Review : David Tennant as Hamlet, Nerd of Denmark

Ok, here we go!  The easiest way to review Hamlet, I’ve found, is to break it into three distinct reviews : the direction, the rest of the cast, and Hamlet himself.  Otherwise it’s just too hard to separate what David Tennant did with what he was given to work with. Let me just first say that watching Shakespeare on “live” TV as if it were some sort of major event was just awesome.  It was this wonderful combination of nostalgia (remember the days before DVR where if you got up to go to the bathroom you missed stuff?) with modern technology – I sat on Twitter and did play-by-play throughout most of the show.  Could I have DVR’d it?  Sure, and I did, kind  of — I was running maybe 45 minutes behind everybody else.  But it was important to me to watch it as live as I could, as if we were watching the Academy Awards or something.  I wanted to share the experience with my geeks.  Great time, and I look forward to what PBS has in store for us next time..

First, the direction.  I think I’ll call this the WTF? Hamlet, because it had more WTF moments per scene than any production I can remember.  Parts were cool, like how the opening scene is shot from the ghost’s point of view.  We’re not even going to see the ghost? That’s a neat way to do it.  But then … here’s the ghost, standing among everybody.  And oh look, it’s Patrick Stewart.  WTF? He doesn’t look like a ghost.  At all. He looks, as I wrote on Twitter at the time, like he’s just walked out of a first-person shooter video game. That was weird.  Later, Stewart’s ghost physically interacts with Hamlet.  Grabs him, hugs him.  WTF, again?

Much of the movie is shot as if through the eyes of security cameras.  I saw this done once before in a Macbeth production, done up as if they were all drug dealers.  It was interesting there, increasing the general paranoia of a man who thought everybody was his enemy, even if they had to come back from the dead to get him.  Here it’s … interesting, but I’m not fully sure what the point was.  The cameras move and track, as if somebody is controlling them.  But who?  In the most obvious scene, where Claudius and Polonius are spying on Hamlet and Ophelia, they are hidden behind a two way mirror.  Yet in a very key moment, the cameras move.  So, who moved them?  Hamlet will often look directly at them, and at one point rips one out of the wall.  But was that the whole point, just to have him rip one out of the wall?

Last thing on the direction, otherwise I’ll go on far too long.  The actors look directly into the camera.  All the time.  Hamlet does it, Polonius does it.  I’m sure if I went back and paid closer attention I could find others doing it.  STOP THAT, it is very disconcerting.  It’s like watching The Office.  I appreciate that in a live theatre production, certain asides and soliloquies could be directed at the audience.  But there’s a difference between speaking to the audience in general, and singling out one person to talk to. When you look directly at the camera you destroy all suspension of disbelief and pull the audience back up to the “Hello there, I’m an actor on a stage doing a show for you, is it not lovely?” level.

On to the supporting cast, and by that I basically mean Patrick Stewart.  It’s a bit of a shame, really, when you have such a high powered “leading two” like this, because no one else is going to get the time of day.  If you take in a community production of Hamlet where everybody is an equal, you can appreciate the nuances of what Ophelia or even Guildenstern might bring to their role.  Here it’s all about Claudius and Hamlet, and everybody else pales in comparison.  Laertes is … goofy.  That’s the best way I can describe him.  I suppose that’s a good thing, he’s got that sort of awkward “I know what I’m supposed to do in this situation but you can tell I’m nervous about it” thing going, which makes sense.  Ophelia never gets much to work with.  I just plain didn’t buy her crazy.  Black eye make up doesn’t make you crazy, it makes you look like one of the kids from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  In a weird directorial choice, crazy apparently does mean stripping near naked (not sure if she went the full monty on the live show) in front of the king before running off.  I say weird choice, because in the next scene don’t we learn that she drowned precisely because her heavy clothing got soaked and pulled her down? She doesn’t go skinny-dipping in the First Folio, I don’t believe. 🙂  Polonius is…irritating.  He’s often played for comedy, but here he’s more annoying than anything else.  In a good way.  The supporting cast around him, tolerating him, are the funny ones.  But this is a Polonius where you just know that you’d not want to be in the room, stuck waiting for him to finish his sentence.

Can we talk Patrick Stewart? He is, for most of the play, the … coolest … Claudius you’ll see.  He’s awesome.  He’s got the throne, he’s got the queen, he’s got everything well in hand and he knows it.  Calm, cool, collected.  He’s exactly the kind of king who, after Hamlet kills Polonius, has his thugs tie Hamlet to a chair down in the soundproof basement before coming down, taking off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves …  they don’t end up going for any sort of interrogation/torture sequence, but they well could have.  It would have been in character, and would have been very impressive.  I wouldn’t have expected Claudius to do any of the dirty work, but he’d have no trouble having his goons do it.

