This is my absolute favorite of all the King Lears I’ve seen. Jones nails the blind rage and puffed-up pride of Lear, while also being absolutely clear in his delivery. Unlike a lot of other Lears I’ve seen, you get the sense that, although this man is a bad dad and probably a bad king, he wasn’t always like this, that he was very respected and magnanimous.
In addition, the supporting cast is incredible- Raul Julia (famous for playing M. Bison and Gomez Adams), brings a delicious slimy charm as Edmund and Rene Aberjounois as Edgar brings every bit of his chameleon-like acting to Edgar, Poor Tom, the guy on the cliff, and the guy who fights Oswald. It’s simply astonishing to see Rene play so many different characters and do so many different voices in one performance.
The cast’s excellence doesn’t stop there- Rosalind Cash, Ellen Holly and Lee Chamberlain are all excellent as Lear’s daughters. Cash in particular has the bearing of a queen, and she isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with her father, even though he’s played with such might by Jones. Holly plays Regan as sort of a sniveling middle child, which I didn’t enjoy as much, but I think it’s a legitimate interpretation. And of course, Lee Chamberlain does a great job capturing the gentleness and grace of Cordelia, truly a “Kind and dear princess.”
Jones will always be my favorite performer in this version, but I have to give a special shout-out to Douglas Watson as The Earl of Kent. I’ll be honest, he really helped me understand the character, and I put elements of his portrayal into my own. First off, even with the elaborate verse that Kent has to deliver, Watson makes it sound like it was written yesterday. In addition, he does a great job of playing the ‘plain knave’ aspect of Kent. He’s gruff and loud, especially with Oswald, whom Kent can’t stand because of his simpering sycophantic ways. I hope I remain true to the spirit of the character, while, also giving it my own spin.
Hopefully watching all these great performances will get you interested to watch the humble little radio play, (though please don’t measure our performance against these masterpieces). Hope to see you tomorrow to watch the show!
Slings And Arrows is a Canadian sitcom about a theater festival loosely based on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Its hero, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), in addition to dealing with the seemingly endless problems (or should I say, “Slings and Arrows?”) mounting a Shakespeare play, is also worried he’s going mad, since he keeps seeing the ghost of his old mentor/ director Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette). For a recap of Season One and Two, click here to read my review.
I describe this show as a funny, tragic, bittersweet comedy about drama. It’s The Office for Shakespeare Nerds!
Season 3 Retrospective: The Promised End?
Before settling in to write this review, I went back and read some of your comments on the whole of the series, and if there was a common thread to them, it was the idea that season three is almost too painful to bear by the end, that watching these last three episodes where everything we’ve come to love so much utterly falls apart is something like ripping off a Band Aid. I can see that. I usually watch season three all in one gulp, and having to delay my viewings every week became almost torturous, both because of the plot momentum the show builds up and because I had a week to let the things happening at New Burbage stew away in my brain. What makes it even worse is that nobody here is a bad person.
To succinctly summarize this season, it’s a bad season with a good finale. This season is the show at its most raw, and frankly most of it I can’t bear to rewatch. Accordingly, this won’t be a review of the season, so much as a review of one great episode; the series finale, “The Promised End”. But first, I’ll talk about the characters and tropes that got us there.
William Hutt as Charles Kingman
The majority of the drama around season three revolves around Charles Kingman (William Hutt). Mr. Hutt was a distinguished Shakespearean actor and while he was working on this season, Hutt was struggling with leukemia. The final episode aired on August 28, 2006, and Mr. Hutt died peacefully in his sleep on June 27, 2007.
Hutt delivers a great performance as Lear and Charles, and you’d never know he was dying with all the incredible energy and skill he delivers. However, once you know he’s dying, the arc of his character and the way Charles talks about age and death is heartbreakingly poignant:
Stephen Oimette as Oliver Wells
I’ve avoided talking about Oliver because he’s honestly more of a comic relief or a Shakespearean fool for most of the series. In this season, however, he becomes a real character as this clip shows. Geoffrey finally goes to therapy, (which Oliver twists into a ghost couple’s counseling session). It’s wonderful to see them finally address their love-hate relationship and I think it carries over into Geoffrey’s arc (more on that later).
