Monday, September 01, 2008

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

Hamlet played by Joseph Tura

The title of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film offers a double meaning. Of course there’s the Hamlet reference which I’ll get to in a moment, but remembering that the film concerns the Polish occupation by Nazi Germany it’s a question and a call to arms – do we hide away in these difficult times surrender ourselves to death (not to be) or be true to ourselves and battle against what presently seems inevitable (to be)?

Within the film, that means that the group of actors continue their profession but instead of performing for an audience, they bend their skills to self preservation and fighting the oppressor, wearing disguises and improvising and generally being very convincing for all that. Of course, depending on how you’re interpreting Hamlet itself, the prince is either mad or using his acting skills himself to feign madness to avenge his father’s death.

The play’s appearance in the film is largely played for laughs. On both occasions that we glimpse the production it’s viewed from the stalls as the Polish actor Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) steps forward to deliver ‘To Be Or Not To’ on each occasion the opening line sparking the walk out of a service man which he initially suspects has something to do with his acting skills but he later discovers is the code his wife is using to let gentlemen callers that they can visit her dressing room because he’ll be on stage for a while.

The staging is fairly stereotypical, a stone castle hallway and medieval dress and we don’t have much of an idea of what the rest of the show will be like, because we don’t need to. It’s interesting to see that Tura’s Hamlet’s reading a book, not unlike Jacobi in the BBC production though he doesn’t read from it, shouting the lines instead at the prospective cuckold as he dashes for the exit. He’s not one of the greats; as one Nazi officer notes: “"Oh, yes I saw him [Tura] in 'Hamlet' once. What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland".”

The film has a cross genre appeal years ahead of its time, merging what initially looks like a fairly traditional back stage farce with elements of the spy and war movies. It is often hilarious, which drew some controversy at the time of release and the film flopped presumably because it was ‘too soon’ and the public weren’t ready for jokes about the occupation which sparked the war. What they missed is that like the play which inspired its title, the comedy and tragedy are intermixed and interchangable and the film is at its darkest when the Nazis frogmarch into Warsaw.

Friday, August 29, 2008


I've had a letter...

I am absolutely loving the Hamlet blog - the play happens to be my personal favourite so it's nice to see the Dane finally gets a blog where he can vent (or I can catch up on various versions of the show). I'm sure you're well versed on all of the Hamlet variations currently available but I did want to mention that the company for which I work is running a competition for two free tickets to Factory's presentation of Hamlet at Shakespeare's Globe Theater at midnight (the very witching time of night, perhaps?) on September 6th. It sticks to the script by only uses props provided by the audience and each cast member can play multiple roles - and which actor plays which character is decided upon by the audience as well. Should be quite interesting, I'm really looking forward to it!

If you'd like some more information about the show and the competition, you can see a listing here:

Otherwise, I look forward to more blogging!

Thanks Meaghan. Hope the show goes well for you and the audience. More reviews coming soon, I promise!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

New Tennant in Elsinore

Have any members of the press used that headline this morning? Anyone? Either way, to save some work, here's a link to Outpost Gallifrey's round-up of reviews for David Tennant's Hamlet. Overwhelmingly positive, especially from Michael Billington of The Guardian, whose piece reads like a more articulate version of a post from this very blog. He doesn't, for example, like the cuts:
"Tennant is an active, athletic, immensely engaging Hamlet. If there is any quality I miss, it is the character's philosophical nature, and here he is not helped by the production. Following the First Quarto, Doran places "To be or not to be" before rather than after the arrival of the players: perfectly logical, except that there is something magnificently wayward about the Folio sequence in which Hamlet, having decided to test Claudius's guilt, launches into an unexpected meditation on human existence. [...] Unforgivably, Doran also cuts the lines where Hamlet says to Horatio, "Since no man knows of aught he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be." Thus Tennant loses some of the most beautiful lines in all literature about acceptance of one's fate."
Nothing on the state of Fortinbras though.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Fortinbras is not in the main computer.

"Shot entirely in front of a green screen, Hamlet A.D.D. (2009) features live-action characters in an animated world."

