Hamlet for the cross-platform age
"Whatever happened to Fortinbras?" was just one of the questions preoccupying a packed Q&A session at the BFI on London's South Bank on Monday night. It came after the first public screening of Hamlet the movie - the RSC's magnificent performance, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, adapted for the BBC by John Wyver's production company Illuminations. What we hope will be a wider audience still can see it this Christmas on BBC Two on Boxing Day at five past five in the afternoon.
On stage to answer questions from Front Row presenter Mark Lawson were Patrick Stewart - whose exceptional rendition of Claudius is one of the glories of the film - and the director Greg Doran, who revealed he'd dropped the Act V, Scene II appearance of Fortinbras mostly because he doesn't like it. Other insights included how an arras turned into a shattered mirror (much to the discomfiture of the director of photography), and how there's less difference between acting to camera and acting to a live audience than tradition insists.
This film version of Hamlet is three hours long, so scheduling it in the early evening of Boxing Day, during television's famously competitive Christmas season, represents a genuine act of determination by Janice Hadlow, the Controller of BBC Two. But if you choose to gamble on Hamlet, it's reassuring to know that the lead role is taken by none other than David Tennant, who'll be appearing elsewhere on BBC TV this Christmas in a more familiar guise.
Tennant's performance is a revelation. Familiar soliloquies are made to sound as if extemporised. His physical presence and kinetic energy lock you to the screen. Around him, Oliver Ford Davies' Polonius brings comedy and pathos to the "wretched, rash, intruding fool", while a consistently excellent company brings the plotting and paranoia of Elsinore irresistibly to life. The digested read: this film really is worth watching.
The reason we co-commissioned Hamlet, and the reason the project is so near to our hearts, is that we believe this version, with this cast, has the potential to engage audiences who wouldn't normally turn up for Shakespeare. For those who watch and find their appetite stimulated, BBC Learning - again in partnership with the RSC - has produced a wonderful website. We hope it will offer irresistible online journeys for anyone inspired by this superb TV version of the play, and provide an accessible, lasting record of the creativity and inspiration that went into the performance.
bbc.co.uk/hamlet launches this week and will feature behind-the-scenes stills and footage; specially-shot interviews with the actors talking about their characters and how they approached the play; key excerpts from a range of historical performances; and a comprehensive range of links through to BBC Learning and the OU's content on Shakespeare, and RSC Education's content on Shakespeare in performance.
Back at the BFI last night, one audience member disclosed she was a student, currently studying versions of Hamlet on film. She asked whether director Greg Doran had studied any of them himself, prior to shooting. "Not really," came the reply. Then a question straight back from Greg: "Which is best?"
"Oh..." she said, "this one."