Again, Darren Nichols is mostly comic relief, but he actually becomes a full-fledged antagonist in Season 3. In Seasons 1-2 he was a character foil- a director who hates theater, except as a vehicle for himself. In Season 1 he’s literally a foil for Geoffry, (in that he clashes with Geoffrey with literal fencing foils). In addition, he crams his production of Hamlet with pointless spectacle. In Season 2 Darren is a foil to Sarah in Romeo and Juliet– he loves being clever and cynical and wages war on the sentimentality of the love story. In this season, first Daren is a foil to Richard- mocking the sentimental storytelling of musical theatre, (as you can see in the clip above). Next, he becomes Richard’s pawn; taking credit for Richard’s skill as a director and propelling himself to become the new Artistic Director. He’s basically Edmund in King Lear- a narcissist and a cynic who loves to mock and tear down institutions.
Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet
Geoffrey has a very dynamic arc this season, but to achieve it, he actually regresses a lot. In the first few episodes, Geoffrey seems to hate being at this theater even after his Macbeth became a great success. He starts crying randomly, which I interpret to mean he’s horrified at the possibility that he might have to be in this theater for another year. In essence, after a full year of growth, Geoffrey has regressed to the selfish, obsessive jerk he was in Season One. As you’ll see later, this regression was necessary in order to justify his arc, but I find it nearly unbearable to watch.
That said, it’s nice to see that Geoffrey isn’t a perfect person, and he still hasn’t addressed the source of his pain- his breakdown, Oliver’s betrayal, losing Ellen, and losing his job as an actor. The only glimmer of hope in this bleak season is that Geoffrey finally confronts his pain and learns to make peace with himself, with Ellen, and Olliver.
King Lear tropes in Season 3
Trope 1: a kingdom divided
Shakespeare wrote King Lear at the same time that King James was trying to unite England and Scotland, which is why a big theme of the play is how foolish it is to divide a kingdom. In Season three of Slings and Arrows, the Lear production has to share the theater with a new musical about addiction (loosely inspired by Rent). As you can see in this clip; while they rehearse this corny, ridiculous musical, Charles is telling the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Often in theater rehearsals, actors will tell the story of the play from their character’s perspective. What’s brilliant about this clip is that, while the musical demonstrates a paper-thin understanding of addiction, dramatic storytelling, or even good musical theater, Charles is conveniently leaving out Lear’s cruelty to his daughters, his failure to see their flattery, and his insane clinging to power when he has already given it away. Charles’ inability to see Lear’s flaws also mirrors his inability to see his own, which brings me to my next trope:
Trope 2: Love, or enabling addiction?
Like I said earlier, Charles understands the positive aspects of Lear, but fails to see the negative, which is why he also fails to see them it in himself. Lear is not just a dear old man who was betrayed for no reason; he’s a selfish deluded violent old narcissist who cares about no one but himself. That is why he goes mad- he defines himself by power and when he loses it he loses his identity.
What’s really great about this season is that it doesn’t just show the dark and light aspects of Lear, it also questions the ethics of Kent and Cordelia, the heroes of the play who try to save him. Geoffrey eventually plays Kent in the final episode, and it’s quite obvious that he mirrors Kent’s arc; sacrificing everything to help Charles play Lear one last time. He and Anna (who is basically Cordelia in this season), even get Charles drugs to help him with the pain of cancer. Charles’ desire to play Lear mirrors Lear’s desire to play the king; they are both addicted to something that is ultimately killing them.
But as you look at the season as a whole, you have to ask, was it worth it? Was it worth it for Geoffrey to lose his job and his theatre, get a bunch of other people fired, and eventually lose the festival as we know it just for one man?
Episode Six: The Promised End
Just like in Season two, we get a beautifully directed, beautifully shot condensed version of “King Lear” in the final episode, but the tone is completely changed. Everyone has been told that if they do this show, they will be fired, and they do it anyway meaning that onstage and on screen for the actors and characters this is a bittersweet last-ride for everyone.
The truly heartbreaking moments are with Geoffrey, Oliver, and Charles. We see how amazingly good Charles is, once he accepts his age and mortality. In essence, making this everyone’s last performance made it better all around.
