To sleep, perchance to stream: David Tennant's 'Hamlet' is online for free
David Tennant's "Hamlet" -- William Shakespeare's "Hamlet," that is, with David Tennant in it -- a film version of the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production, starring the man heretofore best known as the Tenth Doctor, aired on PBS Wednesday night, unfortunately with no notice or comment from this department. I am sorry for that, because it's good. But it is up online now, to watch for free, and I take this not fatally belated chance to steer you its way.
There is everything in the world in this play, whose strength is reflected in the variety of ways you can play the words -- some of the best-ordered words in the English language -- without hurting the material: Action, a ghost, sex, murder, revenge, madness feigned and real, philosophy, things not dreamt of in philosophy, Hitchcock-grade suspense, vaudeville-house comedy. It's a story about delayed action that hurtles like a bullet toward its chaotic, briefly redemptive end, and director Gregory Doran keeps the proceedings lean and ticking. The players are in modern dress, more or less -- it is a sort of parallel-world modernity, as incidentally befits a Time Lord. There is enough political context to signify a society under pressure, with CCTV-camera footage to salt the paranoia.
Not surprisingly to those who have watched him circumnavigate space and time for the last four years, Tennant's is an energetic, mercurial Hamlet, subject to abrupt changes of mood but witty even when he pretends his wits are lost. (There's, you know, a method in his madness.) Melancholy, furious, frantic, even dying -- that is not a spoiler, people, or shouldn't be -- he ever grabs for the clever remark, the cutting pun, the Groucho-dry quip. There is so much darkness and death in the play, it's easy to forget that it's also jam-packed with comedy. Shakespeare's jokes don't always travel well across the centuries, but they are intelligible here, and Tennant honors the stand-up within, without overplaying him.
The surrounding cast -- "supporting" does not quite do them justice -- is excellent, but I'll make special mention of Oliver Ford Davies as a more than usually sympathetic and sensible Polonius. And as Claudius (he is also the Ghost), starship trouper Patrick Stewart -- making this a kind of sci-fi super-summit -- is the picture of genial, civilized rot, in a role he played opposite Derek Jacobi for the BBC three decades earlier. Talk about your Time Lords.
-- Robert Lloyd