Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Hamlet David TennantBased on its reputation, I was expecting to like the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran and starring David Tennant, much better than I did.

Every Hamlet rises or falls on the performance of the title-role actor, and Tennant had both strengths and problems. He has the perfect look for the part, and he nailed the Danish prince’s anxiety and snark. But when it came to exploring Hamlet’s anguish and rage, he fell back on acting BIGGER and LOUDER. As I result, I don’t think Tennant connected with full emotion to the part, so I didn’t feel much emotion watching him.

Another problematic performance was Patrick Stewart’s Claudius.  I liked his wise and even-tempered reading; however, Stewart’s usurper was so amiable that he failed to convince me he could kick a dog much less kill his brother, seduce his brother’s wife, and plot the treacherous murder of their son.

On the plus side, the women of the play were pretty good. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia was strong and self-possessed, even in madness where she was more angry than wounded. (Jean Simmons’ guppy out of water reading of Ophelia in Olivier’s movie version was a low point of Hamlet on film.) Penny Downie’s Gertrude was quite good, too, except for the Act IV bedroom scene with Tennant, when she seem to fight his big and loud with her own big and loud.

Also on the plus side, Doran’s Hamlet is funny. He seizes every opportunity the play allows to read lines as comic. This means Polonius really takes it on the chin, although I also enjoyed the utter bafflement Tom Davey’s Guildenstern projected whenever the dialogue didn’t require him to reveal a faint glimmer of understanding. (He gave Osric a run for his money. ) Good fun too were the expressions of impatience, disbelief, credulity, and exasperation the actors wore whenever anyone, not just Polonius, made a long speech. All the joking diminished the tragic punch of the staging, however.

Now, my quibbles. I have no idea in what time period this Hamlet was meant to be set. Tennant was the complete modern hipster. Horatio dressed like a middle-aged academic circa 1982. Claudius and Gertrude had the air of a rich mid-20th century power couple. Polonius resembled an Elizabethan courtier on dress-down day. Different soldiers carried weapons from vastly different centuries. If there was a point to all this variety, I missed it.

Finally, Doran cut roughly seven lines from “To be, or not to be”.  God knows there are vast tracks of Shakespeare – particularly in the history plays – which can be given the boot to everyone’s benefit, but editing Hamlet’s most famous speech accomplishes nothing beyond gratuitous shock value.

On my Hamlet list, I’d put the Tennant version right above Ethan Hawke’s. See my list of best Hamlet movies.

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Henry V by William ShakespeareIn Henry V, Shakespeare finds his “muse of fire” and she blinds us with her dazzling light.

Henry V is a play of almost ridiculous dramatic richness in which the scrappy, underdog Harry wins the battle of Agincourt, seizes his rightful French throne, and gets the King’s daughter. Hooray!

Except the war is justified by dubious arguments and provoked by the English clergy, who are eager to distract Henry from confiscating their wealth. Henry captures the French town of Harfleur after threatening genocide. He orders the slaughter of prisoners and leaves 10,000 French knights and soldiers dead on the field. Every friend of his youth, except one, is gone. They die in the battle, by execution after Henry’s judgment, or in the case of Falstaff, cold in bed with a wandering mind and a heart broken by the king.

In the end, it all comes to naught. The last lines of the play tell us Henry dies young, leaving England to be misruled by his infant son and a group of nobles who lose all that Henry won and spill more blood. But it was still worth it and Henry is still a hero. Right?

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As You Like It - The New Cambridge Shakespeare book coverIn As You Like It, Shakespeare banishes all unhappiness, unless it springs from love.

The play follows a multitude of characters driven from a nobleman’s court to exile in the Forest of Arden, where they find refuge from the ambition, intrigue, envy, and striving of the world.

There a usurped Duke philosophizes on his new freedom; a lord tends his melancholy like a garden; and the clown Touchstone pursues his fooling to the edge of the sublime – but the show belongs to the misery and ecstasy of love and to the superlative Rosalind, mistress of all situations and persons except her own wild heart.

There are familiar Shakespearian tropes in As You Like It. The instantaneous and absolute way love conquers. The woman dressed as a man who hides from her love and is loved by the wrong person in turn. And the character who arranges events to create maximum drama, even as the audience is left wondering what motivates her manipulations.

No matter. The dialogue is superb. Rosalind bewitches men and women, on and off stage, in equal measure. And all ends happy in this most delicate of Shakespeare’s comedies.

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Which is the best Hamlet movie?  Here are my assessments of the film adaptations of Hamlet I’ve seen in order of personal preference. “Have at you now!”