“A Higher Purpose”
In a great twist of fate, Geoffrey has to fill in for Jerry as the Earl of Kent. He’s horrified since the last time he acted he had a nervous breakdown. This has been a problem the whole series for Geoffrey- he blames Oliver for his breakdown and he hates the New Burbage theater because it reminds him of his breakdown. But now, he must confront his fears and get back onstage and who helps him? Oliver. He coaxes Geoffrey through his stage fright by getting Geoffrey to focus on Charles. This, by the way, is how all actors deal with it- we find an objective and spend 2-3 hours fighting for it so we don’t have time for fretting about the audience.
It’s truly lovely to watch Oliver coaching Geoffrey- not only does it mirror Geoffrey doing the same thing for Jack in season one, but we see the story of Lear from Kent’s perspective- a man trying to serve his king. This puts Geoffrey’s arc through the season into sharp focus as well- he was trying to save Charles, not Lear- Charles.
“What are we doing here?” “Putting on a play.”
Like I said before, Geoffrey starts this season with a real self-destructive streak and it’s telling that in therapy he admits that he has no work-life balance. He defines himself by making art. Through playing Kent and doing something outside the theater, Geoffrey finds meaning in his life offstage. This is why I can bear to watch this episode instead of the others- yes the theater is gone, yes Darren and Richard win and all the characters I care about have been fired, but at least Geoffrey, Ellen, Oliver, and Charles finally grow and get to move on. Charles can die in peace now that he gets to do one last performance, (without letting it drive him mad). Geoffrey gains a new perspective on his life, and thus he doesn’t need Oliver anymore. I now have reason to hope that he and Ellen can now make a life together and not mess it up like they did the last time.
In conclusion, Season Three is not fun or cheerful, and there’s no satisfying conclusion for most of the characters. That said, this might be the best-written, most amazingly performed, and most heartrending sign off for a series I’ve ever seen, and if it took so much toil and pain to get here, so be it. It’s also a tremendous tribute to a great actor, William Hutt; I feel privileged to see his final performance on this show, and rejoice that at least one more time, I got to see the king bow:
When we our betters see bearing our woes, We scarcely think our miseries our foes. Who alone suffers suffers most i’ th’ mind, Leaving free things and happy shows behind; But then the mind much sufferance doth o’erskip When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship. How light and portable my pain seems now, When that which makes me bend makes the King bow
Edgar, Act III, Scene vi.
Play ME OUT CYRILL!
Shameless plug! If you’re here for more Lear, I’ll actually be playing Kent in an online radio play this Saturday, October 22nd, at 1PM EST. Here’s a link to the Youtube channel where it will be broadcast:
Slings And Arrows is a Canadian sitcom about a theater festival loosely based on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Its hero, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), in addition to dealing with the seemingly endless problems (or should I say, “Slings and Arrows?”) mounting a Shakespeare play, is also worried he’s going mad, since he keeps seeing the ghost of his old mentor/ director Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette). For a recap of Season One, click here to read my review.
The premise of the Series
I describe this show as a funny, tragic, bittersweet comedy about drama. It’s The Office for Shakespeare Nerds!
Season 2 Retrospective
Whereas Season One was sometimes extremely dramatic and raw, Season Two is much more relaxed; it feels a little bit more like The Office for Shakespeare nerds. Each episode focuses much more on the work-a-day frustrations of running a theater. We see it through multiple perspectives and even multiple shows- we see one director not being able to complete Romeo and Juliet, we see another trying to cast for Pirates of Penzance, and finally we see Geoffrey trying to fulfill Oliver’s posthumous concept for Macbeth.
“You just need to sell more tickets.”
“It’s not that simple, we’re talking about THEATER!”
Season Two doesn’t just focus on the artistic side. The theater is going broke, and Richard is begging for money from sponsors and the government. Susan Coyne as the overworked Executive Assitant Anna also has her hands full taking calls, organizing the schedule, and of course her new additional frustration with the internship program.
This particularly made me laugh the first time I saw the show because at the time, I was interning for the American Shakespeare Center. I know what it’s like to feel like if you’re out of your depth but excited, thinking that this is going to be your big break, (while also being keenly aware that your job is mostly obviously getting coffee and writing notes in the prompt book). I have to give a shout-out to Grace Lynn Kung who plays intern Emily Wu; she does a great job of portraying this mixture of anxiety and youthful desire to please.
