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WILL AND ME: Hamlet--The Good, The Bad and The Brilliant

Updated on August 7, 2014
Just two of the Hamlets I saw.
Just two of the Hamlets I saw. | Source

HAMLET: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE BRILLIANT:

There’s a funny thing about my local library: It’s run by socially out of touch cretins and it’s completely unpredictable! Its reliability varies from week to week: During one seven day period, you have to put up with slow service and a month long waiting list for a book or DVD you reserved….even though you’re name is next in line on that list….and that the item is only meant to be a weekly! And suddenly, during the following seven day period, you have to put up with rushed service and your reserved items arriving far too early….even though you only reserved the items 24 hours ago! And as I’m sure you may have already guessed, I have recently experienced a day where my library has done the unpredictable:

I placed an order/reservation for two copies of Hamlet I intended on reviewing that I came across whilst browsing the library catalogue. Thinking that I was visiting the library during its slow moving week, I ordered the DVDs, expecting to receive them two or more weeks later. And yet, much to my surprise, I received a letter from the library saying that my reservation had arrived….just two days after I had placed the order!

Funny enough, my surprise value didn’t end there: A week earlier, I had ordered myself a ticket to see a production of Hamlet being staged by The Australian Shakespeare Company at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne, which I was to attend on the 28th of June….during the same week that the DVDs came in. By a pure twist of fate, I had two film versions in my temporary possession and a ticket to see the story performed live on stage all in the same week.

Even though I am currently on a gap year (of sorts), I did not have very much time on my hands: I only had the DVDs for a week, going to the theatre usually occupies a great deal of one’s day, and I had several other reviews that I still needed to write, so I didn’t really have a lot of spare time to calmly watch the films and review them individually, taking my time with each film as I usually do with all of my reviews. Seeing that I was in a bit of a pickle, I came to the conclusion that the only way around this was to—obviously—watch all three of them as a three night marathon. And since I was going to be in a situation where I would be just comparing the three different versions back to back, I then decided that when it was time for me to start writing the actual review, I might as well do it as one big review. Rather than writing about them individually, I vowed to morph them into a chapter based review.

And so, this is it: My review about the three different versions of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A three night trilogy of “To be or not to be”, “Get thee to a nunnery” and “Alas Poor Yorick”. After a month of plotting and planning, I am proud to present to you my Hamlet review, ranging from which version I consider good, which version I consider bad, and which version I consider a work of pure brilliance….

***

THE GOOD:

HAMLET (1990)

CAST: Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Dillane, Nathaniel Parker, Michael Maloney, Sean Murray, Trevor Peacock, Pete Postlethwaite, Christopher Fairbank, John McEnery, Richard Warwick, Christien Anholt.

CREATIVE TEAM:

Director—Franco Zeffirelli

Producers— Bruce Davey and Dyson Lovell

Writers—William Shakespeare, Franco Zeffirelli and Christopher De Vore

The first version I watched (and I did actually watch this version first! I’m not just saying it in order to fit the good, the bad and the brilliant structure) was the 1990 adaptation starring Aussie actor Mel Gibson in the title role, and directed by Franco Zeffirelli (a familiar face to the world of Shakespeare on screen with his adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew and Othello).

Let me jump straight to the point by saying that this is an impressive film to watch. It might not be the greatest or most necessary version of the story ever made, it is still a satisfying interpretation of a very old text. If you’re fan of Zeffirelli, this will be right up your alley: Ever minute of the film is pure Zeffirelli, even though his filmmaking techniques appeared to be slightly updated compared to his earlier work. (But then again, since it was the 1990s, the director probably began using updated technology!) It might seem updated, but every aspect of his trademark directing style (whether it be the camera angles, the cinematography, the production design (with the latter two resembling the classic films like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra or William Wyler’s Ben-Hur in their own little way), or the editing) is forever present.

