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Hamlet: Royal Shakespeare Company (Blu-ray Review)

30 Apr, 2010 By: John Latchem

Street 5/4/10
BBC Video
$19.98 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Oliver Ford Davies, Penny Downie, Mariah Gale.

The timeless quality of William Shakespeare’s work has helped it not only remain pre-eminent in drama for 400 years, but also has led to numerous productions setting the plays in a variety of historical settings without losing a beat.

For example, a 1995 version of Richard III took place during World War II, while Kenneth Branagh set his four-hour 1996 version of Hamlet in the 19th century.

This three-hour Royal Shakespeare Company production, based on a stage version from 2008 that places Hamlet in a contemporary setting, isn’t as ambitious as Branagh’s version. But it does provide a great flavor of the stage production, anchored by outstanding performances from David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart in a dual role as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. (In geek-speak, it’s like the Doctor and Capt. Picard playing Shakespeare on the holodeck).

Stewart’s credentials with Shakespeare are, of course, impeccable — he having first joined the RSC in 1966. He actually played Claudius before, in a 1980 BBC production of Hamlet that was more in line with the original setting of the play. Now a little more seasoned, Stewart delivers a restrained Claudius who feels entirely justified by his machinations, as opposed to the melancholy Hamlet, who comes off as something of a troublemaker.

As Hamlet, Tennant perfectly exudes the sense of manic despair that has made the character so fascinating (a skill that likewise helped make Tennant one of the all-time most popular actors to portray the title character on “Doctor Who”).

This movie version has a very theatrical feel, but the director decided to use the filmed medium to ever-so-slightly augment his presentation. Among the techniques are framing the shots to affect audience perceptions of character moods, and the occasional use of a security camera POV to enhance the feeling of paranoia.

Another interesting technique involves scenes containing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in which the editor cuts back and forth between takes in which the ghost can be seen and takes in which he cannot, a clever trick to add an ethereal flair without a dependence on fancy special effects.

The most modern touch occurs in the second half of the film, as Hamlet recites his soliloquies into a hand-held camera as if filming a video diary. The hand-held camera approach is especially interesting in that for his first few speeches, Hamlet essentially speaks directly to the audience as if it were a stage production (though the sight of Tennant performing “To be or not to be” in a red fake-abs T-shirt, jeans and barefoot is kind of priceless).

The disc includes a great behind-the-scenes featurette and a very insightful commentary with the creative team, plus a brief promo for the RSC.

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