To be brief, this season has a much greater level of authenticity and realism that shows the series graduating from a soap opera into a real workplace comedy.
Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet
In the first three episodes, Geoffrey is afraid to put on Macbeth because he thinks that Oliver will come back. Just like Season one, Geoffrey is still not sure whether Oliver is actually a ghost or is actually a manifestation of Geoffrey’s madness. As he continues to work on the production, he and Oliver quarrel as conflicting directors, and their private struggles as friends and colleagues even spill over into rehearsals, which threatens the production itself.
Gerand Wynt Davies as Henry Breedlove
The main curse in this production is the old guard of actors who are threatened by Jeffrey’s leadership; they got used to Oliver’s more relaxed style and they do not want Geoffrey shaking things up. Chiefly among them is Brian Cabbott and Henry Breedlove played by Geraint Wyn Davies, (who is really a classically trained actor from the Royal Shakespeare Company). Brian starts out by playing Claudius in Hamlet in the tail end to Season One. He’s disrespectful to Geoffrey and criticizes him to his face. Like Prince Hal dismissing Falstaff, Geoffrey dismisses Brian from the company.
One theme of Macbeth that is echoed again and again in Season two is middle-aged people feeling threatened by the young. It’s shown in Geoffrey’s clashes with Henry and Brian, with Richard being seduced by the hotshot young marketers at Froghammer, and especially with Darren Nichols, who is forced to direct Romeo and Juliet, and clashes with the young and idealistic Sarah (Joanne Kelly). She gives a passionate performance both as Juliet and as a young actress who desperately wants to do her best, and actually asks Geoffrey to direct her behind Darren’s back, as this adorable scene illustrates:
What’s great about this scene is it doesn’t just set up the star-crossed romance between Sarah and her costar; it also cleverly points out the similarities between Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. As you see at the end, Geoffrey is inspired by Sarah’s performance and it carries over to how he directs Henry and Ellen in Macbeth. Both couples are impulsive and reactive- they love pitting themselves against the world, and that is one reason why their affairs end in tragedy. Many scholars echo this interpretation, that if Romeo and Juliet had lived, they might have become the Macbeths. Seeing the balance between backstage drama, clever Shakespearean commentary, brilliant Shakespearean acting, and workplace comedy is at the heart of why this show works, and it’s handled masterfully in each and every episode of Season 2.
My favorite episodes
Episode 1: Season’s End
The Departure of Rachel McAdams As Kate
In the first episode, there is the tearful goodbye of Luke Kirby and Rachel McAdams, mirroring the fact that, as big Hollywood stars the two of them were unable to continue for a second season, even though everyone involved from the cast to the creators wishes they could. The life imitates art aspect of this episode makes it particularly tearful and sad to watch and yet it is a thoughtful and deeply well-earned sendoff.
Episode 2: Fallow Time
One of my favorite episodes is technically the Christmas episode of the show, and as such, Oliver gives Geoffrey a gift- he leaves him costume sketches, set designs, and notes on the play’s concept, which the ghost of Oliver explains in detail to Geoffrey and the audience. Maybe this kind of glimpse into the nitty gritty of theatrical concepts will only appeal to theater nerds, but I truly love it.
Episode 4: Fair Is Foul and Foul is Fair
While all the drama onstage is going on, Anna is getting some romantic attention from a playwright, unaware that (SPOILER ALERT), she’s using him for ideas for his script. In a way, this subplot shows us another aspect of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet; in both these stories, the men use women for their own gain. Romeo arguably is using Juliet to play out his romantic fantasies, and Macbeth certainly depends on Lady Macbeth’s courage and cunning in order to go through with their plan to kill the king. Not surprisingly, all three romances end in tragedy.
Meanwhile on the stage during Macbeth rehearsals, Geoffrey is trying to get an organic, serious performance out of Henry, but he thinks he knows more than his director so Geoffrey has no choice but to fire him as he did Brian.
Episode 5: Steeped In Blood
In this episode Geoffrey puts the lovable understudy Jerry onstage as Macbeth. What’s interesting in this episode is, while Henry plays Macbeth as a larger-than-life soldier, Jerry plays him as sort of an everyman, letting himself be seduced by power and delusions of grandeur. Looking back, I actually owe a lot to this episode, since it helped inspire my own interpretation of Macbeth.
