We didn’t plan it—it somehow happened to us, that we ended up watching three versions of Shakespeare’s play spliced together in equal parts to make a whole.
First came the newest, Andrew Scott’s of 2018, a well-received theatre production reconceived for television. It began with a gimmick but a hypnotic one, a pretend-report on Danish television of the funeral of a king, big black cars driving away from a churchyard avoiding the photographers. Then the security guards’ windowless cave dominated by a chessboard of surveillance screens tuned on the castle ramparts, where the Ghost soon appeared, grey, indistinct, and uniformed like a bureaucrat. The scene was enlivened by electronic noises, especially a loud crack like a fuse blowing which signaled the Ghost’s disappearance.
This version easily beat the nearby competition, Kuznetsov’s Russian of 1964, recently taped from television, lugubrious, pompous, with endless stone corridors after promising footage of the sea washing against cliffs, and, worst of all, extreme faithlessness to the text*, of which it didn’t even attempt an approximation. In fairness, it’s a mood-piece, the furthest thing imaginable from a precise rendering.
So we rejoiced in how the Scott version left every word clearly distinct, and Hamlet, mainly silent, made a strong positive impression on me (though not on E) with an Irish accent and mobile face that reminded me of an Irish friend and seemed to exude intelligence.
We settled into this, intending to see it through, but before long Scott’s way of speaking the verse began to grate. He was breaking it into the smallest possible pieces, waiting between words as if to see how long a silence he could get away with, as if he was thinking out the sense of the line on the spot and discarding unused possibilities before settling on the one he liked best, as if the character’s famous hesitation and delay had infected every second of his existence and made him aware of choices a hundred different times in every utterance. He filled up the unexpected silences with moving his hands like birds fighting strong currents of air and with widening his eyes at one surprising thought after another. It was a convincing picture of mental liveliness but it pulverised the discourse and made you feel you’d had a series of memory lapses, a strong but painful experience.
Like many or even most people I come to Shakespeare with lots of baggage. As a student I had to learn some of these speeches as a way of getting inside the language, which my extremely charismatic teacher thought was what the plays were all about. I agreed with him then, and have only partly diverged even now. Without the language, what have you got? But I can only say this as someone who has been comprehensively defeated by Shakespeare’s language.
Reading Shakespeare in intense bouts which last a few months at roughly ten-year intervals has been one of the great experiences of my life, and the last time it happened I thought the time had come to write a book about the plays. The months stretched into a year or more, and bigger and bigger mountains of notes grew up. Intimidated, I decided I had to begin writing with one of the plays which interested me least. Except that, as often happens with this writer, when you look harder, his most awkward or mechanical product reveals new depths, and the despised Comedy of Errors, instead of a heartless manipulation of its creatures, conjures up an existential abyss in which human personality is dissolved by the simple device of taking away a couple of its customary props. In spite of this encouraging discovery, that lonely first chapter was all I ever wrote.
Unable to bear the destruction of all continuity in Hamlet’s soliloquies, we gave up on Andrew Scott’s version after an hour and 19 minutes (about a third of the way through) and resolved to carry on after a Spartan supper with Laurence Olivier’s film of 1948.
It wasn’t easy to make an exact splice so I tried to find the arrival of the players at the castle, a subject undoubtedly dear to the author’s heart, but an easy place to make cuts. Hamlet even goads one of the old players to deliver an old speech he remembers, very histrionic and completely out of context, but the actor is so carried away by the grotesque rhetoric that he ends in tears. This preposterous speech about wandering around the burning ruin of Troy coated in layers of other warriors’ (I think) blood like a basted roast is a favourite of mine and one of the purest demonstrations of the irrational magic of language. It is cut completely from the Olivier version, so it was a waste of time looking for it.
Olivier’s troupe of players is a huge throng (as against Scott’s 3 or 4), with clowns and jugglers galore, and creates an enormous diversionary hubbub. To a degree that surprises us, Olivier’s is a thoroughly diversionary version of the play. You get the words clearly enunciated but you get a lot else, especially yards and yards of heavy and expensive fabric. Gertrude drags a large and bulky train. Important characters like Hamlet and Horatio are dressed like Roman generals, wide in the chest, plastered with metal arabesques and hung with garlands of braided cord that remind me of our Christmas tree. I am seriously distracted by Hamlet’s costume and wonder what an experienced actor like Olivier can be thinking of to allow people to be upstaged by their clothes.
The architecture of the castle suffers from a similar excess of detail, as if trying to include everything it knows about the Romanesque in an arcade glimpsed briefly, like a dish with too many ingredients. How perceptions change—formerly this must have conveyed a wonderful fullness; now it seems out of place and much too much.** Now we run to another recent version that I’m pleased to find I have a DVD of, with David Tennant as Hamlet from 2008-9. This suits us perfectly, pared down to an essence. How long will it take for this one to acquire its weird period flavour too? Ophelia’s grave is like an incision in a road leading to a sewer and the Gravedigger is a municipal employee. This seems a very apt analogue for Shakespeare’s salt-of-the-earth guy shut in the prison of his specialised trade. By the end, like the old actor playing Pyrrhus, I’m fighting off tears contemplating Hamlet’s fate.
*based on a translation by Boris Pasternak, which is then translated back into English, and must have more value, at least in Russian, than I found in it.
**in 2012 I loved the Olivier version.