Which could either turn out to be really fun, or ruddy awful. The actor playing the dane is both producing and directing and has William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet under his tunic. Biggest star seems to be Majel Barrett off of Star Trek as a Queen Robot who appears, I'm guessing, during The Mousetrap.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Thursday, July 31, 2008

"there is no such thing as Shakespeare's Hamlet ... there are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies"

Some obligatory posts from The Guardian related to David Tennant's Hamlet. Some photos & Michael Billington picks his ten best including some screen versions in with the stage.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ye yan (2006)

Prince Wu Luan played by Daniel Wu
Directed by Xiaogang Feng

Publicised as a re-imagining of Hamlet set in feudal China and produced in the style of such costumed martial arts epics as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Yimou Zhang’s Hero, Xiaogang Feng’s film seems to have all of the elements of the play as though they were rewritten by someone who once saw the Mel Gibson version on television years ago. The treacherous marriage and coronation don’t happen until the middle act, and it's here also that we find something akin to The Mousetrap and Hamlet’s subsequent banishment. Most of the recognisable figures appear, though arguably the attitudes of Claudius and Gertrude have been reverse and she’s an old girlfriend of the prince rather than his mother. There are some nice tips of the hat in the production design with an opening battle in a bamboo theatre shaped like the globe and masks evoking a human skull.

The Banquet
(to offer its uk title) is sumptuously languid. There certainly flashes of brilliance, when Tan Dun’s music conspires with Timmy Yip’s art direction and Li Zhang’s cinematography to produce some arresting images. Ziyi Zhang’s multi-layered performance as the Gertude figure is often wrenching and stands out from a crowd of rather dower blokes. But the computer generated shots of the palace and landscape look dated and the fight sequences are pretty unspectacular in comparison to those featured in Yimou Zhang’s films, and most damagingly, the story simply isn’t as compelling or mysterious as it could be. Partly this is as a result of trying to move someone else’s narrative furniture around, but it can’t quite decide who the audience should be sympathising with.

Feng has clearly found a muse in Ziyi Zhang but his visual worship of her unbalances our attention away from what Shakespeare knew was important, Hamlet (or in this case Wu Luan)’s vengeance. It’s not necessarily a fair comparison, but when Kurasawa took an interest in the Bard, his adaptations faithfully followed the original plot and whenever his dialogue couldn’t evoke Shakespeare’s poetry he let the photography fill in the metaphoric blanks. In that way, the characters remained psychologically complex even as we gasped at the wind in the trees and the sand storms in the desert. It’s interesting to note that when Akira tackled Hamlet, he transposed it to present day. You can’t help but wonder if Feng hadn’t ignored Shakespeare completely he might have produced a more interesting and to be less boring film.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

19 Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen as Hamlet
Directed by Jeremy Mortimer

At the dawn of the new millennium, the BBC decided to commemorate the occasion with a series of radio productions of Shakespeare's plays. Some were critical of the project since the bard has hardly been ignored by Radio 3 and in the announcement there didn’t seem to be anything to suggest that these would be doing anything too out of the ordinary. When broadcast most were well received, especially since the casting suggested that the producers were looking to attract the young audience seeking accessible productions after the film cycle which ran in the late 90s beginning with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

The risk in the inevitable Hamlet was the casting of Michael Sheen who though respected for his stage work had yet to the hit the mainstream and define his career playing real people – Kenneth Williams, Brian Clough and of course Tony Blair. Anyone expecting that distinctive impression offering the famous lines will be disappointed. Sheen here as a much deeper cadence with a Welsh lilt, far more actorly and perhaps slightly mannered.

In his interpretation, Hamlet is already directionless at the opening of the play, apparently going back to college because there’s not much for him in Elsinore. His instability is given purpose by the visitation of the ghost (an understandably bitter, angry presence) the revenge for the bloody deed offering a course of action, almost a career. In carrying out his plan, he’s efficient but flamboyant and very much not mad. There’s a logic to his actions and it's only in the central soliloquy that the fear returns (and oddly this about as Blair as Sheen becomes).

All of which said, I’m not sure Sheen really wins here. His approach to what’s one of the most familiar scripts in drama is to ride over the famous lines, which he should of course, but he also doesn’t seem to be enjoying the language or the poetry. He’s more relaxed in the prose sections, certainly, and when Hamlet is in his best humours. But unlike Simon Russell-Beale, whose audio performance I loved, I found myself unable to empathise with him, or really believe in what he’s saying. I do suspect that he loses a lot of his presence in audio and I'd love to see what he'd do with it on stage. There’s no denying he settles down towards the end – he’s especially good in the gravedigger scene and the ‘Readiness is all is’ is heartbreaking.