Episode Six: Birnam Wood
If I were going to pick one episode of Slings And Arrows for the time capsule, one episode of the show to stick up against every other show ever made, it would be “Birnam Wood.” I don’t honestly know if this is the best episode of the show—the series finale proper is probably that—but it’s my favorite episode of the show. It makes me cackle with delight, thrill with excitement, and smile with sympathy every time I watch it.
The season finale gives us a fully formed version of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet: we get to see the designs, the technical rehearsals, the marketing, everything that the whole season was building up to into, not one but two complete theatrical performances!
First, Geoffrey cooks up an elaborate scheme to touch Darren’s heart and get him to scrap his cynical concept for Romeo and Juliet.
As you can see, the scheme works, and Darren has an epiphany during tech rehearsals.
In the show’s climax, for 20 minutes we get to see Henry perform as Macbeth and Ellen as Lady M. Geoffrey reluctantly re-hires Henry, but he refuses to let him walk all over him or his production. I won’t go into spoilers, but let’s just say Henry finally learns his lesson, with a little help from Oliver:
As I said last time, anyone who’s ever had a boring office job loves and recognizes the characters from “The Office,” while those of us in the theater recognize the crazy directors, the hopeful understudies, the divas, and the money-grubbing management. What’s great about this season is that, while Season one focused on them all broken apart, this season has them all coming together, using their talents to put on two excellent shows. After seeing the characters grow and change professionally and personally, we feel like proud parents and this fictional theater company feels more like a family, but any family can be broken… stay tuned.
I’m delighted to share with you my recommendations for the best Hamlets committed to film! I was pretty strict with my criteria which left a few Hamlets out, so if I missed yours, let me know in the comments.
In order to make this list:
I have to have seen the whole thing. Sadly that excludes a lot of unfilmed productions or films I haven’t got around to seeing.
The interpretation has to take a unique stance on the play.
The actor has to have a clear grasp of the part.
I personally have to like it. This is subjective, and I will make it clear if something is my opinion, or if I think this interpretation works for classes or private viewing.
By the way, if you’re a teacher, I’ll be sure to mention which productions work for classes, and which, for whatever reason, do not. I also can recommend Common Sense Media to give you a good idea what age group this film works best for:
So, without any further adieu (get it?):
The Good Hamlets
#10: Arnold SChwarzenegger in “Last Action Hero”
I would love to do a full review of this movie. When it works, it is actually a thoughtful deconstruction of the action movie genre, and as this clip shows, the movie concedes that Hamlet was actually the first great action hero. Schwarzenegger is really funny as an action movie parody of “Hamlet,” and everything he does is pretty cathartic for bored school boys who have to read the play in class. Plus, as a funny easter egg, the teacher in the scene who is showing Olivier’s Hamlet on the screen is played by Joan Plowright, who played Gertrude IN THAT FILM, and was married to Olivier in real life!
#9: Bart Simpson in “Tales from the Public Domain”
It’s absolutely astonishing how many Shakespeare easter eggs are in this little episode! How they make fun of medieval history, (the Danes were in fact Vikings in the early middle ages), Elizabethan theater, (when Bart does a soliloquy and is surprised that Claudius can hear him), and the way they compress Shakespeare’s longest play into a five minute episode is masterful satire.
In addition, the cast is perfectly chosen among the Simpsons’ core cast. Long-time viewers know that Moe has wanted to sleep with Homer’s wife for years, so making him Claudius is a brilliant choice. Plus, Dan Castellaneta steals the show with his over-the-top performance as the ghost, which actually reminds me of a 1589 review of Hamlet by Thomas Lodge:
“[He] walks for the most part in black under cover of gravity, and looks as pale as the vizard [mask] of the ghost who cried so miserably at the Theatre like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!”
THOMAS NASHE, “PREFACE” TO ROBERT GREENE, MENAPHON, (1589)
In any case, this clip is a great way to introduce anyone to Hamlet and I highly recommend it.
