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Hamlet (2009 - Royal Shakespeare Co. dir. Gregory Doran)

This is the best thing to happen to Hamlet since... well, not a lot good happens to Hamlet, so this is on a really short list. This production hits on all cylinders, making for a visually and emotionally engaging, highly focused retelling of Shakespeare's classic tragedy.

Director Gregory Doran is perhaps the person
most responsible for the success of this production, as he would be the person who accomplishes the incredible clarity of the story presented here. In other productions of this text, we see a royal family awash in a sea of immorality, inest, intrigue, murder, in short: icky people. What Doran does is to take those characters and strip them down to the simplest, cleanest motives presented in the text, and provide them life in actors who are highly skilled and experienced with the characters, and put them on a set that is as austere as the production itself.

We're in a sort of alternative modern universe, with extremely clean lines and costumes that simply suggest the station and position of the characters. The result is focus on the actors with no distractions. Shot in a defunct church, it appears almost more like a stage than a real space, but has the feel of vastness and airiness. This helps to keep ever present the element of what is outside the walls of the castle: the public and public opinion. I've never realised before how much public opinion spurs some of these characters, adding a heightened sense of urgency - and providing thereby a foil for Hamlet's reluctance to act. It's almost as if, at any point, had these characters considered the broader picture, things would have gone differently.

The jewel set in this clean setting is the performances, though. This cast did the show live for a year before it became a film project, and it pays huge dividends in terms of character development.

David Tennant as Hamlet is a welcome departure from the mopey neurotic we usually get here. While the character is in a downward spiral from the start of the action, we see glimpses of what he must have been before, and his slow progress to destruction is all the more tragic for it.

The only true villain in the piece is Claudius, played expertly by Patrick Stewart, as is the murdered Hamlet Sr. His is the character most concerned with public perception, and while he's clearly the bad guy, we see him in moments where he'd be otherwise. Stewart has a tough job, in that we aren't going to find Claudius relatable, but he does make him human.

Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, is widely considered one of the more under-written female leads in Shakespeare's women, but Penny Downie brings giant portions of soul to this queen. The scene where Hamlet confronts her with what Claudius has done is just breathtaking.

Mariah Gale is lovely as Ophelia, and a strong performer. My one quibble with her performance is that she practically weeps through every scene. She functions beautifully as the counterpart to Tennant's Hamlet, I just think she could have had a little more contrast between scenes - a fault of the direction, at least as much as the performer. Ophelia's family, Polonius and Laertes are also beautifully rendered, with humanity that adds depth to the proceedings.

All in all, I watched it six times, and some of the Olivier version for the sake of research, and have to say it's a brilliant production, rendered gorgeously on film. 10/10