Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Hamlet played by Derek Jacobi
Directed by Rodney Bennett
I knew when I began this process that there would be certain 'tentpole' productions, so renowned that I'd want to save them and relish them. The BBC Shakespeare Hamlet is one such presentation with its central performance from Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart's Claudius and Claire Bloom's Gertrude. But for this fanboy there's an extra level of interest because glancing through the cast list beforehand it would be quite easy to say 'I can't believe it's not Doctor Who'.
In casting terms that means Geoffrey Beavers who played the Doctor's nemesis The Master during the eighties, Lalla Ward (Ophelia), who famously companioned Tom Baker's timelord as Romana (before marrying him in real life) and Jacobi who would later go on to play a version of the Doctor on an audio cd (Deadline), The Master in an animated story for the BBC website (The Scream of the Shalka) and is soon to appear in an episode of the new television series (Utopia).
But a range of actors who filled bit part roles in Hamlet would go on to do the same in Who. Geoffrey Bateman (Guildenstern) played Dymond in The Nightmare of Eden), Emrys James (First Player) was Aukon in State of Decay, Peter Burroughs (Player) was the Jester in The King's Demons, Peter Benson (Second Gravedigger) essayed the role of Bor in Terminus, Stuart Fell (Player) has been a whole vast range of different characters including Alpha Centuri in The Curse of Peladon and Reginald Jessop (Messenger) was type cast as a Servant in a number of episodes.
That connection continues behind the camera as the production is kinetically directed by Rodney Bennett who helmed a range of stories for that series in the same period (The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment and The Masque of Mandragora), the fights were co-ordinated by B.H. Barry (The Mind Robber and Four To Doomsday) and the vision mixed by Shirley Coward (The Tenth Planet and Remembrance of the Daleks). The music too is supplied by that series' main composer during the Baker era, Dudley Simpson and indeed one of the few distractions is when Simpson's familiar brass section clashes in between acts or scenes, so redolant of a cliff hanger or the attack of a Wyrrrn.
This is a wonderful production. Tied though it is to the BBC drama department's idiom of the time, all studio bound, multi-camera setups shot on video, it straddles the divide between pure theatre and television and is one of the jewels in the BBC Shakespeare series, so traditional in many ways but radical in others. Perhaps acknowledging the limitations of the medium, Bennett favours performances over setting, a decision that pays dividends.
Series producer Cedric Messina's hope was that the big roles should be played by renowned actors and Jacobi certainly fitted the bill, having seen him in a famous 1977 West End production (more on which at a later date). At the planned time of taping, Jacobi was contracted to play Richard II on stage, so Messina waited until he would be free and thank goodness he did -- this recording captures one of the best characterisations of the role I've ever seen.
I don't I've seen Jacobi give a poor performance -- even in Evolution: Underworld he managed to keep his dignity. What makes this so special is that the actor absolutely understands the range of emotions that Hamlet is dragged through and is able to successfully layer in the sheer frustration of not being able to carry out his dead father's wishes either because of the situation or his own falabilities. Watch his face during The Mousetrap as he realises that his uncle hasn't reacted to the mime of the death of Gonzago and that he'll actually have to talk him through the deed, hammering home the message that he knows of the murder.
He's so very vulnerable too, slightly nervous, never entirely sure of his actions even when he's addressing the audience during soliloques; rather like other fourth wall breakers in such films as High Fidelity, Alfie or Ferris Bueller's Day Off, there's a bond of trust between him and us as he imparts his feelings -- a connection which isn't granted to Claudius when he too sits alone and faces the emotional consequences of his actions (Stewart looks away from the lense even in close up). Only towards the end does Hamlet's loyaly really shift to his good friend Horatio, loyally played by Robert Swann with just a hint of homo-erotic tension.
It's also a very droll turn as Jacobi mines the seam of black comedy that Shakespeare has threaded through the dialogue that I've seen so few other actors take advantage of. Some moments are laugh out loud funny, such as his treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here portayed as nothing more than acquantances suddenly dropping in unannounced rather like that email you sometimes get from someone you hardly knew at school who's signed up to Friends Reunited.
Some of this is made possible because of the choice to use a near complete text, allowing the actors the space to provide a more complete pschological arc for their characters. In this reading Claudius becomes a full blooded antagonist with almost as much screen time as Hamlet, Stewart relishing the opportunity to show both sides of the character, the public statesman who is privately guilt ridden. That tension is particularly clear in his dealings with a grief stricken Laertes (David Robb), nervously turning parental and sibling loss to his advantage.
There's certainly a grey area as to who the audience should be sympathising with. Although Claudius's murder of Hamlet Snr is inconscionable there's an inferance that he took the action for the good of the country to help the peace process with Fortinbras who to my understanding lost part of his kingdom in a previous war. To an extent it's almost as though Hamlet isn't seeing the bigger picture, putting his own revenge plot ahead of the country's needs, Denmark's strength. This production makes plain that if Hamlet Snr hadn't visited his son the stable status quo would have continued -- it's Hamlet Jnr's plans which lead to the death of a family and the downfall of the kingdom. Comedy, tragedy, irony.
It's no pleasure though to report that I don't think Lalla Ward's Ophelia really works. Perhaps it's because her noble Romana in Doctor Who is so effective that here she seems defeated by the text, never once coming across as really being Laertes sister or in love with Hamlet. Only later, during the descent into madness does the performance gain power but even then it's a forced mess of histrionics. Claire Bloom's Gertrude, by contrast, exudes nobility and a surprising eroticism (frankly she's a babe). Throughout there's an implication that her marriage with old Hamlet was rather boring one and her shift to his brother not too difficult a choice and indeed that the bond with her son was broken long before his father's death.
As Susan Willis notes in her wonderful book, The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making The Canon, from an initial push to produce backdrops that attempt to create a realistic period setting for each of the plays, as the productions drifted onward, taste shifted from representation to abstract with Don Homfray's designs for Hamlet being one of the first experiments. The exteriors then occur in a large empty studio, a grey void ringed with flooring at a slight incline, filled with mist for the battlement scenes, the sounds of the sea for the departing of Laertes and soil and a grave for Ophelia's funeral (which includes the sight of poor Lalla wrapped in drapes lying actually in the grave with mud dropped on top of her).
The interiors are even more experimental. Partitians have been painted with columns and vistas, bookshelves and libraries, paintings and wardrobes but they're generally used without regard for what's on them. During the scene when Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet's disposition with Ophelia they hide behind a wall with a landscape painted on to imply the view from the palace and Hamlet opens up the wall to see if he can find them hiding. It's the representation of a palace without regard for its geography which is by turns confusing and exhilirating and could be interpreted as an example of Hamlet losing his grip on reality, of the details of his surroundings losing their importance in comparison to his cause.
Having bought the boxset, I'm slowly working my way through all of these BBC Shakespeare 'performances', geekily in production order minus the histories which I'm going to watch together at the end. Some have been better than others but I wouldn't describe any of them as awful. Inevitably I've loved the Measure for Measure and the As You Like It is far from the disaster its reputation suggests (with it just see a young Helen Mirren and an old David Prowse acting in the same scene). If the Romeo and Juliet shows signs of early nerves, Twelfth Night is a lovely romp and The Tempest has real power. But I think this Hamlet almost towers above them all and will be hard to beat.
[Updated 07/12/2012! BBC Worldwide has now made this Hamlet available to watch on YouTube.]