#8: Austin Tichenor in “The Complete Works of Shakespeare- Abridged”
This show is very special to me- in around 1997 my parents went to England and brought home a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). I’d only read “Romeo and Juliet” previously and through this show, I gained an appreciation for all of Shakespeare’s plays. Seeing the plays through parody made them seem less lofty and stuffy, and made me want to see and read the original works. This is especially true for “Hamlet,” which occupies the second half of the show, where Hamlet is portrayed by Austin Tichenor.
Tichenor wins my award for “Hammiest Hamlet,” which is just delightful to watch. He clearly takes the part WAAAY too seriously, as evidenced by how emphatically he demands solemn silence from the audience while he attempts to do “To Be Or Not To Be.” Tichenor also serves as the pedantic straight man who tries to keep the show moving and academic, while mediating between his bickering co-stars Adam and Reed. This wonderful Three-stooges dynamic makes every minute of the show fun and frenetic. However, the cast makes it very clear that they are making fun of Shakespeare with love; they never mock the play, they inform as well as entertain, and occasionally they even move the audience as Adam does at the end. In short, this show helped me form my approach to Shakespeare, and it’s largely through Tichenor that I read Hamlet at all, so he’s to blame for this website.
#7: Richard Burton, 1964 (stage production directed by John Gielgud).
With the advent of TV and film making theater seem obsolete, directors knew they had to do something drastic in order to get people to come to the playhouses. Enter John Gielgud, one of the greatest Hamlets of the early 20th century, who directed Richard Burton in a highly-acclaimed production with minimum sets and with actors wearing rehearsal clothes. The idea was to let Shakespeare’s words and the actors’ performances be the focus, and save spectacle for film and TV. This approach has been adopted by many theater companies since, including a few I’ve been a pat of.
Burton has a lot of energy and manic physicality in his portrayal and it makes his Hamlet engaging to watch. Plus Gielgud himself as the ghost is almost operatic to hear. I highly recommend any theater fan to watch it, though it might not translate in a classroom much.
# 6: Laurence Olivier, (Film 1948)
I have my issues with Olivier as an actor and apparently I’m not alone:
I find Olivier’s acting over-the-top, lacking in emotion and subtlety, and I think his directing is generally self-centered. He rarely deigns to give close-ups to anyone but himself and a lot of the scenes he directs are filmed like stage plays. That said, Olivier’s Hamlet is really good. SIr Laurence talked to Ernest Jones about the theory that Hamlet might have had an Oedipus Complex and created a unique and well-thought-out interpretation for his Hamlet. First off, casting his real-life wife Joan Plowright as Gertrude, fills the Closet scene with uncomfortable tension. He also did a great job making the ghost seem as imposing and accusatory as possible, as well as making Claudius as disgusting as possible.
You get the idea that this film is how Hamlet sees the world with its dark and shadowy towers, representing Hamlet’s melancholic mind, his imprisoned spirit, and his dark desires. Also as many people have pointed out, Gertrude’s bed chamber looks like a female organ, making the Oedipus theory even more explicit.
Even I have to admit that Olivier nailed the “To Be Or Not To Be,” Speech. He squirms at his own Oedipal fantasies, and contemplates jumping off the battlements in a captivating and subtle way. The performance and cinematography is iconic, and it makes me grudgingly admit Olivier, for all his faults, is still one of the best Hamlets of all time.
I would recommend this film to every Shakespeare film fan and any hardcore Shakespeare scholars. I would caution against showing the whole thing in a class however, since it’s black and white, and again, I find Oliver’s delivery very old-fashioned.
#5: Paul Gross, (StratforD Festival, 2000)
Thus far, I’ve mainly reviewed British and American Hamlets. Paul Gross is one of Canada’s most celebrated actors who gained fame as one of the best Hamlets at Toronto’s Stratford Festival. Unlike most Hamlets who go for the humanistic prince version of Hamlet, Gross plays him with sort of an animal intensity, like a wounded bear who will growl at you if you get in his way.
I have to admit I broke my own rule with this one- I haven’t really seen Gross’ portrayal, but I believe I saw it well-represented in his role as Geoffery Tennent, the Shakespearean Actor-turned madman-turned director in the Canadian TV show “Slings and Arrows.” This amazing dark comedy portrays the ins and outs of a Shakespeare Company from the normal problems of mounting a play to backstage drama, even the funding and marketing gets focus! Basically, the show is The Office for Shakespeare nerds, except for one ghostly cast member (no spoilers).