1. Richard Burton: Hamlet 1964.

Richard Burton wins the title “best Hamlet” with the range, insight, and power of his acting in this filmed stage production. Burton plays all of Hamlet’s emotions with extraordinary conviction: grief, fear, doubt, anger, indifference, easy acceptance. His transitions from line to line and emotion to emotion feel like the natural consequence of the previous idea and feeling. When he is funny, Burton is funny without the viciousness or condescension you often see in other performances. No Hamlet has ever sounded better. The sheer physical stamina of Burton’s work is impressive. And all this outweighs the serious limitations director John Gielgud faced filming a live performance in a Broadway theater as well as some less than stellar acting in the other roles. IMDb page

2. Kenneth Branagh: Hamlet 1996.

Branagh’s performance swings wildly between Hamlet’s famous indecision and the Danish prince’s other signature (but often overlooked) characteristic: his recklessness. This choice creates a satisfying Hamlet and turns Branagh’s conspicuous habit of overacting into a virtue. Branagh films the whole text, and so includes the essential framing character of Fortinbras and allows us to fully see how Laertes and Ophelia together serve as a double for Hamlet. Some of Branagh’s directing is very fine (the two-way mirror in “To be, or not to be”) and some of it is not. The ghost scene in 1.5 is unwatchable, and Branagh stages the climactic duel in action-movie land. IMDb page

3. Laurence Olivier: Hamlet 1948.

Olivier is the better actor, and gives a better performance, but his concentration on Hamlet’s indecision makes less sense than Branagh’s choices. (Could an always-hesitating Hamlet improvise the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or jump into the middle of a battle with pirates?) Olivier edits the text so heavily that the story is unintelligible unless you know it. The way his camera stalks the corridors of dark, Freudian Elsinore castle hasn’t aged particularly well. And Olivier’s ditzy, hysterical Ophelia – played by Jean Simmons – not only offends contemporary tastes, but also begs the question, “What does Hamlet see in her?” IMDb page

4. Derek Jacobi: Hamlet 1980.

Derek Jacobi plays Hamlet as amazed by his weakness, rather than desperate for strength, and is one of the few Danish Princes who feels like he could actually be the son of a warrior king. Jacobi’s voice has an extraordinary range of emotional colors, and his acting is often supple and subtle. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is uneven and in some scenes, dull. This version is filmed like the stodgy stage play it is with the occasional rough close-up, for which none of the actors except Jacobi seem prepared. IMDb page

5. Benedict Cumberbatch: Hamlet 2015.

Cumberbatch’s superb Hamlet is marred by the choice of making his Danish prince entirely sane and pretty well adjusted. This makes Cumberbatch the most appealing and engaging Hamlet on my list, but it also robs his Hamlet of the philosophical transformation that powers the last third of the play, leaving the end feeling rushed and flat. Some clunker performances among the supporting cast and staging a bit heavy on gimmicky spectacle also knock this version down the list. My longer review of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is here. IMDB page

6. Mel Gibson: Hamlet 1990.

A “Mad Max” Hamlet is a piece of stunt casting, but Gibson climbs into the middle of the list by exceeding expectations. He’s really not bad. Gibson’s Hamlet is angry, wounded, and fearful, and he brings off the role well. There are strong actors throughout the supporting cast who are interesting in their roles. Zeffirelli substitutes his habitual spectacle for any fresh ideas about the play, however. IMDb page

7. Nicol Williamson: Hamlet 1969 and 8. Kevin Kline: Hamlet 1990.

Both of these performances are solid, intelligent, and affecting. But they are also familiar. With so many Hamlets on film, Williamson’s and Kline’s successes are less fun than the interesting failures below. IMDb page Williamson and IMDb page Kline

9. David Tennant: Hamlet 2009.

This 2009 Royal Shakespeare Production productively mines the play for maximum humor but comes up short on emotional punch. David Tennant nails Hamlet’s jokes, and his fear, but falls back on acting louder when he plays the Danish Prince’s anger and grief. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is charismatic but doesn’t quite seem the fratricidal type. My longer review of Tennant’s Hamlet is here. IMDb page

10. Ethan Hawke: Hamlet 2000.

Much of the plot of Hamlet ceases to make sense when it is set in modern New York City, as this version is. But Ethan Hawke’s louche, slacker Hamlet is perfect for its time and his “To be, or not to be”” is superb. IMDb page

11. Campbell Scott: Hamlet 2000.

Most actors play Hamlet as unsteady but basically sane. Scott’s Hamlet is actually unhinged, which is what makes this performance from a good actor so intriguing. The problem is that a Hamlet who has actually suffered a mental breakdown would be unable to function in the play after Act 2. A supporting cast that is adequate at best doesn’t help matters. IMDb page

TBD. Innokenty Smoktunovsky: Hamlet 1964.

