The highly anticipated and sold out run of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet has finally entered previews at the Barbican Theater in London, and its causing quite a stir among theater professionals and Shakespeare scholars alike. The controversy is all over the choice to open the play with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, which to be fair is a terribly difficult way to start the play.
One theater critic went so far as to break the tradition of waiting until the official press night to post a review, criticizing the play for starting in this manner. The subsequent uproar caused director Lyndsey Turner to move the speech back to its rightful place in Act III Scene I, which also caused an uproar. Basically, there’s no escaping this Bermuda Triangle of Petty Offenses.
With that being said, early reviews of the rest of the play have been promising, and its always interesting to see new versions of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. While some are more traditional – and perhaps all the more compelling for their level of authenticity – others perhaps take their creative license too far. Here are some of the best and worst Hamlets of the stage and screen.
Laurence Olivier (1948)
This is certainly a more restrained, classical interpretation of Hamlet, at least from an acting standpoint. Olivier’s performance as Hamlet is slightly stilted, but that sense of beautiful, doe-eyed, restrained despair comes through brilliantly. The direction of the movie is somewhat unusual and abstract for the time, a testament to Olivier’s modern sensibilities. I’ve always preferred older Olivier, the more nuanced and playful Olivier from those BBC productions of Harold Pinter television plays. No one plays Pinter quite like Olivier. Luckily, Olivier did play a couple Shakespeare roles in his older years, most notably a Granada television production of King Lear (1983) featuring performances by John Hurt, Robert Lindsay, and Brian Cox.
Mel Gibson (1990)
This moody period set production of Hamlet was made near the beginning of Mel Gibson’s heyday and released right between Lethal Weapon 2 and 3. Those more familiar with Gibson as he is today may have a hard time picturing him tackling anything as heavy as Hamlet, but this was the man who would go on to both star in and direct movies like The Man Without a Face and Braveheart – and man who would go on to win Academy Awards. Yes, there was a time when Mel Gibson was as much a movie star as the Tom’s, Hanks and Cruise. Still, its not a half bad movie, and Gibson’s Hamlet is eminently watchable as he adds a touch of crazed charm reminiscent of Martin Riggs. The film also boasts a stellar cast featuring Glenn Close as Gertrude, Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia, Alan Bates as Claudius, and Ian Holm as Polonius.
Ethan Hawke (2000)
Although this 2000 version of the play, set in New York City amid a violent corporate takeover, isn’t particularly good and is in many ways obnoxious and plodding, you’d be hard pressed to find a more eclectic casting. Hawke plays the pretentious and angsty art student Hamlet who suspects his Uncle Claudius (a smarmy Kyle MacLachlan) of murdering his father to become CEO of the Denmark Corporation. Bill Murray brilliantly plays the cliched Polonius while Julia Stiles plays Ophelia and Casey Affleck makes a turn as corporate competitor Fortinbras. This adaptation, while perhaps edgy and timely at its release, is now incredibly dated and tedious.
Kenneth Branagh (1996)
I find Branagh to be a brilliant actor (definitely watch Wallander) but a clunky and overblown director. If his middling turn in the Marvel Universe as director for Thor is anything to go by, he has a fantastic sense of the epic and of the gaudiness of classical myth and literature, but a bit too ambitious and disorganized in his execution. This is most apparent in Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet, which is tedious and, clocking in at an ungodly 242 minutes, unbearably long. The production itself is opulent to say the least, with palatial sets and elaborate Edwardian costumes. The film also benefits from an incredible cast, including Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Judi Dench as Hecuba, Robin Williams as Osric, Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger, Simon Russell Beale, Julie Christie, Timothy Spall, Charlton Heston, John Gielgud, and Jack Lemmon.
David Tennant (2009)
Where else are you going to see Captain Picard and the Doctor together (aside from this, I mean)? Not only does this version star two of the best actors in Britain right now, but the play’s run was a dream for both sci-fi and Shakespeare geeks alike. The lavish and vibrant production features brilliant performances and walks the delicate line between traditional and contemporary. While Tennant’s Hamlet is charming and captivating, Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is transcendent – and rightly should be considering it is his second time playing the role (the first in the 1980 Derek Jacobi production of Hamlet). The film of this production came out not long after David Tennant had made his heartbreaking exit from Doctor Who and considering Hamlet et al die at the end its taken me a good long while to even take a look at the film. Believe me, the heartbreak is worth it.
Richard Burton (1964)
This was the production that changed Hamlet forever. Up until this Broadway run of the John Gielgud directed play starring Richard Burton, Hamlet had been steeped in tradition and period costumes. The cast wore what amounted to rehearsal clothes in a sparse rehearsal space, allowing for free movement and unhindered expression, with no distractions of costume or scenery to detract from the action of the play. Burton plays a legendary Hamlet – mercurial, intelligent, humorous, and deeply emotional. For a long time this performance was thought to be lost until a VHS copy was found among Burton’s belongings after his death. Legend has it that Burton and Peter O’Toole made an agreement on the set of Becket to each star in a production of Hamlet, one directed by Laurence Olivier and the other directed by Gielgud, one in London and one in New York. A coin toss determined the respective directors and locations and the rest is history.