The ghost in the queen’s bedroom, by the way, was excellent.  I hated the ghost at the beginning, but in the second coming he’s done quite well.  This is actually a credit to the direction, not so much the acting, as it’s all about the camera work and whether we’re looking at the scene through Gertrude’s eyes, or Hamlet’s.

But then….  see, I can’t spoil things for people that haven’t seen it.  All I can say is that there’s a moment when you’ll stare aghast at your screen and mutter a disbelieving “Oh, Patrick…no…oh, no…..”  I can only hope for the love of all that is good and Shakespeare in the world that what happens in that moment was purely a director’s choice and that Stewart was forced to do it against his will.  It is the biggest WTF moment in a movie full of them.

Ok, now let’s talk about Dr. Who.  I’ve honestly never seen Dr. Who, none of them, so I come to David Tennant’s performance with no preconceptions.  To me the man is Barty Crouch from the Harry Potter movie.

What’s up with this dude’s eyes?  He always, always looks like he’s got some sort of psycho-stare going.  This works later in the play, of course, but it’s very offputting in the beginning.  He actually does something very annoying in the opening scenes in that he makes no eye contact with anyone.  Asperger’s? Later when speaking with Horatio it seems like he does the opposite, getting well up into his friend’s personal space for no good reason.  I think that this was a deliberate choice, and it’s what makes me give this review the headline that I did.  He’s playing up the nerd aspect.  We all know that Hamlet is the smart kid who’s been away at school.   Why shouldn’t he have some social adjustment difficulties?

David Tennant plays Hamlet as crazy.  Simply put.  Before he ever sees the ghost, he’s got issues.  After the fact he’s full on lunatic.  Which gets very weird, because he’s looking you in the eye and he’s telling you, “I’m not crazy, I’m just acting this way.”  There are parts when it ends up making him look like an insufferable ass, like a spoiled child who’s not gotten his way and is now throwing a gigantic tantrum up and down the palace while everybody tries to humor him.   This ends up being what I have the most trouble with.  It’s like he took the job just so he’d get to do his crazy act.  He’s practically Jim Carrey in some scenes, and that’s not a good thing in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Don’t get me wrong, the man’s a good actor, and I’ll speak more on this in a minute.  There are moments, even the briefest, where it is entirely the acting that gets across what’s happened, without the backing text.  When Laertes gets in his cheap shot and Hamlet realizes that he’s been using a sharpened foil, Tennant’s “Nay, come again!” is very clearly, as I wrote on Twitter, him really saying, “Oh you mother f%^&*ing son-of-a%^”.  You have to see it.  He realizes, not that he’s been poisoned, but simply that Laertes is essentially cheating, trying to hurt him.  And his instant reaction is, less colloquially, “Now, see, that pisses me off.  Ok, punk, you want to play like that? Well I have the pointy stick now, let’s see how you like it.”  Coupling such a moment with the earlier depiction of “nerd” Hamlet brings things full circle rather nicely.  Throughout the play we’ve had a very non-threatening Hamlet, someone who clearly thinks he’s the smartest kid in the room and gets by on his wits alone because he can.  He’s never a threat to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and even when he’s got a chance to kill Claudius he’s too hesitant.  But here, here he’s caught off guard, he’s angry, and he’s got a weapon.  And now he lashes out.  Even the nerdiest nerd will, pushed to his limits, throw that haymaker punch that knocks the bully out.

Ok, here’s my overall summary of David Tennant as Hamlet.  This is a story that happens to be Shakespeare, not a Shakespeare story.  The stars here are the actors, not the words.  It’s not just David Tennant, either – I mentioned on Twitter that Laertes gets in his own “you can tell what I meant whether you understood the words or not” moment when he first sees Ophelia enter.  If you took this whole movie and rewrote all the dialogue like you might normally write an action/drama movie? You’d have the same movie.  Tennant doesn’t need to be speaking Shakespeare’s words to act out his Hamlet.  He just happens to be doing that.