Except that by then the rest of the production has begun to drag. This is the full text from the second Quarto and it certainly feels it. It's perhaps too accessible, designed to be as inoffensive as possible so as not to alienate a general and educational audience (it's a co-production with the Open University). At best, the production is doing some interesting things with the private and public face. David Bradley’s delicious Polonius is a different, more vital figure in his office sending Reynaldo to spy on his son than addressing Claudius (Kenneth Cranham) and Gertrude (Juliet Stephenson).

Elsewhere, the producers are largely leaving the interpretation up to the listener, and my taste has always been for directors and actors with a clear agenda, but this doesn't seem to have one. It also can't quite tell how epic it wants to be. Kenneth Cranham spends much of the time regally declaring the text whilst the likes of Stephenson and (the very young sounding Ophelia) Ellie Beaven are enjoying the chance to intimately address the audience and often in the same scene.

The simple soundscape lacks atmosphere and is a touch confused. Inconsistently, in the aforementioned (often cut) Reynaldo scene, typewriters clatter away in the background, yet everything else is clearly taking place in an echoing castle and other characters are transported by horse drawn carriage. Which should be interesting, I suppose, but acts as distractions stopping you from being taken in by the drama. The music is boring too – opening with a bit of plain song then drifting into something akin to electronic lounge music but again without a clear direction. The only truly great moment is when the mime before The Mousetrap is presented mickey mousing on a plonky piano of the kind synonymous with silent film; if only the rest of Mortimer's presentation was that distinctive.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Interview: David Tennant talks Hamlet.

TV David Tennant appeared on The Andrew Marr show this morning to talk about playing Hamlet amongst other things and here's a transcript. Believe me, it was as excruciating to watch as it is to read:
"ANDREW MARR: Yeah. You're, you're a Shakespearian actor, have been for some time. But Hamlet is the big one.

DAVID TENNANT: I suppose. I'm trying not to look at it that way at the moment. Just another play isn't it Andrew?

ANDREW MARR: You're going to, well you're going to bring - yeah except you - and just another audience will be a, probably the RSC will get audiences it doesn't normally have for its productions because you're doing Hamlet I would have thought. Lots of Trekkies in there ... Who'ees, Who'ees.

DAVID TENNANT: Well there will be Trekkies cos we've got Patrick Stewart in the cast as well. But I don't know. I think, I mean I think Ian McKellan was there last year doing King Lear.


DAVID TENNANT: So I guess he probably has an audience from ..


DAVID TENNANT: .. Lord of the Rings that maybe ..

ANDREW MARR: But it's, I mean every, I mean, I mean people will be watching to see - I've got an Olivier, a little clip of Olivier's Hamlet which is ..


ANDREW MARR: .. yeah let's just have a quick look at that.

VT: Olivier in Hamlet.
[editor's note: which by the way amounted to a photograph and audio from the film of Larry saying 'To be or not to be, That is the question."]

DAVID TENNANT: I'll do it like that then.

ANDREW MARR: You'll do it like that?


ANDREW MARR: So we've got it sorted?

DAVID TENNANT: Yeah, that's fine.
You can see the weird chemistry for the next on the BBC's iPlayer if you're in the UK. Spot the moment also when Marr, having called Doctor Who fans Trekkies he forgets the name of The Doctor's current assistant. [via]

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


If I pause my dvd player on that moment in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky and sit looking at it for just over an hour, can I count this film as well? It seems pointless buying the Region One edition just to get, as DVD Verdict says: "an hour of a white screen with no sound or change."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"stark raving sane"

It's with a certain inevitability that I'm linking to this article from The Times in which theatre critic Benedict Nightingale broods over which Hamlet was the best. Simon Russell Beale comes out quite well all round. The critics says he's seen forty and reviewed thirty-five. I really need to pull me finger out.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Star Trek: The Conscience of the King (1966)

Hamlet played by Marc Grady Adams.
Directed by Gerd Oswald.

The Enterprise is diverted to some random planet when a childhood friend of Kirk’s thinks that Karidian, the leader of a group of travelling players isn’t just one of the great tragedians of the period but also an ex-politician, Kodos, who brought genocide to half of the citizen of the colony which was under his care. All signs point to that being the case, but even though the Captain was at said colony and saw the murderer, he can’t quite convince himself that they are the same man and so it goes on, with Kirk largely in the role of Hamlet, a man who were not quite sure hasn’t gone slightly unhinged as his memories catch up with him.

