Friday, October 16, 2015

The Hamlets I Have Seen

I've now seen 15 different productions of Hamlet.  This is a list of all of them, in chronological order of when they were made, and a few of my thoughts on them.  If I've blogged about them more fully elsewhere, I've linked to that post with the production's date.

BTW, when I say "film" or "stage" for them, I mean that either they were made as a film or are a filmed stage production.  Not that I've seen all the "stage" versions actually on stage -- I've only seen it performed truly live once.

Have you seen any of these?  Have you seen some that aren't on this list?  Do you have any favorites?  Or any you're eager to see?

1948 (film) -- Laurence Olivier.  The one everybody talks about.  I've only seen this once, and ought to see it again before I pass judgement on it, but my initial impression was not exactly favorable.  I did like Jean Simmons as Ophelia.

1965 (stage) -- Richard Burton.  The one with the best "O, Vengeance!" ever.  Hume Cronyn is possibly my favorite Polonius, and the cast overall is solid.  They play the whole thing in modern street clothes as if it were a final rehearsal before the costumes arrive, and with minimal scenery and props, which strips the whole production of distractions and makes you focus on the words and acting.  And of course, Burton has a wonderful voice, and his performance is excellent.  I dearly love this version, and absolutely recommend it.

1969 (film) -- Nicol Williamson.  The boring one.  I did like how they twisted the nunnery scene to make it playful and cool instead of mean.  And Anthony Hopkins is a great Claudius.  But overall, skip.

1980 (stage) -- Derek Jacobi.  The one where everyone is really nice.  Patrick Stewart plays a pretty cheerful Claudius, and Polonius (Eric Porter) is fairly benign.  Jacobi is a mournful Hamlet, gentle and pensive and soft-spoken.  Worth seeing, especially if you want to see it in Elizabethan costumes.

1990 (film) -- Mel Gibson.  The one where people get hung up on the Oedipal interpretation, even though the Jacobi version is not much different.  But it's a very accessible production.  I like Gibson in the role so much, as he's got lots of practice playing off-balanced characters and does it well.  Helena Bonham Carter is a very effective Ophelia, Glenn Close is not too distracting as Gertrude, Alan Bates makes a really menacing Claudius, and Ian Holm is a conniving Polonius that makes you wonder if he can really be the same guy who plays sweet old Bilbo Baggins.  I do recommend this version, despite the ick factor.

1990 (stage) -- Kevin Kline.  The one I really ought to see again some time.  I don't remember it much at all, other than that I didn't like it well enough to buy a copy or see it a second time.

1996 (film) -- Kenneth Branagh.  The one with allllllll the famous people in it that is reeeeeeeally long.  It uses pretty much the full text, and it's magnificent in scope and scale.  Great acting from Branagh as Hamlet, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, and Derek Jacobi as Claudius.  And my favorite Horatio ever:  Nicholas Farrell.  If you're willing to spend four hours on it, see this one.

2000 (film) -- Ethan Hawke.  The one where Hamlette finally finds the perfect Laertes in Liev Schreiber.  And I really love Julia Stiles as Ophelia.  Bill Murray is an excellent Polonius -- might tie with Hume Cronyn as my favorite.  Kyle MacLachlan is a nicely menacing Claudius, and Sam Shepherd is a very sympathetic Ghost.  And Hawke is a very young, very easy-to-worry-about Hamlet.  But I love Liev Schreiber as Laertes, and that's all there is to it.  I heartily recommend this one.

2000 (film) -- Campbell Scott.  The one set in America in the early 20th century.  It's got a good Horatio (John Benjamin Hickey) and awesome costumes.  Scott is a pensive and interesting Hamlet.  Worth finding if you've seen some of the more well-known adaptations and want to broaden out.

2002 (stage) -- Adrian Lester.  The one set in India or somewhere equally Eastern.  This one cuts up the text and reassembles it a bit oddly, but it's a nifty production.  The sets are really vivid and interesting.

2004 (stage) -- Simon Keenlyside.  The opera.  Keenlyside is a delightful Hamlet, very sympathetic.  It's opera, so the text isn't the same as the play, especially since it's based on the French translation by Alexandre Dumas.  It has a totally different ending!  And a super-creepy Ghost.  If you at all like opera, try it out.

