Hamlet (BFI, 14th December 2009)

I felt that I was privileged to be able to attend the premiere of the Illuminations/BBC TV film version of Greg Doran’s RSC Hamlet at the BFI  (British Film Institute).  This blog is about the experience of being there at the screening, and I’ll wait until after the Boxing Day, when it is aired on TV, to blog about the detail of the production.  Here I am interested in discussing the evening, the atmosphere and responding to seeing the film version for the very first time.

My initial thoughts are around how the film and stage versions might differ and whether the memory of the film version might start to erode that of the stage version.  I thought that the stage production of Greg Doran’s RSC Hamlet (2008-09), was particularly engaging  because I felt that the audience was part of the production itself.  As the audience entered the auditorium, they could see themselves in the mirrored set and as the play progressed audience members became  guests at the funeral/wedding, and the audience for the ‘Mousetrap’.  I was lucky to see the stage version five times through the run, and I was fortunate to see it in the different theatre spaces at the Courtyard and Novello theatres.  What made revisiting the production and sitting in different parts of the Courtyard really interesting was to be able to see the production from lots of different perspectives.  Following experiencing the stage version in Stratford, seeing it at the Novello presented another perspective as it was viewed through the frame of the proscenium arch.   So when I watched the film version, I was fascinated in the way that the camera seemed to direct he viewer to watch characters in specific ways rather than let the eye wonder as it does in the theatre.   It felt that watching the film was the antithesis of watching on stage where the eye can wonder to look at character reactions, watch actors waiting to come on stage, watch the action from behind, above or in front.   The film becomes very directive in the way the viewer is positioned closing down possible viewing options available in the theatre, but emphasising others.  The camera directs us to moments that maybe became noticeable after a second or third visit to the theatre.  For example, Polonius mouthing Laertes lines in 1.2  to make it clear that this is a staged Polonius family moment, or replicated later when Hamlet mouths the Player King’s lines making it really clear this is the bit her wrote.  What I found fascinating was that the film version  takes us onto the set and we become part of the court.  In 1.1, I thought the camera was using all those conventions of horror film and we were looking through the ghost’s eyes, but it was us that looked over Horatio’s shoulders.  In the Q&A session after the screening, Greg Doran talked bout how he found editing and had made a conscious decision to direct the viewer in certain ways.

The other thing that was so different from the stage production ws the way space was used.    The stage is so open at the Courtyard, there is just the back wall, and it’s the language and a few chairs etc that creates the sense of place,  but in the film we have a sense of a building and the action moving from room to room.   I felt at the end of the film, I could actually find my way round this building.  In the Q &A session, Mark Lawson commented that the location was clearly important and Greg Doran talked about getting the sense of a place that felt claustrophobic.  It felt strange suddenly going outside for the gravedigger’s scene, but this does reinforce that idea of the building and space smothering Hamlet.  I think it has been a good decision not to just film the stage version, but to move the play onto location and to think about the kind of place that Hamlet has to deal with as well as the psychological torment that he was dealing with.

The stage version was concerned with metatheatre and this is still very present in the film with the entrance of the player, John Woodvine’s wonderful Priam speech with the actors joining in as if they’d done this so many times like this before and the hilariously funny dumb show as part of the play within the play.  In the film, Greg Doran has also introduced lots of references to film and there are echoes of Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet all the way through including the dramatic moment of Polonius’ death which is retained from the stage version.   In contrast to the film version, there’s an interesting shift in mood at ‘Now I am alone’ and a twist which I’ll discuss after Boxing Day, but this is an aspect the film could take forward that the stage production didn’t.

David Tennant plays Hamlet as a self harming, hot-tempered intellectual, and it is very unnerving that he carries such sharp knife around with him.  As well s being so intense,  David Tennant’s Hamlet is very witty and funny.  However, it was  Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius got the most laughs of the evening.  I think that this was highlighted by being able to bring the camera right up to him as he presents his view of the events which is often at odds with everyone elses .

Mark Lawson chaired the Q&A session really well and asked some very perspective questions.  The session will be on the BFI website soon, so we can all watch again.  I asked the first question which was about the camera placing he viewer on stage.  There wasn’t a Doctor Who question and maybe this was a relief to Mark Lawson, especially as had he’d written on the problems of seeing Hamlet through the lens of Doctor Who at the end of last year.  For me, part of the interest in this production is making connections between these two  roles, and that is why I am writing on length on this in other places.  However, the film both distanced  David Tennant from the Doctor Who role, while on the other hand reinforced some of those readings of the two texts.

