Yesterday I watched the filmed version of the RSC's recent production of Hamlet. It starred, and I use the appropriate word because the actor concerned, David Tennant, has achieved fame and fortune 'over here' playing the lead in a TV series called Dr. Who, a 'sci-fi' show aimed mostly at children and thus guaranteed to attract grown-ups who should know better! Whenever one approaches Shakespeare's great tragic heroes, it is important to realise that these complex characters are what I describe as being 'incoherently coherent' - and no, I haven't been on the sherry - what I mean is that WS understood that human beings are made up of frequently contradictory imperatives which makes them, say, cruel and kind, good and bad, happy and sad, and so on, in other words, it is their very incoherence that makes them coherently human and thus recognisable as such to an audience.
However, it is this very incoherence which causes so many difficulties to both actor and director. Faced with a bewildering set of contradictions there is a tendency to pick and choose, indeed, to paraphrase a well-known political saying, 'to act is to choose', and of course, in that act of choosing lies the danger of either over-emphasising one characteristic to the detriment of others, or even worse, leaving out those with which one is antipathetic. Personally, I try to present Shakespeare's characters in the round, warts and all, and leave it to the audience to make up their minds - but pointing out that whatever conclusions they come to concerning the characters they see on stage will say much more about them than the characters!
When I studied Hamlet in some detail before directing it, I came to one firm conclusion, which had more to do with the text as a play rather than a piece of literature, and that was the crucial importance of the audience building up a rapport with the hero. To my mind it was essential that the audience liked Hamlet and thereby cared about him. If Hamlet is played, as David Tennant played him, as an angst-filled, rebellious teen-ager with attitude, then virtually every middle-aged parent in the audience will groan in recognition of their own pain-in-the-arse off-spring and quietly give Laertes a cheer when he bumps the hero off. This film version did Tennant no favours because close-ups of his clenched face, his lips drawn back over his teeth and his bulbous, starey eyes, dried up the wells of sympathy for this suffering young man.
The other factor I considered to be hugely important in playing Hamlet is to show him thinking! Hamlet is Shakespeare's Renaissance hero, in other words, a 'new man' who thinks before he acts, who requires reason to justify whatever it is he does; that, in my opinion, is what the Renaissance was all about and it stands in direct contrast to the Medieval period which preceded it in which men acted instinctively in passion, be it revenge, love, lust, or whatever. This distinction, I believe, is what WS wished to demonstrate through the actions of his hero. The tragedy for young Hamlet is, that once he has the reasoned proof he needs, he then loses control and reverts to Medieval man and in a state of un-thinking ferocity murders Polonius and thus ruins his chances of taking a considered revenge on Claudius. (To digress briefly, I am struck by the recent, unthinking, instinctive and Medieval re-actions of a Muslim man and his brother who chased an intruder up the road and left him brain-damaged after beating him with a cricket bat. The Renaissance never touched the Muslim world until now when they cannot escape it and which has produced their violent antipathy to it.)
None of this was apparent to me because Tennant began in a state of frenzy and worked up from there! Thus, I rapidly tired of him. Needless to say, he, and many of the other actors, ignored the fact that their parts are written, mainly, in verse and if you ignore line endings and read it as prose you lose the subconscious magic and it all becomes tedious. Patrick Stewart was a villain who could "smile and smile and be a villain", as well as playing the ghost of his dead brother. Unfortunately, the director, Gregory Doran, made the huge mistake of playing one of Shakespeare's spirit plays in modern dress. Shakespeare's audiences had no difficulties believing in the reality of ghosts, indeed, they would have picked up what most modernists miss which is the doubt in Hamlet's mind as to whether this is a true ghost of his father or an impostor sent by the devil to trick him. This is an important point because again it demonstrates Hamlet as a thinking, reasoning, Renaissance man. But if your setting is resolutely 20th century then the whole notion of ghosts is an absurdity for which no audience will be inclined to suspend their disbelief. Virtually no effort was made by the director to indicate the spirit-like nature of the ghost who moved in close to the action between Hamlet and his mother.
Far and away the best actor of the lot was Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. I was once privileged to attend an afternoon talk by this stage veteran on the subject of Shakespearean acting and I learned so much from him that has stood me in good stead ever since. Running him close was John Woodvine as the Player King - what a voice - I would kill for it! The inherently comic nature of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, later picked up to terrific effect by Tom Stoppard, was ignored by all concerned in this production and that was a mistake in my view because the Tragedies do need that vein of humour to be highlighted as a contrast to the bleak, black, impending doom.
So, to sum up, an interesting production but not an engaging one.