So what did I think of “Hamlet”? Weeelll….
There were darker reminders of the Doctor, too – most clearly in his brutal and inexplicable rejection of Ophelia. The tortured, “I love you but I hate myself so much I despise you for loving me back,” dynamic will be familiar to admirers of the Tenth Doctor. And, in true DW tradition, we finish Part One on a cliffhanger with old Claudius at prayer and Hamlet poised to murder him. (I won’t spoil you).
But this “Hamlet” is his own man, very much more than the sum of his Doctor-like tics. He may not be up there with the great Hamlets of theatrical legend (though it’s early days yet, and there’s time enough for the depth to develop) – but he’s undoubtedly the right Hamlet for my kids’ generation. Effortlessly convincing us that he’s twenty-three at most, a moody student whose Philosophy degree has been interrupted by family troubles, he reminds me strongly of my seventeen-year-old son, and I don’t think I’d be alone in that. This prince is torn apart by grief and confusion, very uncertain of his ability to live up to what he believes (probably correctly) is his father’s definition of the ideal son, simultaneously overjoyed and terrified to see his dad’s ghost, vicious towards his mother because he can’t work out how he feels about her having a sex life that he defines as “incestuous” and covering it all up by behaving brilliantly but also very badly, compulsively drawing attention to himself and attempting to convince himself, if nobody else in his world, that he has all the answers. He loves to shock – he’s rude to people he ought to respect, shows up barefoot in a DJ at state occasions, pinches the crown to wear it at a jaunty angle, delivers the most famous soliloquy in theatrical history wearing jeans and a red T-shirt with a fake six-pack printed on the front, and waggles his cock at Ophelia in public to remind us all that there’s a “cunt” in “country pleasures”. This is, after all, a play written by a bloke who knocked up a 26 year old woman when he was 18 and had to be bailed out to the tune of £40.00 (a fortune in those days) by family and friends to purchase a marriage licence.
It’s probably the mother in me, but I adored a moment in the closet scene where Gertrude wearily puts down her cigarette and removes that crown from her silly, dangerous son’s head. This is a family drama first and foremost. We’re seeing a Hamlet in the process of growing up, painfully and in public, and DT plays him quite wonderfully. It’s riveting – I couldn’t believe it when my watch said 10.50 at the curtain call – and it’ll turn an entire generation on to Shakespeare. For that alone, Tennant deserves to be the darling of the RSC.
Having said that, it would be unjust to single him out for praise. As you’d expect from the RSC, this is an ensemble piece with everyone giving their all. Look in the programme and you’ll see all the players listed alphabetically with no concessions made to Tennant’s pulling power, and that’s as it should be. There’s particularly strong support from Patrick Stewart as a creepy Claudius who makes his intense dislike of Hamlet clear from the outset, and Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius – control freak, fixer and pompous windbag, but underestimated at everyone’s peril. It’s striking how rapidly things fall apart once Hamlet bumps him off.
Of course, we’re dealing with a royal family here, and some of Shakespeare’s most nuanced creations. He was too subtle a writer to make things completely black and white. There’s compelling evidence that it’s actually better for the state of Denmark to have Claudius running things, and this adds another layer of ambiguity to the moral imperative that Hamlet must avenge his father’s death. Something is indeed rotten in the State of Denmark, but it’s not necessarily Claudius’s fault. It could just as easily be the inevitable consequence of the old king being the type who’d rather throw his ice-axe around and keep the armaments factories running 24/7 than resort to the logical device of sending a diplomatic mission to Fortinbras to sue for peace. It’s a highly unpleasant atmosphere at Court, resembling a police state, with everyone spying on everyone else. Privacy is impossible, something that Tennant could no doubt relate to very well.
I’m aware that this review is pretty lengthy already – I’ve more to say about the revenge plot and the political background to the play, but I think it’s time for an interval now, so more anon.