The cast are fairly good: Gibson does an okay job as Hamlet (though, despite his research into the character, doesn’t hit all the marks successfully); Alan Bates is deliciously evil as King Claudius; Helena Bonham Carter does give us a sweet and tragic portrayal of Ophelia (but is quite underwhelming, downplayed and too mature in the role); Glenn Close gives us a FANTASTIC portrayal of Queen Gertrude (making her as a very sympathetic mother who still does love and care about her emotionally wounded son, despite marrying too soon just after the death of her first husband); Sir Ian Holm is good natured as Polonius; and Trevor Peacock (best known as the stuttering Jim Trott from The Vicar of Dibley) gives some much needed comic relief as the gravedigger whose presence in the story leads to one of the most iconic scenes in the story: The “Alas, poor Yorick” speech (which Gibson does a surprisingly amazing job at delivering, making the character say the dialogue with a look curiosity, and not lament compared to the other versions of the play. For me, Gibson’s approach to the scene will always be my favourite version of it because of how he decides not to go down the annoying route of being all sad and teary eyed about it. In my mind, ALL portrayals of Hamlet should do the monologue this way!)

The aspect of the film that DIDN’T work for me was the casting of Paul Scofield as the ghost of Hamlet’s father: He is just not that interesting in the role! He does try to give the ghost a sense of great despair and pain, but his performance is dull on so many levels, and his entire delivery is downplayed, making the ghost seem as scary as a piece of toast! His performance has no impact whatsoever $6! (And to add insult to injury, they exclude the original opening scene with Horatio and the guards at the battlements witnessing the ghost’s presence throughout the castle, thus ruining any hopes of the supernatural character ever leaving a haunting impression on us!)

It’s an entertaining film to watch, though a lot of the time, it doesn’t take too many risks in regards of creativity, thus making it fairly 2-dimentinal at times. 1990’s Hamlet is good, but not great.

***

THE BAD:

ASC’S HAMLET (2014)

CAST: Hugh Sexton, Mark Dickinson, Grant Foulkes, Kevin Hopkins, Scott Jackson, Mia Landgren, Penny Larkins, Mathew O’Sullivan, Anthony Rive, Charlie Sturgeon, Doru Surcel, Michael Wahr.

CREATIVE TEAM:

Director—Glenn Elston

Producers—The Australian Shakespeare Company

Writers—William Shakespeare; abridgment by Glenn Elston

The second version I saw (the following day) was a production that I never thought I would review in this blog: A Shakespeare play live on stage! (And when I say “live on stage”, I am not including the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre Live productions that I have already reviewed where their recent projects were broadcast live to cinemas across the pond, but I am talking about a live production where the only way to see it was to go and watch it at the actual theatre, and not at the cinema. I’m talking about a production that no one had interest in recording it at all!)

Founded by Glen Elston in 1987, The Australian Shakespeare Company has become a popular theatrical group in Melbourne, primarily known for its various outdoor performances of the bard’s romantic pieces (such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It) and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows within the trees and flowers of Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens. I’ve always wanted to see a show performed by ASC, so when I saw a poster in front of the Athenaeum Theatre in Collins Street advertising a current production of Hamlet being staged there, I couldn’t wait to get home to my laptop and book myself a ticket to see the production, thus satisfying my ambition to see a ASC show. It might not have been their traditional outdoor production (though to be fair, it is winter down here in Australia, so being outdoors would be a bit inconvenient right now), but it was still an opportunity not to miss!

On the 28th of June, I attended the closing night production. And what was my verdict of it? IT WAS A WASTE OF MONEY!

After the show, I spent the rest of my evening feeling that I should just stick to watching Shakespeare on screen. The production was the WORST interpretation I could have ever seen! (The second worst compared to Tony Richardson’s adaptation of the play starring Nicol Williamson. And trust me, I’ll get to that train wreck another time!)