See what I mean?  I don’t think this is a bad thing, I think it’s an important thing.  Hanging out last night while it played I noticed two very different camps.  There were the Shakespeare fans who were hesitant, at best, about Tennant’s performance.  But then there were the Tennant fans who thought he killed it, and actually made Shakespeare interesting.  I think that’s the crucial distinction.  This movie was more for them than for us.  We Shakespeare geeks can go debate how he delivered the third soliloquy, but the Dr. Who geeks are going to go and debate how he *behaved* during the Mousetrap scene.  They want to talk about him, and his acting, and Shakespeare is secondary.  If we want to talk about the Shakespeare first and the actor is secondary, we can do that too.  But neither group is going to be more right than the other.

(Didn’t love my review? JM has his own take on this one over at The Shakespeare Place.)

20 thoughts on “Review : David Tennant as Hamlet, Nerd of Denmark

  1. I barely know Tennant as the Doctor (I just started watching Who last week), so I was all set to be simply whelmed by this production. I thought the setting was ghastly, Stewart phoned it in, everyone was just a *little* too nutters, and Tennant blew it out of the friggin water. I think it's because if you strip away the terrible costume and set choices, Tennant delivers the Hamlet that I've always read in the text. The one who WANTS to act, who NEEDS to do something, but is restricted from doing so by doubt. He was simply bursting with the energy of needing to do something, but being unable to. His eyes just look that way, he can't help it. And the lack of eye contact at the beginning read as being severely uncomfortable with the way everyone acted as if the status was quo when it really wasn't.Each gesture and look seemed to support the text – though I agree that the looking into the camera was distractingly bad (except when he rolled his eyes at us during Polonius' "historical pastoral, pastoral tragical…" that was hilarious).

  2. There are parts, C, where I agree with you completely. I liked the way he did the bedroom scene, for instance. And the "play me like a recorder" bit.

    But what I couldn't figure out from his portrayal was, is this a perfectly sane kid who is acting this way because he knows he can get away with it, or has he really lost it? I saw more of the former, and that made him annoying to me. Likewise, does the cast think he's crazy, or are they just patronizing him? Something I spotted in this production that though it's in the text I've never fully appreciated it — after Hamlet's "I am but mad north by northwest" comment, R&G go and report to Claudius who says, "and can you get from him no circumstance why he puts on this confusion?" They've *told* Claudius, and he gets it, that Hamlet's only acting nuts. Seems like that should significantly impact how people deal with him, and yet I'm not sure that it does.

  3. Hmmmm…

    I think what I got from it is that he was really on edge from the minute his father died – anything could have set him off. Seeing his father's ghost definitely unhinged something, so even in saying that he was putting on the antic disposition, very often the madness possessed him more than he meant it to. I definitely got "he's mad" from Gertrude and Polonious and "I'm'a tolerate you as long as you don't f* with me" from Claudius. Ros & Guil seemed more concerned that he called them out than that he may or may not be mad.

  4. i was truly disappointed in Stewart's subdued, minimal approach to the play within the play. i think during the poisoning scene i always like Claudius to at least GAPE open mouthed at what he's seeing, not look like he's asleep in his throne, so hamlet and horatio can have that "ah ha!" moment. i never saw the ah ha moment displayed…. Csmith saying that he phoned it in, i almost fully agree with that. i thought the selfless, cold and composed thing worked GREAT for stewart through the first part of the play, but later, with "Do it, England" his reaction at the murder of gonzago, and his approach to laertes, was too laid back, too subdued. Phoning it in, indeed.

    i also felt the need to have the text open, so i went to the MIT shakespeare script and saw how much they cut, how they jumped all over at one point, swapping scenes. and as always, poor Fortinbras doesn't get the last word… Horatio does.

    I didn't like ophelia at all.

    i think i liked Horatio the best, to be honest.

    I like david tennant, but yes — he did totally Jim Carrey that up. especially after Polonius' murder.

    Overall, not the absolute best drop-dead awesome hamlet ever, but … you're spot on about the fact that if this turns Dr. Who fans onto Shakespeare, this is a good thing.

    are you familiar with "Slings & Arrows?" They're about to do Macbeth, and the company is failing. their ad campaign has alienated all their "old" subscribers… but the day the play starts the parking lot is filled with Goth kids and nerds and punks in ripped jeans because they heard this production was cutting edge and new. they caused "A Youthquake" by changing how they present the play. And maybe this Hamlet does just that for some.

    good summation.