This was the first time amongst many, many occasions that Star Trek and Shakespeare met and it’s a very odd beast. On the one hand it features a scene which wouldn't look out of place in one of the histories between the trinity of lead characters, Spock and McCoy’s confrontation of Kirk regarding his actions presents one of the most ambiguous conversations about their friendship as the Captain is unusually guarded about his private life with his first officer who sees his job as not only to protect his superior officer, but also the crew from his foibles – in other words if they’re not compatible, the ship is the priority.

On the other it has all of the complexity of Midsummer Murders or Morse, the conclusion, so obviously grasping towards an authentic Shakespearean tragedy, ultimately comes across as that moment when the John’s Nettle or Thaw discover that Richard Briers’s postman character was a war criminal whose been offing the few people who knew it. I think both of those series have had their Shakespeare episodes, but neither of them offered such an incongruous mix of styles, trying to wedge theatre into the gap between space and opera, presenting scenes from Macbeth and Hamlet on an alien world or star ship along with lashings of garbled blank verse.

Fittingly, the scene from Hamlet happens towards the end as Kirk’s conscience finally reveals itself. In the Enterprise’s theatre (who knew the ship had one of those) against what looks like a school panto set, Karidian’s daughter gives a brief introduction to some assembled personnel, and then after cutaway to some other business, we’re confronted by the ghostly Hamlet snr (Karidian behind a masque giving an intentionally mannered performance) imparting to Hamlet the ‘I am your father’s spirit’ speech. I think the resonance were supposed to recognise is that recent events have resurrected some of the ghosts of the past and as Karidian speaks the words he’s coming to terms with what he’s done.

is played by Marc Grady Adams and his job is largely to look surprised and not upstage the lead guest actor, one Arnold Moss (pictured) who two decades before this episode was recorded appeared as Prospero in The Tempest on Broadway for a hundred shows. But what I’d really love to know is whether Mr. Shatner ever played the Dane and if, please god, it was ever recorded. Of course some of his fascination would later be recorded on wax, a suitably off kilter version of ‘To Be or Not To Be’ cropping up on The Transformed Man, nestling next to ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. But that’s an analysis for another time, Captain.

Monday, February 18, 2008

'Playing Bit Parts in Shakespeare' by M.M. Mahood

What’s perhaps unique about Hamlet amongst all of Shakespeare’s plays is that despite very much having a central role, the preponderance of smaller roles means that should the director choose to, it can appear as much of an ensemble piece as some of the comedy or history plays. Most stagings however, especially in the theatre, to bring the play down to a ‘manageable’ length, generally cut many of these parts, either handing off some of their dialogue to other characters or omitting their contributions entirely.

Mahmood’s book doesn’t feature a chapter dedicated to the play, but a general thesis does emerge from the few examples included that a director cuts there ‘bit parts’ at his peril and that despite appearances many of them carry rather more narrative or thematic resonance than they’re given credit for. In other words, Hamlet doesn’t really work as ghost story unless Barnado's fear introduces some much needed atmosphere up front.

The most interesting discussion is in relation to Fortinbras. I can’t think of a production I’ve loved which hasn’t included the Norwegian’s presence; as Mahood notes, without Fortinbras it becomes a different play -- a family drama, almost a claustrophobic chamber piece lacking the grand arena of international politics and ironic ticking clock of the impending invasion at the close. I also think you lose extra emotional drag that both of these sons are dealing with the choices of their father with Fortinbras arguably holding the better hand.

The role Osric plays in the final scene is also looked at, and in particular whether he’s the fop he’s most commonly portrayed as. Quite rightly, the author – with help from the likes of Dover Wilson suggests that he could be as duplicitous as Claudius, since its under his guidance that Hamlet agrees to the duel and it’s as sword master that the poisoned weapon makes it into Laertes hands. I’m not so sure – I’ve always thought that Hamlet fights because he’s recognised that he’s reached the end game and this will hasten the inevitable – to think otherwise weakens him somehow.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Three Times

A Likely Story (great blog name by the way) has a useful review of the latest Arden editions of the play -- or rather all three of them. As I've discovered elsewhere, some modern researchers believe that each was simply a version of the play at a different moment in its life and to conflate them as usually occurs still doesn't give a clearer idea of what Shakespeare intended. [via]