinny jeans, and then totes around a camcorder in another to record his uncle's response to provocation - no doubt to be subsequently uploaded on Youtube. Most of his later scenes result in physical altercations of some sort, including the confrontation with Gertrude that ends with him sobbing into her lap. English teachers everywhere are likely thanking their lucky stars to finally have a decent Hamlet their students may actually be able to identify with. No, Ethan Hawke doesn't count.

The rest of the cast suffers a bit in comparison to Tennant, but certainly holding his own was Sir Patrick Stewart as an excellent, enigmatic Claudius. He also doubled as the Ghost, which added some interesting dimensions to the filial and marital relationships. Mariah Gale as Ophelia and Penny Downie as Gertrude both had strong moments, and Oliver Ford Davies' played his Polonius as more broadly comic than I remember the character being. Considering the intensity of the rest of the cast, though, it was a welcome addition. Most of the minor character suffered from the cuts to the play, which excised nearly all the political intrigue involving Fortinbras, the pirates, and even the famous declaration that Rosencranz and Guildenstern are dead.

As for the presentation of the film, it was about on par with most British television productions. The set design was clearly transplanted almost directly from the stage play, with various props like the shattered mirrors and omnipresent cameras providing odd distractions. However, I have to give kudos to them for pulling off an oppressive modern setting that wasn't overly utilitarian, and all of the modern costumes worked with a minimum of clashing. Though the director was good about keeping the pace brisk, there were some odd cuts and strange shots that I could have done without. Whenever the POV would switch to that of a security camera or the Ghost, I felt like I had been plunked down into an episode of "Doctor Who."

Is this new filmed version of "Hamlet" one for the ages? Maybe, and maybe not, but for this age, it's not a bad one to have.

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