  5. Well Duane, you outdid my review at the Place in the length department. I agree with many of your points for many of the same reasons. I just put them differently I think.
    I do disagree about Ophelia. Among the supporting cast I think her performance one of the best. The idea of the eye makeup and the clothes, etc.–Ophelia is, after all alluding almost completely to sex during her "mad scene". (obviously the "painted woman" idea) I don't think she can be blamed directly for that. Probably more from the "idea people" whom I think screwed a good thing in this production almost every time they had it. I think I had my eye more on the acting style and choices than anything else.
    Good "sendup" in most of the places it needs "sending up". Ohh the Claudius "thing"–talk about bad choices… 🙂

  6. Thanks J. I think you noticed something re: Ophelia that I overlooked the first time, but might explain my position a bit. She seems to know what's happening to her. She's aware that she's losing her mind. She doesn't just show up in one seen as full-on loonybird, we see her more in that descent toward madness. I am used to seeing, how'd you put it, the "statue of a child who does not understand…our of gross naivete" that when an actress displays more range than that, it takes a little while for it to sink in. In other words perhaps I didn't "buy her as crazy" because she wasn't quite crazy…yet.

    I like that. It actually ties in fairly well with Hamlet's own manic energy, as if she sees what's happening to him and in her own way is following down that path. I do recall thinking that, there was one particular bit where she does something goofy like waves her arms over her head and makes funny noises or something and I specifically recall thinking, "That looks like she just copied something Tennant might have done." So maybe that is indeed what she was doing, Ophelia mimicking what she sees in front of her.

  7. Thanks. You noticed something (things) I didn't–but that's the way it always is with these things. Reviewing anything is like listening to the accounts from Roshomon. In one sitting you can take in only so much. For lots of reasons, this one definitely bears watching again. Thanks for the redirect Shakespal. JM

  8. I recorded the program and just watched up to 2,1. I'll watch the rest at a later date.

    So far, I don't agree with your review, Duane. I really like having Patrick Stewart as both the Ghost and Claudius. This shouldn't be such a surprise, as it is a fairly common double-cast. Yes, the Ghost is more often double-cast with the Gravedigger, the Player King, or both, but I know an actor right now who is playing Claudius and the ghost. tI needn't be a disconcerting occasion. I agree that Stewart's costume as the Ghost was unsettling. I guess they wanted him to be an anachronism in the modern-dress setting, to convey that Old Hamlet's world of honor and clear-cut values has been replaced by Claudius' Elsinore of subterfuge and moral ambiguity. But it still made for an odd staging.

    I didn't have your reaction to the actors looking into the camera, either. Perhaps that is because I have seen so many performances at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse, where audience interaction is a crucial technique of their performance. I can't help but feel the specificity of singling out an audience member helps enormously in delivering asides. So it was a surprise for me seeing the same technique used on film, but a pleasant one.

    However, I haven't seen the whole film. Some aspects, like Tennant's performance, I can't really judge yet (Hamlet's only been in two scenes). But overall, I've had a markedly more positive experience of the production.

    Oh, and I love their Polonius so far as well. But these are just my .2 cents (adjusted for inflation.)

  9. I pretty much completely agree with you here. Having been a Doctor Who fan, I was super-excited and fairly generous when I watched it back in December. Watching it last night…I had to give up and watch House a few times to keep from throwing things at the TV.

    Looking into the camera drove me mad. I can't even imagine that in a live theatre performance, much less one-on-one with the camera like that.
    And there was that very clear moment–after the Ghost disappeared–when he snapped, which just isn't Hamlet to me. As for his interactions with Horatio, I think that was set up nicely by the use of "our philosophy" instead of "your."

    I actually really liked Polonius. It wasn't necessarily ideal, but it was kind of treated like he was severely senile. It was an interesting take and explained why everyone was able to take advantage of him so easily, other than he was merely a people-pleaser/social-climber.

    Patrick Stewart. I love him immensely, but he just wasn't Claudius to me. He seemed more grandfatherly and less cold, calculating evil. However, I LOVED the doubling of King Hamlet/Ghost and Claudius, which I've only seen once in a live performance. It's genius and should be done more often!

    In my opinion, it's another step toward the [my] vision, but there's still much to be done. All in all, nothing compares to live. 🙂

  10. It's not so much the double casting that got me, although I admit I'd never really thought much about it (see new post on the subject). What struck me more was that there was no real effort made to make Stewart look like a ghost. He was just sort of there, like one of the boys hanging out, Claudius coming to see what the night watch was up to. Except that he was dressed like he'd just finished up his live role-playing game. Later when he physically starts touching people it only emphasizes this problem.

    Had they kept him at bay, lit him differently, dressed him in something more "ghostly" (all white, or something?), thrown in some special lighting effects or *something*, that would have helped a great deal.

  11. Heh. "Live role-playing game." That's a good one. I'll admit the Ghost's armor was pretty silly-looking. I think the ghostliness was supposed to come from all that white mist swirling around (that and him being invisible on the security cameras). But you're right, it was pretty understated.