4. Benedick Cumberbatch / John Harrell
I couldn’t make up my mind between these two Hamlets, so I’m listing them together (guess that makes me Hamlet too). One is one of the most accomplished Shakespearean actor in recent memory, an RSC alumn, and a Hollywood star to boot, Benedick Cumberbatch.
Both these actors have similar strengths- they’re both tall and imposing with aquiline features. They are also highly physical performers. I talked in my lecture on Richard III about how Harrell performed the role of Gloucester with his legs tied together and a bowling ball strapped to his hand. Appearance-wise- Harrell and Cumberbatch are so similar, that it’s actually a joke at the ASC that they must be long-lost twins.
That said, when it comes to their approach to Hamlet, these two actors couldn’t be more different. Cumberbatch focused on Hamlet’s emotional turmoil- he was tortured and angry, full of youthful angst and volatility. This particular production is sort of an anachronistic mash-up of modern and period, which gives it a sort of dream-like quality that I really enjoy. Like Richard Burton, the director knows how to stage a play differently from a movie or TV show, which is especially important with this actor, since we can see him on all those platforms.
Nor should they have. Full of scenic spectacle and conceptual tweaks and quirks, this “Hamlet” is never boring. It is also never emotionally moving — except on those occasions when Mr. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is alone with his thoughts, trying to make sense of a loud, importunate world that demands so much of him.
John Harrell on the other hand is a more mature and subtle Hamlet, more interested in saving his hide than contemplating his navel. This Hamlet masks pain with humor and sardonic wit and it translates to all his relationships with the King, Queen, and courtiers.
Rather than a sour, dour, morose, obtuse, naval-gazing Hamlet, this prince was cunning, cynical, devious, sarcastic, and very much enjoying his feigned madness, his chess game with the king, and his fencing bout with Laertes.
OK, I have to admit that I didn’t see this whole production either, but it’s so cool and the acting is so good I wish I had! Papaa Essiedu is an electrifying blend of wit, sadness, manic excitement, and rage. His fresh take on a role that can be rather dour is why even the little I’ve seen of his performance makes it one of my favorites!
#2: David Tennet, RSC 2009
Tennet does an incredible job of encapsulating Hamlet’s quick wit, giddy excitement, frailty, fury, and frustration, especially with himself. I love the fact that he does “To Be Or Not To Be” in a superhero T-Shirt. In a way, this Hamlet is constantly wishing he was more of the action-movie type that Schwartzenegger parodies at the top of this list. Like Harrell, Tennent’s Hamlet masks his pain with humor, but you can see him struggle with it and try to pull himself out of despair. All these Hamlets find a way to nail at least one aspect of the character, but Tennet in his short 3 hours on the stage, manages to highlight all of them.
I recommend this version for any viewer in any classroom. It’s beautifully shot, extremely well acted, fast-paced, funny, and exciting. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Honorable mentions: Anton Lester, Ian McKellen, MiChelle Terry, and Sir John Gielgud
I haven’t seen any of these Hamlets and have been unable to locate any clips, but I have the deepest respect for all of these actors, so I thought I’d highlight them here.
I’d also like to give special mention to Michelle Terry. Gender-blind productions of Shakespeare get a lot of flack that is undeserved, and there’s nothing wrong with a female Hamlet. To quote Geoffrey Tennet in Slings and Arrows: “Shakespeare didn’t care about anachronism, and neither should we.”
I didn’t include Ms. Terry in this list, simply because I wasn’t able to get to the Globe, and I wanted to focus on productions that people can watch for free. If you wish, you can watch her 2018 performance on the Globe Theater’s steaming website:
You probably saw this coming. I’ve made it clear in other posts that I absolutely love Branaugh’s Hamlet, after all his film was one of the first Shakespeare movies I ever saw and the first one I really enjoyed. I discuss in detail why I love this movie the best in my review of the film, but to summarize, I think the direction is incredible, the music is excellent, the cast is nearly perfect, and Branaugh himself puts a huge amount of love, craft, skill, experience, and maybe a little madness into his portrayal of the character. I know Branaugh isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; other Hamlets on this list might be more enjoyable, fun, or subtle, for you. But for me, Branaugh’s will always be my favorite.