Posted on August 5, 2008 - by MG
Thanks to my friend Susie Day and her two last minute spare tickets, I found myself driving me and my teenage daughter up to Stratford last week for the previews of ‘Hamlet’ at the Courtyard Theatre.
Obviously I’m a Star Trek fan and obviously Patrick Stewart played the best-ever Starfleet captain. And my daughter is at the impressionable age in which Her Doctor will always be David Tennant. (I’m on the Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker cusp…)
So, pretty much of a double whammy for us…
Here then, is my review of the lovely, slender Mr Tennant’s performance…
David Tennant plays Hamlet as a likeable, energetic, frenetic and often funny young nobleman. He can get a laugh from his delivery of lines such as ‘It is VERY cold’. That’s not to say he doesn’t brood – he does – he angsts and broods quite prettily at the beginning. The scene with the ghost and his first Loony Hamlet scenes (the famous soliloquy with all the conscience-ridden talk) are bewitching – at that point I truly believed that Hamlet would wither away from anticipatory guilt and distaste for the murderous act his father’s ghost has demanded.
But once the travelling players arrive and Hamlet hatches his plan – he is neither believably dysfunctional nor ruthless. And that makes him a very different Hamlet than any I’ve ever seen.
He is full of glee watching the play-within-the-play (itself a major highlight – wickedly bawdy, grotesque – with costumes so gawdy and camp that they make up for the austerity in the rest of the production). He plays ‘mad’ with gusto, is chillingly disinterested in having dispatched Polonius, and passionate in the counter-(quasi-)seduction of his mother. He seems to relish the irony of his fate of being sent off to England with the super-preppy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s all great.
But deep down part of me was rebelling. You’re not meant to like Hamlet – are you? You’re meant to be fascinated with his downward spiral into obsession, indecision and revenge.
So this is a very new take on the role. My 15-year old daughter was a Hamlet virgin – she didn’t even know how it ended! Maybe for her this will be the definitive performance.
Sadly though the one Big Scene which didn’t quite deliver was the ending. Played as a nice clean fencing match with the likeable, roguish Hamlet and the very brooding Laertes (he Did Brooding much better than H), it seemed to wind up as a sort of unfortunate series of events in which everyone accepts their fate (death) with not much more than an ‘oh well’. I can’t help feeling that this scene needed more work and hopefully it’s improved since the previews.
Granted, we don’t need to see any Olivier-esque wailing of ‘I am dead!’ from Hamlet, but in this Hamlet the failings of the writing (yes! see how I DARE criticise Shakespeare!) were brought into relief. In the end a bunch of people we don’t much like all die. Okay in this case we like Hamlet but he doesn’t seem to care enough about staying alive for us to care. And Laertes with his last minute apologies…please!
Patrick Stewart, on the other hand, is utterly faultless as Claudius. It’s a much easier part than Hamlet with all his contradictions. Stewart is charming, smooth, stern and ruthless without coming across as either a camp villain nor thoroughly evil. So he coveted his brother’s gorgeous yummy-mummy wife and his throne, and let himself slip one afternoon in an orchard with a bottle of poison… At least he’s sorry – well at least he wishes he were sorry.
By contrast Hamlet comes across as outraged and self-righteous when it comes to judging his uncle’s and mother’s behaviour while his own murderous impulses run unchecked. His attention-grabbing sobs at Ophelia’s burial are seen for exactly what they are when we think back to his merciless treatment of her in the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech.
Spoilt mummy’s boy, cowardly boy-man, disturbed, vengeful and utterly selfish – Tennant’s Hamlet has it all. And yet also, somehow likeable.
(As a coda, I should say that it’s lots of fun watching Hamlet with someone who doesn’t know that all those now well-worn cliches like ‘neither a lender nor borrower be’, ‘the lady doth protest too much, ‘to be or not to be’, etc etc, all come from the same play…I kept hearing little gasps of recognition from my daughter…rather nice)