In the Q &A session, Greg  Doran admitted to cutting the entrance of Fortinbras at the end.  This did lead to a rather abrupt ending.  Maybe we did need a little time to ponder on Hamlet’s death even though we had been watching for over three hours by then.  After the screening, there was a discussion about whether Hamlet was mad or not in this production.  I don’t think he is mad, but I think that Greg Doran’s point about Hamlet going over the edge in Getrude’s chamber was an interesting one.  The reason that I don’t think that David Tennant’s Hamlet has gone mad is because he manages to interact so differently with the different characters.  We see him play the clown in scenes with Polonius and then turn to Horatio and have a serious conversation.

When I decided to go to the screening, it felt a bit extravagant booking to see a film that would be on television in a week’s time.  However, the experience of being there was just an exciting as seeing the film.   I found it absolutely fascinating to be sat behind Patrick Stewart watching himself playing Claudius watching Hamlet who is watching Claudius in the ‘Mousetrap’.   Even though this was three hours and three minutes long, it  felt that the time went by really quickly and the audience clapped at the end of the film expressing their delight in what they had just seen.

Greg Doran talked about productions he’d seen years ago still being in his head.  I think that I worry a little that the stage memory will be eventually erased from my memory by the film version as I can still keep watching the DVD.  However, that’s the transience of theatre, the joy of being one of many  who saw and felt that they were part of the stage production, in contrast to the possible millions who will experience the watching this on DVD.  The great thing about the film version is that it is different from the stage production, but it does retain so much of the blocking from the stage versions.  Some to the key elements of the stage production are there in the film such as the ‘real’ skull, the red T shirt, the two-way mirrors, and the player king’s crown. 

As Patrick Stewart said in the Q&A session, the cast had been ‘rehearsing’ this for a year, so the film can only be a very polished performance.   Yes in the film there were jerky moments and bits were cut and it does end a little abruptly, but it is a lovely version of Hamlet, which presents an engaging interpretation of the text and I think will make Shakespeare more accessible to a wider audience.

The BBC spokesperson said the BBC wanted this to have a long life after the production had been screened on Boxing Day and after seeing the film production, I think it will.

Further Information

BFI question and answer

BBC web site tie in

Hamlet BBC Open Learn with reference to the production.

George Entwistle’s BBC Blog on the BFI screening

Illuminations reviews blogs tweets etc about the production

Illuminations Blog

Interview with David Tennant in Observer

Mark Lawson on the TV version in The Guardian

Mark Lawson on Hamlet for The Guardian discussion about the Doctor Who Hamlet?

RSC Countdown to Hamlet site

The Times on Hamlet at Christmas

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4 thoughts on “Hamlet (BFI, 14th December 2009)

  1. A nice account of the evening, which I enjoyed immensely. Like yourself, I saw Hamlet on stage 5 times, from various seats in both The Courtyard and Novello, and when tickets were available for this I (and 17 of my friends) jumped at the chance to be there and experience it on another scale. Did you get to see Edward Bennett in the title role, by the way? I sadly missed seeing him (seeing both the performance before David’s respite & the night he came back!), which is a great shame as I’ve gotten to know him since meeting him in Stratford and would liked to have seen it.

    I have never interpreted David’s Hamlet as being mad either. Carried away with his own momentum, perhaps (at least, momentum in thought if not action). There’s something about the way he mocks & teases those around him (such as Polonius and Osric) that drives home to me how much he is playing with them, rather than having lost his mind.

    It amused me that you referenced the red tshirt. There’s been such a sense of mystery surrounding that, as no pictures existed of it prior to the RSC Open Day in July (when it appeared on display). Those who hadn’t seen the production on stage probably thought the thing was a myth, and couldnt possibly hold (certain members of) the audience in thrall the way it did!

    There’s a question that has been bugging me since I first saw the production back in November, both Hamlet and Ophelia appear barefoot, and wanted to ask Greg Doran if to him, being barefoot indicated madness (perhaps their shoelaces had been removed & they were on suicide watch!) I didnt dare ask at the screening though!

    By the way, I feel I need to point out a small error (possibly just a typo). the Player King is portrayed by the excellent John Woodvine not Woodville.


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