Hamlet (Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment, NR)

The release for home view of Sean Mathias’ film of Hamlet offers a prime opportunity for me to revisit one of my favorite topics: movie versions of plays. In this case, not only is the original source material Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the more immediate predecessor is a 2021 stage production of that play at the Theatre Royal Windsor. This version is set in the same theater, but the action takes place all over the building (and a bit on the sidewalk outside as well), so it’s not a filmed version of the play so much as a reimagining of it using a theatre as its location, taking advantage of the flexibility afforded by film while foregrounding the skill of the actors delivering the roles.

The action is set in the near present, as an opening title card announces: “In March 2020 a time of disruption…Theatre has closed indefinitely across the globe.” Creative and unexpected choices abound, beginning with casting an actor in his 80s as Hamlet. Several roles are also gender-flipped, including Laertes (Emmanuella Cole) and the Ghost (Francesca Annis), although worrying about matching the gender of the actor and the role is a bit of a fraught proposition for a play in which all roles were originally played by men and boys.

There’s a whole lot more to a theater than the stage and the auditorium seats (trust me, I used to work in Powell Hall), and this production of Hamlet puts many less obvious locations to use. Action takes place in cellars and hospitality suites, on ladders and stairwells, in the fly loft and in the box seats. Actors use modern devices like exercise bikes and video camera, clothing is a mix of periods and there’s some decidedly modern dance movements in the play within a play, and yet the words are Elizabethan and the spirit remains Shakespearean. This combination of elements could easily have become a mess and yet it somehow all works, although a familiarity with the play certainly makes it easier to follow.

Ian McKellan’s performance is key to holding this unusual film together (he played the same role in the stage production), and I swear you haven’t heard Hamlet’s soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”) until you’ve heard his version, which draws on all the experience of his 84 years. But the other performers are also strong, as they have to be to pull of this production which subverts many of the theatrical conventions that normally make the job of an actor easier.

Cast members include Alis Wyn Davies as a folk-singing Ophelia, Jonathan Hyde as Claudius, Jenny Seagrove as Gertrude, and Ben Allen as Horatio. The technical staff also deserves credit for helping to pull off this bold production, including director of photography Neil Oseman, editor Nicolas Gaster, costume designer Loren Elstein, production designer Lee Newby, and art director Anne-Marie Woodely.

I have no idea why the principals involved in this production made some of the decisions they did, but that doesn’t really matter since the result is always interesting and sometimes illuminating. If you’re a purist who wants plays to be plays and movies to be movies, or if you can’t stand modern interpretations of classic plays, this Hamlet is probably not for you. However, if you’re up for something different, you’ll probably find it fascinating.  | Sarah Boslaugh

Hamlet is distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.

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