Tuesday, 26 June 2012


The other day my mum happened to ask me "of all the Hamlets you've seen, which did you like best?"
Not an easy one to answer on the fly. So I thought I would try to answer it here instead. 

In roughly chronological order (I have had to look up dates as regrettably I've not got programmes for most of the performances):

  • Iain Glen in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Filmed in 1990 but I don't think I saw it until 1998. Not a full Hamlet as it is a play based on the two minor characters that are friends of Hamlet but end up betraying and then being betrayed by Hamlet. Although a comedy, Iain Glen plays Hamlet straight but with a lightness that lets the intelligence of the character shine through. It has become my all time favourite film and I recommend it every time I am asked about films. This is the first time I really felt I had to get to know the Dane better. 
  • Toby Stephens 2004, directed by Michael Boyd at the old theatre in Stratford Upon Avon (it's been rebuilt now and I really want to go). The ghost was quite extraordinary, being a broken down, anguished, hobbling man painted white with tremendous sound effects accompanying his every move. Toby Stephens is often cast as a man full of contempt borne of an instinctive sense of superiority. This Hamlet was all that, with an anger at the injustices he faces that was full of intensity. 
  • Ben Whishaw 2004, directed by Trevor Nunn at The Old Vic, London. This was a fairly extraordinary production in that Hamlet had an innocence and despair that I think other performances have not majored on, preferring to cast him as scheming and in some cases gleeful about his plotting. It was also the first I saw that was in a modern setting, though was not as sparely staged as the Toby Stephens version. At the time I thought it was marvellous but it has since been overshadowed by other performances.
  • Ed Stoppard in 2005, at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford. I was particularly keen to see this version, Ed being the son of Tom who wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It also featured Anita Dobson who is so far my favourite Gertrude, played as a belligerent, put upon wife who is sick of being told 'Gertrude, do not drink.' It shone a different light on her, a wife who is a chattel, who is not complicit in Claudius' machinations.
  • Kenneth Branagh on film filmed in 1996 but I think I saw it in 2007. I think this is a tour de force. It is the full four hours but really doesn't feel like it. The performances are all top notch from Derek Jacobi as Claudius to Billy Crystal as the gravedigger. The setting and costume is perfect and Branagh makes a dashing Prince in his black garb. I definitely recommend this to anyone who is unable to go to the theatre. Branagh, as with his other adaptations, has found a way to make the language sing, and there is not a single phrase that is difficult or awkward.
  • David Tennant (twice) in 2008, directed by Gregory Doran at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon and the dvd of the production. This was a very funny production, in modern dress, with some stand out moments such as a slightly drugged Hamlet bound to an office chair and rolled around the stage before his banishment. Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius made the old man forgetful and confused, his speech to Laertes about how to conduct himself fragmenting as his mind wanders. Patrick Stewart was also a memorable Claudius. The DVD is not filmed on the stage but in rooms of a stately home and works well.
  • Jude Law in 2009, directed by at the Wyndhams Theatre, London as part of the Donmar West End series that included: Derek Jacobi as Malvolio and the brilliant Ron Cook as Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Judi Dench in Madame de Sade (which I didn't get to see), Kenneth Branagh as Ivanov which was a sublime piece of theatre. Unfortunately this Hamlet was very forgettable and I remember little except Law sitting in front of a wall for one of the soliloquys.
  • Michael Sheen in 2012, directed by Ian Rickson at The Young Vic in London. This was a very different staging, set in a 20th century asylum. The Young Vic is a brilliant space for a claustrophobic performance, and at times the whole room was plunged into pitch darkness. The clever use of a greatcoat to signify the ghost/Hamlet's madness and the stage being wholly removed to present a pit into which every one ends up dying were infinitely more memorable than most of the actors though. Sheen and Benedict Wong as Laertes being the stand outs. Claudius was quite oily and slick in public, the contrast to his private moments being very effective. I also took part in the pre show walk, wherein we entered the theatre from the back and walked through rooms set up as rooms of the asylum; the library, gym and others, peopled with members of the cast. This was rather subtle though and I am sure many people on the walk missed almost everything.
  • In the Michael Almereyda film of 2000, Ethan Hawke is a film student, allowing him to replay soliloquys to himself on his laptop. The setting is New York and many of the locations are ultra modern apartments. Claudius is head of Denmark Corp and the ghost is seen in CCTV footage. It is a much abbreviated text but is very stylish and innovative. Ethan Hawke is moody and petulant, perhaps befitting of a rich kid who wants for nothing in the modern world.
I haven't seen the Kevin Kline film version. I really want to see the Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton films. I am very envious of my dad who saw Peter O'Toole on stage in the 60s. I need to watch the BBC version from the early 80s as I am intrigued to see Patrick Stewart as a Claudius who is younger than Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. I would love to see it on stage at The Globe in London and I think Tobias Menzies would be fantastic in the role (he has done it in the past apparently).

All in all, I would absolutely recommend the Kenneth Branagh film to anyone, whether new to Shakespeare or a lifelong fan. Of the stage plays, it would be a toss up between Toby Stephens and David Tennant. I might go for the latter as so many of the other performances were so good, in particular Oliver Ford Davies.

Have you seen Hamlet? What are your memories of any you have seen?

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