2006 (film) -- Daniel Wu.  The Chinese one that's awfully violent.  It's actually titled The Banquet, or Legend of the Black Scorpion.  It's fascinating if you're really into Hamlet and want a fresh retelling that does not stick to the play or use the text.  Or if you like Chinese movies about ninjas and stuff.  Otherwise, skip.

2009 (stage) -- David Tennant.  The one where Captain Picard and Dr. Who square off.  Excellent modernization, and Patrick Stewart plays the scariest, smoothest, slipperiest Claudius ever.  I like Peter De Jersey a lot as Horatio, but this is clearly the Tennant/Stewart show, and everyone knows it.  I definitely recommend this one.

2009 (stage) -- Jude Law.  The one I saw live on Broadway.  The one I would love to see again, except the fools who run the theater didn't think to capture it on film.  Gugu-Mbatha Raw played Ophelia as timid and innocent.  Matt Ryan played Horatio, and he was soooooo good.  One of my favorite Horatios.  Jude Law was, of course, excellent as Hamlet -- very active and angry and into pacing around barefoot.  How I wish they'd filmed it.

2015 (stage) -- Benedict Cumberbatch.  The one I didn't see live, but saw as a telecast.  Yesterday.  Cumberbatch was a very emotional and accessible Hamlet, and Ciaran Hinds was a formidable Claudius.   Sian Brooke made a compelling and piteous Ophelia.  Everyone else was acceptable, though I was disappointed by Leo Bill's Horatio and his extremely limited stage time.  


  1. I love the Mel Gibson one, and like you, found Sir Lawrence offputting. I have sat through the whole of Kenneth Branagh's. Usually I enjoy his Shakespeare (LOOOOVE Henry V and "Much Ado About Nothing", with Emma Thompson and Denzel Washington is one of my all-time favorites) but other than getting to (briefly) see Gerard Depardieu and Robin Williams, it just draaggged on.

    I don't know if I've ever mentioned this, but if you want yet another viewpoint on a "realistic" Hamlet, I want to recommend (make that HIGHLY recommend) Alan Gordon's "An Antic Disposition". It's part of the Fools' Guild books, but they're only a frame for the story of Amleth and his friend (and fool) Terrance of York (renamed "Yorrick" by Amleth as a very small child). I don't own the book or I'd send it to you, but here's some more info on Amazon:

    1. Janet, I own a copy of An Antic Disposition! It's awesome. I'd like to read the rest of the series sometime. I posted a few thoughts here, though I should reread it and post a more thorough review some day. A friend of mine, Kelda, gave it to me years ago -- she's responsible for me seeing the Campbell Scott, Adrian Lester, and Daniel Wu versions too.

      I didn't like the Branagh version the first two times I saw it, but then I listened to the commentary with it and was filled with awe at how much Branagh loves this play, and how much he knows about it, and then when I watched it again, I just sort of *got* what he was particularly trying to do with it, I guess, so now I like it a lot.

    2. I'm glad you've read An Antic Disposition and I do highly recommend the rest of the series -- the ones set in Constantinople are really interesting because it's not an area of the world we here in the West get to study much. Alan Gordon (whom I was friends with on FB) puts a world of study into his books before he writes them, and I learned from them as well as being entertained. Not a bad thing to say.

      I also meant to mention -- I wonder if it's just Nicol Williamson. I didn't think he made a particularly good Sherlock in Seven Percent Solution (although I did like Robert Duvall as Watson -- I'm in the minority on that). I had to sit through his Macbeth in college and came away feeling the same way about him there.

    3. Janet, I didn't mind Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes at all, and I did like Robert Duvall in that too, but he tends to be enjoyable for me.

  2. Ohhhhhh, that picture of a distraught Simon. I think I forgot everything I was going to say after that moment.

    I'll revisit later....

    1. DKoren, yeah... the distraught Simon picture is making me want to rewatch that one also. Too many Hamlets, too little time!!!! Funny thing: I was gonna do all pictures of Hamlets with skulls for this, but then I found that one of Simon and was like, "Oh, but I have to use this one," and so then just went with lots of various pictures instead of being matchy-matchy.

    2. I've seen 4 of these. The opera version, of course. And then Mel's, Ken's and the Ethan Hawke one. I love them all for different reasons. I saw Mel and Ken's in the theatre when they came out, and Ken's blew me away at the time. I was so sucked into that version! It flew by on the big screen. I need to watch them all again. I like to see the Burton version at some point... Burton and that voice of his. Mmmmmm. And I really want to see the 2011 version that has Peter Wingfield as Claudius, because Peter Wingfield!!!! But, have never found a copy to view. I keep looking for it, though.

