Mostly good, a few highly laudatory, and a sad rump apparently unable to forget Doctor Who (celebrity casting! the horror!) while watching the goings on at Stratford – quite a few reviews only mention DT’s performance, with perhaps a perfunctory nod to Stewart’s, and don’t mention the performers playing Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes or Polonius at all, let alone the smaller roles.
In some ways this is understandable – and not only because many of these reviews are from general culture pundits rather than from theatrical afficionados per se. Although each of these supporting characters has a memorable speech/scene or two, the narrative bulk of The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark is overwhelmingly Hamlet’s opinions and actions (and procrastinations).
image credit: dress rehearsal shot from the RSC (thanks to Jamie Wallace), via david-tennant.com
That’s why it’s not particularly a favourite of mine as far as Shakespeare goes (I’m a Scottish Play person) – despite the magnificence of the language I find the other characters emotionally underdeveloped, which disappoints because they are all introduced so very clearly, then go nowhere much, largely having to play “perplexed by Hamlet” the whole way through (then again, aren’t we all? perhaps I merely don’t take very well to being perplexed). Yet despite lacking a certain rounding, these other characters are key ingredients in any production of the mad Dane. Reviews that focus only on the Prince miss something crucial: that Hamlet is still above all an ensemble piece, and simply cannot work on the performance of the actor playing the title role alone.
Despite the impressive showboating and fireworks license it gives to the younger actor playing Hamlet, the play would never have achieved canon status without those other actors’ fine lines, with all the rich wordplay and warmth and irony within, to anchor the audience to the world beyond the neurotically introspective Prince. It would be nice to see more attention paid to the efforts of these actors to produce a Hamlet that’s truly dramatic instead of merely a rollicking melodrama*.
In furtherance thereof, here’s the complete cast list from the RSC Website (alphabetical by actor’s surname):
DAVID AJALA – Reynaldo
SAM ALEXANDER – Rosencrantz
EDWARD BENNETT – Laertes
RICKY CHAMP – Lucianus
EWEN CUMMINS – Barnardo
ROBERT CURTIS – Francisco
TOM DAVEY – Guildenstern
PETER DE JERSEY – Horatio
PENNY DOWNIE – Gertrude
SAMUEL DUTTON – Lord
OLIVER FORD DAVIES – Polonius
RYAN GAGE – Osric
MARIAH GALE – Ophelia
MARK HADFIELD – Gravedigger
ANDREA HARRIS – Lady
JIM HOOPER – Priest
KEITH OSBORN – Marcellus
RODERICK SMITH – Lord
RIANN STEELE – Lady
PATRICK STEWART – Claudius/Ghost
DAVID TENNANT – Hamlet
ZOE THORNE – Lady
JOHN WOODVINE – Player King
It’s interesting to read various current reviews and also retrospectives of previous productions – more than one claims that there has never been “a definitive” Hamlet, or at least not one for the current generation, although I’m not entirely sure why anyone would actually want one. Surely one of the reasons for lasting audience fascination with the great roles in the theatrical canon is that they don’t know exactly what to expect, because such roles are written with complexity and opportunity for varying nuances in interpretation? Does anybody really want a tragedy performed as a series of catchphrases?
It may not be the most compelling example (seeing as the character is a comic grotesque rather than a dramatic lead), but take one “definitive” performance that has straitjacketed the role ever since, to wit Dame Edith Evans’ famous elongated gliding pitch on “A handbag?” as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. That moment’s reputation meant that not only she but most other Bracknells subsequently have felt compelled to reproduce that delivery every single night instead of actually reacting to the other performers as the lines are said. I’d rather have an engaging performance “in the moment” than a definitive ossified exhibit, thanks.
Perhaps what they really mean is that there is no one outstanding interpretation of Hamlet against which to measure new productions. Again, I’m not sure that this is a necessary aim for any current production, although of course it would be nice to still have one’s staging being talked about decades later. But the whole point of these productions here and now is to put bums on seats and keep the repertoire alive to fight another day. There have been many celebrity actors** who been invited to take on the role as generators of guaranteed box office receipts, and also many successful productions starring less well-known Hamlets for whom the role has been a leaping board to greater fame. Any longer lasting kudos is gravy, surely.
So, onto DT: even the more unimpressed reviews are at least not totally dismissive – there’s nothing approaching the infamous cattiness of James Agate, for example.
“does not speak poetry badly. He does not speak it at all.”
James Agate on Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet in 1938
There’s perhaps a touch of condescension in a few of the reviews regarding their surprise at DT’s range and finesse, but again not from the constant theatre reviewers who remember him from his earlier days for the RSC as a classically trained stage actor. (It’s amusing actually that some articles are using a photo from the RSC 2000 production of Romeo and Juliet rather than a shot from this version of Hamlet – if he’s wearing puffy sleeves it’s the feuding Italian rather than the brooding Dane.)
The BBC has a review round-up with a mixed bag of pullquotes.
david-tennant.com has a page full of the most flattering reviews. I found it interesting that at least one reviewer wondered whether DT wouldn’t do better to use his natural Scots burr instead of sticking to the traditional RP accent, and that several suggested that although his exploration of the humour that can be found in the Dane is both refreshing and impressive, he needs to allow himself room to explore the depths of his emotions as well (although they acknowledge this will probably naturally evolve as the production settles in).
I understand the reservations expressed by some about the cutting of certain key scenes, particularly poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern only getting a metaphorical chop in this version, but then again the full play is very long. Someone has to work on getting the balance right, and inevitably it won’t suit everyone.
Still, all in all, mostly good reviews for a first press night, for DT, the ensemble cast, and the director Gregory Doran.
Perhaps my favourite line in the reviews comes from the Beeb’s Caroline Briggs, where she notes something that Mt. Fandom has been keenly keeping track of for some time:
Tennant also uses his hair to great theatrical effect. From the sleek combed-back style of his first scene, he ruffles it to display despair, rage and madness. It deserves a credit of its very own.
Oh yes indeed.
image credit: hms_surrender on ihasatardis
* mind you, there may well be a place for perhaps a Hamlet On Ice that dresses Claudius as Snidely Whiplash [back]
** including Christopher Eccleston in 2002 For the Yorkshire Playhouse, to creditable reviews, before he was Tennant’s predecessor as Doctor Who [back]
Categories: arts & entertainment