August 31st, 2008

David Tennant's Hamlet

David Tennant isn't an actor who changes much from role to role. He has a strongly defined persona, with attributes- speed, athleticism, comic timing- and mannerisms- face-pulling, verbal gymnastics (aka a love of funny voices)- that you expect to show up in any role he undertakes. It's no surprise, then,  that his Hamlet is witty, fast, mercurial- and very funny. That's who he is and what he does. He's a lightweight Hamlet, only I don't mean it negatively. He isn't light as in absence of gravitas, but light as in all fire and air. This Hamlet is too good for the world; his deathwish is rooted in a disgust for the life of the body and a yearning for the life of the spirit; he bobs along above the horrors and squalor of Elsinore like a balloon.   If he delays his revenge it's because he's built for thought not action- and if the ghost hadn't yanked his string and brought him down to earth, the extreme grief he evidences in the early scenes would have floated him off into into complete dissociation. As it is, the ghost's revelation gives him a reason to go on engaging with the world- and has the paradoxical effect of seeming to cheer him up. It gives him something to do. But for all his reiterated notes-to-self to think bloody thoughts, his heart is never really in it- and it makes perfect sense that his revenge when it comes is almost accidental-  gifted him by Claudius' overreaching. For all his actitivity in the world of thought, for all his rushing about, for all his love of play, this is a passive Hamlet- a man to whom things happen. It's a reading that's thrilling rather than moving- ending in a sort of triumph.  Tennant's Hamlet wouldn't have made a good king; he hates the world too much to care to rule in it.  He has desired all along to be rid of his "too, too solid flesh " (Tennant puts an wonderfully telling, long pause between his "toos",  making this a defining speech)  and at the end he gets his wish. So how is this tragic? The string has been cut and the sweet prince, attended by flights of angels, rushes back to where he belongs- and where he wants to be.

In some Hamlets the important pairing is Hamlet-Gertrude, in others Hamlet-Ophelia. Here the casting of Patrick Stewart- a star equal to Tennant in weight-  means our attention is focused on the duel of wits between nephew and uncle. Stewart's presence in the role raise Claudius almost to the status of second protagonist.  A smooth, affable, bespectacled figure- a masterly politician- one of the highlights of the production comes in the scene where he tries- and fails- to pray- and the body slumps and suddenly seems several sizes too small for its immaculately tailored clothes.  

Greg Doran's staging is swift and uncluttered- and delivers as full a text as is possible in three and a half hours. It's well cast in all the major roles, less so in some of the minor ones. This is a top-heavy company- with little strength in depth. Oliver Ford Davies gets laughs as Polonius, but without losing sight of the reality that Claudius' spymaster- though his wits may be failing- is a powerful, controlling, cold-hearted and unscrupulous man. Edward Bennett, who plays Laertes (and understudies David Tennant)  has wonderful presence and timing- and is clearly a star of the future.