Though it was produced by a professional theatre group, the entire show looked like a cheap amateur production staged by a struggling drama group at your kid’s high school that recycles the sets and costumes from random crap they found in the dumpster behind the local strip club! The staging looked narrow and as bland as a cardboard sandwich; the costumes are childish (and I absolutely hate how Rosencrantz’s costume was a 19th century tailcoat and top hat when everyone else is wearing Elizabethan-ish dress!); the choice of venue didn’t help make first impressions any better (despite being at the historic Athenaeum Theatre, we were placed in the theatre’s claustrophobic attic!); Glenn Elston’s direction was clumsily as all hell (usually staging the action too far on the other side of the stage, making things difficult to see); and I was really unimpressed with how The Ghost (my favourite character in the entire play) was portrayed as a pre-recorded video clip (that was on an obvious continuous loop) being projected onto the back wall! I admit, it was fairly cool to see, but was it really worth the time and effort? What was wrong with the old school approach of putting pale make-up onto the actor’s face, and start operating a fog machine every time he walks out on stage?

The cast weren’t at all inspiring either! Hugh Sexton, Mark Dickinson, Mia Landgren and Mathew O’Sullivan do excel as Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia and The Ghost & Player King respectively (though Sexton had a habit of going in and out from a passionate Olivier type voice to a gruff sailor voice most of the time), but the rest of the cast were downright untalented, inappropriately casted, and unbelievably wooden and emotionless! (The worst of them has got to be Kevin Hopkins in the role of Polonius! He was not old enough for the role and his acting ability was nothing short of embarrassing. He did fit into the role at all….and the sad thing is, many of those who attended the show share the same views on the actor!)

ASC’s Hamlet….it’s neither good nor great! It was just bloody awful from start to finish, and it was such pitiful work coming from the same person who originally founded the company! Has he really created a Melbourne tradition with those lousy directing skills?

(Sigh! Thank God it was only being staged for a limited season!)

***

THE BRILLIANT:

HAMLET (2009)

CAST: David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Mariah Gale, Peter de Jersey, Edward Bennett, Oliver Ford Davies, Sam Alexander, Tom Davey, Mark Hadfield, John Woodvine, Ryan Gage, Samuel Dutton, Jim Hooper, David Ajala, Keith Osborn, Ewen Cummins, Robert Curtis, Roderick Smith, Andrea Harris, Ricky Champ, Riann Steele, Zoe Thorne

CREATIVE TEAM:

Director—Gregory Doran

Producers—The Royal Shakespeare Company

Writer—William Shakespeare

The final version I watched was the 2009 made-for-television film directed by the accomplished Gregory Doran and based on a stage production produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company.

As the title of this segment clearly states, this is the greatest version among the three! Perhaps the greatest version of the 21st century!

The cast is 100% brilliant (especially David Tennant as Hamlet, Patrick Stewart as both Claudius and The Ghost (giving an awesome and ironic twin brother twist to the two characters), Oliver Ford Davies as a very warm and loving Polonius, and Mariah Gale as (what is now my favourite portrayal of) Ophelia!); the modern setting is shot-for-shot poetry (and inspiring and refreshing on so many levels); and the direction is as passionate as the original Shakespearean text in question! Gregory Doran pretty much has his knighthood in the bag here! The royals would have to be foolish not to award him such a worthy honour for such a talented director.

Like with every Shakespeare film that I come across that is 100% perfect, I have nothing else to say about it. It is awesome and will satisfy the expectations of all Shakespeare fan alike. It’s every artist’s BRILLIANT intoxicated dream!

***

And with that, my three days of Hamlet came to an end. Three days of having to hear the same speech recited to me, and three days of seeing it performed in three different directorial styles. Three Hamlets, and three different verdicts: 1990 gave us a fairly good adaptation of the story; 2014 has given us a very bad stage production of the story; and 2009 gave us the most brilliant interpretation ever showed on the present day screen! But all in all, I’m glad I can go back to reviewing my films as individual pieces.

A banner advertising The Australian Shakespeare Company's Hamlet....a version of the play that became the WORST interpretation I ever saw! (And that banner got my hopes up. For shame!)
A banner advertising The Australian Shakespeare Company's Hamlet....a version of the play that became the WORST interpretation I ever saw! (And that banner got my hopes up. For shame!) | Source

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