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David Tennant and Patrick Stewart In a Classic 'Hamlet'

by Nick Zaino, posted Apr 19th 2010 9:02AM
David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in 'Hamlet' on PBS's 'Great Performances' If you are going to play Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, you could do a lot worse for practice than playing Doctor Who for five years. Both characters depend on a certain amount of madness, something at which David Tenant is especially adept. And there is, as Shakespeare says of his sweet prince, a certain method to that madness.

That said, the version of 'Hamlet' airing April 28 on PBS's 'Great Performances' (and appearing on DVD May 4) is not the good Doctor as Danish prince. There are flashes of that, especially in Hamlet's early scenes with Polonius (a masterful Oliver Ford Davies) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That's where Tennant plays with a pitch-perfect blend of humor and cunning, spinning just short of out of control. And there is a beautiful sense of irony when Hamlet looks into the camera and says that time is out of join and it's his job to fix it.

But this 'Hamlet' is a very classical presentation of Shakespeare. Yes, there are modern clothes and a touch of technology, but the language is not updated, and any concessions to modernity generally fade into the background. Director Gregory Doran and his producers were looking for what they called a "vibrant neutrality" from the set, just as they had for the stage production. Technology plays a small role, as some short scenes are show through the point of view of a surveillance camera, playing up a certain sense of paranoia.

But the focus is on a tremendously talented cast, led by Tenant and Patrick Stewart, who plays Claudius. Tennant has theatre experience, but playing Hamlet opposite a seasoned actor like Stewart is no small feat. Tennant is remarkable, and received widespread praise for the theatre production. The struggle that is tearing him apart is never far from the surface, but he never devolves into caricature, always a danger when playing such a universally recognized role.

Stewart's Claudius has an easy charm that makes him all that much easier to loathe. In the climactic scene, he plays off the duel between Hamlet and Laertes like a friendly game of checkers, just a normal afternoon of sport. He even gives a little shrug just before drinking his poison (he refuses to give away the reasoning behind that in the DVD extras, damn him). It's like he's thinking, oh well, gave it my best shot, this is as good a place as any to end this. (Joel sat down with Stewart in January to talk about the performance; watch for the interview later this week).

There are no weak links in this production. Mariah Gale's madness as Ophelia is just as palpable as Hamlet's. Penny Downie does well to reveal Gertrude's heartbreak in the rare moments where here façade is cracked. Peter De Jersey and Edward Bennett are solid as the passionate Laertes and the ever-loyal Horatio.

Be prepared to give this production your full attention, especially if you find Shakespearian dialogue a bit hard to follow. This 'Hamlet' is entirely worth the effort.

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Um, if they update the language, it's not Shakespeare. We don't continue to perform Shakespeare because of his plotting; the language IS Shakespeare.

May 05 2010 at 8:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's "time is out of *joint*". Does no one employ copy editors anymore?

April 28 2010 at 4:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"Tennant has theatre experience"... is putting it mildly. You do realize he spent two entire seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company, among other accomplishments on stage, prior to playing Hamlet in both Stratford and the West End last year?

April 20 2010 at 2:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I too saw the production in the UK. I thought it was brilliant, with amazing performances. I especially enjoyed the direction & staging. It was really creative, and I'm curious to see how that might translate to a TV/filmed version.

April 19 2010 at 3:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Saw it a while back, not bad. Not sure I'm a fan of the different period setting, but the acting was pretty damn good. Tenant was over-doing it a bit in places, but not horribly so.

April 19 2010 at 10:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks for the reminder!

April 19 2010 at 10:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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