I need to track down a full version of this Russian language Hamlet before I can offer a capsule review. However, the clips available on the internet look promising as does the Shostakovich score. The production designer for Olivier’s film should demand royalty payments from the Russians, however. IMDb page

12. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hamlet 1993.

Arnold’s hilarious turn as the perfect anti-Hamlet in The Last Action Hero is not to be missed by fans of the Danish prince. Here’s the video from YouTube:

How Many Hamlet Movies Are There?

That depends on how you want to count them. Two recent film versions of HamletDavid Melville in 2010 and Bruce Ramsay in 2011, both cut the play to a running time of under 90 minutes. Iain Glen played Hamlet in scenes of the 1990 film version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. There are many film adaptations “inspired” by Hamlet, from The Lion King to the just released Haider set in Kashmir. A good Wikipedia article says there are more than 50 film adaptations of Hamlet. My counting criteria is more strict (a reasonably intact version of the original text) which is why Melville and Ramsay fall here. This criteria should exclude Schwarzenegger from the running too, of course, but Arnold was simply too funny to consign to a footnote.

Related Hamlet and Shakespeare Content

Here is my discussion of the Thematic-Structural Perfection of Hamlet, which is an odd claim to make since the plot of Hamlet sure seems like a hot mess. I believe I make my case, however. Also I quite fond of my 100 word review of As You Like It and my 100 word review of Henry V.

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The purpose of this post isn’t – of course – to convince you these books are bad. Most of them actually aren’t. They just aren’t a good fit for my taste and convictions. Only one book is frankly bad (that would be the Hemingway — sorry Ernest). And the Roth novel is an absolute must-read. Here goes.

Spenser: The Faerie Queene. An allegorical, epic poem written to compliment Queen Elizabeth the First of England and flatter the aristocracy for their fine taste in the appreciation of “Capital A” art. Spenser’s great technical skill as a poet cannot save a work in which scarcely a single line of genuine inspiration or human feeling can be found.

Hemingway: The Green Hills of Africa. In this non-fiction account of a month on safari, Hemingway turns himself into a bad imitation of one of his own characters, and his prose follows suit. Painfully mannered and false from beginning to end.

Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Bard dropped quite a few stinkers on the Elizabethan stage, and it can be hard to pick out the worst. I polled my group of advisors and Wives got the most votes. Coriolanus also made a strong showing, as did Titus Andronicus. (Pericles wasn’t on the ballot because the authorship is disputed.) None of these plays is really so bad that it deserves to be on a most-awful list. It’s their having fallen so far short of their father’s genius children that makes them infamous.

Joyce: Finnegan’s Wake. I may burn in hell for this one, and Finnegan’s Wake may actually be one of the best books every written, but it is just too much damn work. Finnegan’s Wake is like one of those monasteries at the top of a mountain, where after decades of constant study, hard work, self-denial, meditation, and no sex at all, you achieve total consciousness. Total consciousness sounds great, but I have kids to take to the park, and my wife is expecting me to cook dinner tonight, and I just don’t have the time. And, let’s be honest, I’m not smart enough to read this book, either.

Dante: Paradiso. Okay, I’m definitely going to burn in hell for this one, but that’s the problem. Hell is more fun. Inferno was a rockin’ good time. Purgatorio was pretty good, better in the beginning, then it got slow. But there’s simply no fun in heaven. What there is, instead, is Thomas Aquinas nattering on about Francis of Assisi and Peter Damian (I don’t even know who that is) chatting up Dante about predestination. And if you don’t read Italian, and I don’t, then you have to deal with the English translations, which do to Dante’s poetry what a cheap plastic transistor radio – that kind you could buy in 1973, with the little black wrist strap – does to Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma. A thoroughly mediocre novel that engages the reader’s imagination on exactly one point: Why is this book considered a classic?

Lewis: Babbitt. A satire is supposed to make the targets of its ridicule look ridiculous, but Lewis’ satire is furious and implacable and, finally, a cheat. Lewis portrays George Babbitt as so vulgar and foolish that it’s impossible not to feel superior to him, which is the cheapest flattery a writer can offer a reader.

Roth: The Breast. Roth’s parody of Kafka’s Metamorphosis tells the story of a man who wakes up one day to discover that he’s turned into a giant breast. I’m not making this up! Perhaps no major writer has set out to intentionally write a bad book and succeeded so spectacularly. Transcendentally, fabulously awful!

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