    What specifically would you have liked to see in the ghost? Actual transparency might have been a tad much, methinks. Really pale makeup? This brings up the interesting question of what Shakespeare's original production would have done with him. They certainly didn't have lighting effects. How do you think the Ghost was made ghostly on the Elizabethan stage?

  12. So I just watched it last night and the best I can say is that it wasn't a total wash. Any production with such a stirring speech from the Player King is worth seeing. But Tennant runs out of tricks to use almost right away, and being nuts all the time comes off static to me. Hamlet was extremely popular and well-loved by people throughout the court, and there's just no tangible emotion between Tenant and anybody. Watching Hamlet fall is only tragic if we get a glimpse of his old noble and generous nature–which should not entirely disappear once his father dies. When Hamlet's scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are done well, you get the sense that these are old friends, and part of the tragedy is you don't know how much Hamlet is toying with them or how much he is genuinely trying to communicate to them during the "what a piece of work is a man" speech. That speech is so crucial to the play, and Tenant wrecks it completely. If Hamlet's just talking to himself all the time, if he is positively indifferent to how his words are perceived by those who have loved him–then why should we care?
    Stewart is better as the ghost than as Claudius–I do agree at least one ghostly image would have helped–but overall I can't complain about the production's choices. The security camera-shots were well-done, for example, and deepened a sense of paranoia throughout the show.
    Editing was a problem but for different reasons than have been given here–I don't think it was edited enough. 3 hours of Tenant is just too much.

  13. I'll agree that the staring at the camera was distracting, as well as the security cameras. As to the interpretation of Hamlet, this seems to be very close to the original version. There are written commentaries of the production when it was first performed that talk about how active Hamlet was; he ran around the stage and acted like a crazy person, and this is part of what the people loved about him. Whenever I've read the play, this is how I've always understood him. It seems that Tennant and all involved decided to go with this interpretation as it's currently the popular scholarly interpretation of the character.

  14. Perhaps the scholars are forgetting Hamlet's brilliant ability to observe and register what he sees. And that his great energy is fueled by the great need to find an outlet; one which is able to absorb and appreciate what he sees in the same way as he is able to do; one he never finds; not because he's some psychopathic Yorick, reincarnated.
    The Elizabethans, unlike us, were "word people". Having been privy to the "clowns" Shakespeare had already written into the play, they would have been much more appreciative of Hamlet's great wit and intelligence; words, words, words, energetically and "wittily delivered". I truly don't believe that Burbage was anything close to the maniacal court jester–"head court clown"– Tennant almost exclusively makes him.
    Hamlet is a Prince. He's not, in the words of own criticism, " that great baby". Unlike Tennant and Company, Burbage–and Shakespeare–would most likely not have forgotten that fact.

  15. "Three hours of Tenant is just too much." Truer words were never spoken.

    Who is Dr. Who, anyway?

    What a dreadful Hamlet! Such an incessantly hopping, scampering, arm-flapping, eye-rolling Skeletor of a Hamlet. Simply dreadful.

    And what made Tenant think the audience longed to see his ugly feet for any amount of time?

    Did he stupidly imagine that being barefooted whilst wearing a suit was an original way to express madness?

    "Hamlet" is a play I thought, till now, was impossible to utterly and completely spoil.

    Till Tennant…

  16. It's quite simple, in this production, about his going barefoot. When he is/is pretending to be insane, he's barefoot. When he is sane, he's wearing shoes.

  17. All I can say is that there's a moment when you'll stare aghast at your screen and mutter a disbelieving "Oh, Patrick…no…oh, no"… It is the biggest WTF moment in a movie full of them.
    Forgive my ignorance, but after watching the movie in its entirety I failed to notice the Patrick Stewart WTF moment… Since the film's been out a while, I don't think we have to worry about spoilers anymore. So to which moment were you referring?

  18. Thank goodness I read reviews of Tennant’s Hamlet by film and theater critics before I ever stumbled across yours, or I might’ve given this filmed version a pass. I disagree with, oh, just about everything you wrote. I’ve seen several different versions of Hamlet, and I found this one the most engaging. Tennant’s Hamlet is terrific–awkward, paranoid, and yet graceful. And I don’t know understand what your problem is with Stewart playing the double role, but it worked for me. As for the ghost grabbing Hamlet, that’s obviously taking place in Hamlet’s mind.

    I certainly won’t be reading any more of your reviews–you don’t know what you’re talking about.

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