Doctor Who in Denmark? David Tennant's Hamlet

When I was a graduate student, I always had far too much to do in the time, and with the energy, available to me. Yet, since I was a "re-constructed" graduate student (i.e., returned to graduate school after a gap of many years, and eager to put as much into, and to wring as much out of, the experience as humanly possible), I was constantly seeking ways not only to read what needed to be read for class, but also to reflect upon what I had read, so that I could learn from it. Toward the end of my coursework, I took a class on Shakespeare's history plays, which met (I believe) once a week, in the evening. (I think we covered a play a week.) Many of these plays I had never read before, nor seen performed, so I got into the habit of going to the library one afternoon each week to watch a video of the play assigned for the next class. Fortunately, the University of Dallas's library possessed the complete collection of the BBC's televised performances of all of Shakespeare's plays, so I was able to see well-staged performances with fine, professional actors, who spoke clearly enough for me to follow along in the printed text of the play; watching videos instead of live performances also allowed me to run the tape back to take a closer look at important scenes.

I mention this, first, because it is a useful practice that I can recommend -- it helps to connect the fine poetry of Shakespeare's language with the lively action of a performance and thus to cement the two permanently in the memory, in a way that just reading or just watching (or reading, then watching, or vice versa) does not. (But, of course, nothing can substitute for experiencing a live performance -- a good production can light up the play from within in a way that not even the best video-recorded performance can do.) The other reason I bring it up is that I recently decided to re-read Hamlet in light of Chapter 1 of The Wreck of Western Culture (previously mentioned), and thought it would be a good idea to watch a performance of it, preferably one I had not seen before.

David Tennant as Doctor Who
David Tennant as Doctor Who
(with Billie Piper as Rose Tyler)
Given the attention to the play's textual history that appears in the Oxford World's Classics edition I'm planning to read, I briefly considered watching the Kenneth Branagh version, which is "unabridged" (not sure if that means it follows the Second Quarto edition) and was critically well-received. But, to tell the truth, I was a bit put off by the fact that Branagh himself plays Hamlet (in bleached blond hair) and by the film's the extreme length. Happily, I had recently heard that David Tennant had recently done a televised production of Hamlet with the Patrick Stewart and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I found that it was available for download via Graboid. I've long thought (well, at least since I got to knowTennant in the role of the good Doctor) that he is a very talented actor (by far, my favorite Doctor Who), so I was interested in seeing him in a dramatic role. Well, what can be more dramatic than Hamlet, Shakespeare's most famous tragedy?

Rather than write a review of the televised production, I'd like to discuss to what extent, and in what way, the performance enhanced my understanding or appreciation of the text. And, let's face it, Shakespeare's plays, perhaps more than those of any other playwright (in English, at any rate) constantly run the risk of being thought of simply as texts -- that is, literature -- rather than as performed entertainment. This is one of the reasons I always jump at the chance to see a (preferably live) performance, particularly if the play is one seldom performed. A couple of years ago, for instance, I saw my first performance of Shakespeare's Cymbeline in Chicago, and it completely changed my assessment of the play. It made me see humor and life where there had seemed to be only a kind of dull obscurity.

David Tennant as Hamlet
David Tennant as Hamlet
The text of the play as literature allows for minute attention to its language and structure, but, unlike other kinds of literary works, if a play is only read and not experienced, it remains almost a dead thing, waiting to be dissected by textual and other literary critics. A good performance not only brings the text to life, but illuminates it from within, as it were, giving color, character, and dimension where there had been before a kind of grey flatness. You might think that, conversely, a bad performance could suck the life out of the text, but I don't think that's true -- although a bad performance might make evident where the text needs a sensitive and intelligent interpretation in order to "work." (I'm convince that people who are put off of Shakespeare because he's "boring" and "hard to understand" have simply not yet seen a good performance.) Yet, a bad performance really cannot harm the text, try as it may -- I remember seeing a very bad production of Macbeth a couple of years ago and was very frustrated that the actors, director, and designers showed very little understanding of the play, resulting in a maladroit presentation that was, frankly, painful to sit through. Yet I did not blame Shakespeare for writing a turgid, nonsensical play! Rather, I mourned the opportunity that the theatrical company had wasted, to make this wonderfully tense and complex tragedy come to life.

The question then remains: did the David Tennant Hamlet nourish or frustrate my appreciation for the play? So far, I've only seen about the first half of the play (through the scene of the play-within-a-play, Act III, scene ii), and I will say that so far I really like Tennant's performance, transforming the dour, grief-stricken Hamlet of the first scene (in which Tennant will be virtually unrecognizable to Doctor Who fans) into an antic/manic figure more reminiscent of Tennant's Doctor Who character (although not annoyingly or excessively similar, however). Without a doubt, this is a wonderful performance and a very fine production. I'll say more about how it shapes my understanding of the play when I have time to go back and finish viewing it (it seems this may be as long as the Branagh film).

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