    3. DKoren, how I wish I'd gotten into Hamlet a year earlier, and gone to see Branagh's in the theater.

      Sometime when we're together, I'll show you Burton's. Do you know that after they'd shown it in the theaters, they destroyed all the copies? These absolute idiots! However, they'd given Burton a copy, and he didn't destroy his. At least someone had a brain! Everyone thought it was totally lost until like 15 years ago, when someone found his.

      The Peter Wingfield version is on Amazon Instant Viewing. I haven't watched it yet, though. Thinking of trying it out this week.

  3. "... the fools who run MY THEATRE..."

    Oops, wrong play, sorry. ;)

    Dang girl, THIS is devotion.

    I've seen three versions -- Gibson, Branagh, and Olivier.

    1. Charity, you got my POTO reference!

      Um, yeah, devotion is a nice way to put it, huh?

  4. I've always wanted to see the David Tennant version. :) After the read-along is over I'll have to find it. I'd also like to see Ethan Hawke and Kenneth Branagh... and Kevin Kline! I've never even heard of that one. It makes me very sad to think that I'll never get to see the Jude Law one. Very, very sad. :P Hopefully the Cumberbatch one will be released on DVD? I missed local showtimes as far as I can tell -- but I would have hesitated to see it anyway since I'm only in the middle of reading it right now...

    1. Sarah, the Tennant is awesome! Definitely try to find some and see some.

      I really hope the Cumberbatch will be released on DVD, but as of yet there's no news about it. I'm hoping once the encore dates are done, they'll change their minds, we'll see. If you can find it at all near you, though, don't decide not to see it just cuz you haven't finished the play yet!

      When I go to the used bookstore later this week, I'm going to see if I can find any versions there on the cheap to buy and give away at the end of the read-along.

  5. I definitely want to watch the Laurence Oliver one because I'm curious to see how he does, and it's the oldest performance on the list. I am probably going to want to watch a couple performances of the play after I finish reading it, show them to my mom, and debate with myself which one I like the best. :-) Which Hamlets do you recommend to see first?

    1. Ekaterina, if you're interested in the Olivier and have access to it, I'd say see that one first! Just because it didn't grab me doesn't mean it's badly done. I really should see it again myself.

      The David Tennant version is really easy to find and very enjoyable, and same goes for Kenneth Branagh's. I'd probably start with one of those three, or all of them, depending on what you can locate. I also think the Ethan Hawke and Mel Gibson versions are good choices -- basically, find any of those five and you should be pretty pleased, and have a good selection of different interpretations to compare and contrast. I'll be interested to hear what you think of them, if you feel like coming back and leaving some thoughts! I'm hoping to do a post on my favorite portrayals of various characters at some point too, which would be a good place to come back to and discuss what you find to watch.

    2. Sorry if I am asking so many questions, but do you think it makes a difference whether I read or watch the play first? I have not read the play before, so I am not sure which way I would like to experience the ending first, reading it or watching it. I don't know what the ending is, so what would you do if you were in my shoes?

    3. Nope, Ekaterina, you're not asking too many questions :-) Hamlet is one of those things I don't tire of discussing.

      The first time I read Hamlet, I got a vague sense of what the story was generally about -- murder and revenge -- but many other things I didn't really get until I watched a movie version. Then I went back and read it again and it made way more sense. So if you're struggling with it and feeling like you just want it all to make sense, by all means, watch one before you finish it. That's not even remotely "cheating" or anything like that -- Shakespeare wrote these plays to be performed and watched, not read! He didn't publish them himself, other people published them because they were so popular.

      So if I were in your shoes, I would watch an adaptation, and then return to the text with renewed interest and understanding.

  6. Wow! I knew you must have seen a fair amount of 'Hamlet' productions but I didn't know you'd seen THAT many!

    So far I've only seen Mel Gibson, David Tennant & Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlets in full and it's the Tennant version that's my favourite. I do really want to see the Kenneth Branagh movie though since it's supposed to be the definitive one. Actually I've just realised that I haven't seen ANY of Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare movies yet and those are the movies that he's best known for! I'm only a fan of Branagh's because of his 'Thor' and 'Cinderella' films!

    1. Hannah, um yeah... I didn't realize it was quite this many until I was writing up this post and counted them. I was thinking it was more like 12. