A Tale of Three Hamlets

I’m going to write about Hamlet.  Because I’m super-with-the-times and people have to know about this totally new play called “Hamlet” that Shakesomething wrote!

No, but really…  I’ve watched two versions of Hamlet within the past week, and I’ve been thinking about it.  Plus, I’ve got something else I’ll be posting later in the week that’s serious in tone, so I want to write something fun (for me) before that goes live.  This is going to get a little pretentious.  Just let it happen.

Many of you will recall that I adore Hamlet.  I read it at least close to yearly.  This year, I’m foregoing the reading, since I’ve watched it twice…but most years, I’ll at least browse through the soliloquys.  It’s my favorite Shakespeare-thing.  On my “Something to Look Forward to…” record, the first song references it several times.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Hamlet over the years, and since it’s been recurring this week, you’re getting this post…

I don’t remember when I first fell in love with Hamlet.  I know that when I was in a literature class in junior high, we started reading it, but didn’t finish because the class was largely cluelessly lost due to being junior highers and not caring about it.  I did finish it on my own because I wanted to see how it ended…that’s a thing with me.  Even if I think something sucks, I still want to see how it ended.  (With the exception of the movie Johnny English.  Never finished that one.  Terrible.)  It might have been then that I first fell in love with it.  I at least retained it, because a couple of years later in an acting class, I was given the famous “closet scene” to perform and I asked the teacher “Who’s my Gertrude?” without the character name being listed on the page.  I’m pretty sure that scared the hell out of him.

…actually…it might’ve been acting through that scene that made me love Hamlet.  It’s a weighty scene.  Most people over-play it and make it almost romantic in a way that I don’t think is appropriate.  If you’re not familiar with it, Hamlet confronts his mother about his father’s murder while in her bed-chamber and ends up killing Polonius, who was doing a very bad job of hiding and eavesdropping.  Also the ghost of Hamlet’s father shows up during it.  It’s kind of intense.  Some actors choose to play it as though Hamlet is sexually attracted to Gertrude.  I don’t think that’s right–Hamlet refers to the relationship of Gertrude and Claudius as “incestuous” so I doubt that kind of thing would be his scene…  I played the anger of the scene, personally, rather than the Oedipal complex that some productions hint at (or outright beat you over the head with).  Several actors in the class did that same scene for a grade.  If memory serves, I was the only one in the class that was off-book in time for the performance.

While we were rehearsing, the teacher took me aside and asked me if I would like to be excused from the performance.  It had dawned on him that I was playing a scene that included a character confronting his mother and being haunted by the ghost of his father…and that was the year my own mother had died.  I think it was even the same semester.  It would have been absolutely acceptable for me to take him up on the offer and not do the scene.  But what is acceptable is not always beneficial.  I needed to prove to the teacher, myself, and every goddamn person in the class that I could do it, and I had to be off-script.  So I did that.

…all that to say I think that Kenneth Branagh is a great actor, but that he plays the wrong version of Hamlet.

I cannot claim to know what informed Branagh’s performance.  I only know what informed mine.  But Branagh’s Hamlet was one of the two I watched this week, and for some reason it is considered the definitive version…and I disagree with his choices.  Now…don’t get me wrong.  Branagh created an interesting, complicated, fascinating character.  But that’s the problem.  BRANAGH created it–not Shakespeare.  Branagh played a willfully insane Hamlet.  That is a misread (although an understandable one) of the character that singlehandedly ruins the entire production.  Hamlet was not insane.  He was feigning madness–and that is clearly stated in the script.  What Hamlet was, was haunted.  Both literally and figuratively.

Branagh’s Hamlet takes place in a world where the character has lost his mind.  The ghost of his father in that world is treated as a manic hallucination by the time we get to the closet scene…  But this is a problem.  If the ghost isn’t real, then yes Hamlet is mad…but then so are Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio to whom the spirit has also appeared.  And who swore their allegiance to avenge him.  To accept Branagh’s Daffy Duck version of Hamlet bouncing off the walls, one must also slap a straightjacket on the others who led him to the ghost in the first place.  And no, Gertrude does not see the ghost in the closet scene…but she also believed Hamlet to be insane and would not have had the faith to see the spirit, nor the conscience to look for the memory of the man she betrayed upon the alter of her wedding.  No…  I believe that the ghost is real–it HAS to be for the play to work at all.

Branagh is a phenomenal actor.  One of his lesser known flicks “Dead Again” is one of my favorite movies.  (Just realized he kills Derek Jacobi in that too! Huh…)  Branagh’s talents are impossible to belittle and he deserves every accolade he receives.  He just got Hamlet wrong.  And I’m even going to forego addressing the completely unnecessary “flashback” scenes inserted into the script, showing Hamlet boning Ophelia.  (That’s right…it was classy up until “boning,” but now it’s that kind of post.)  That is a poor choice, but I get it–it was 1996 and you had to sell some tickets…  The much greater sin is to play Hamlet as a raving lunatic and strip the nuance from the character.

Which brings me to David Tennant.

Last week I watched (with my Dad) a version of Hamlet that brought it more into today’s scenery (which has been done before) but kept the old dialogue.  Now…  Tennant’s delivery of the “To be or not to be…” soliloquy was not my favorite that I’ve heard…but he might have played the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen.  Tennant’s performance found moments of quiet and stillness that are often absent from others–possibly because many others think of it as a play and need to project to the back of the theatre, whereas Tennant knows how to play on a TV.  But there’s something more than that…  In Tennant’s performance, the madness seemed feigned, but the viewer was still left with a possibility that it may BECOME real.

There are 3 ways to play Hamlet.  (1) Mad all the time.  (2) Goes mad in time for the closet sequence.  (3) Sane all the time.  Many go for option one.  Those who are unsure go for option two.  And for a few moments, I thought Tennant might be leaning that way…but the death scene…  “The rest is silence.”  The way Tennant played it was a man who knew exactly what every moment leading up to those words meant.  His Hamlet was SANE.  And that knocked my socks off.  When I watch Branagh’s performance, I see a cartoon made flesh; a performance informed by manic insanity. When I watch Tennant, I see a performance that looks like it was informed by something else…maybe loss?  I happen to know that Tennant lost his mother in 2007.  Does losing a parent make you play Hamlet sane?  Does loss make crazy look normal?–well…yes to that.

Or maybe I just forgot how good he was in Doctor Who and didn’t realize how well it would translate into the Bard’s work.  (Holy shit! Derek Jacobi also was on Doctor Who!)

Anyway.  That’s it.  Just wanted to say David Tennant kicked ass as Hamlet, is all…  And if you’re reading this, Derek Jacobi…  If you find yourself in a script where you’re facing off against anyone who ever has or will play Hamlet, you’re probably going to die again, bro.

Current Listening:

  • Rufus Wainwright – Want One
  • Metric – Synthetica
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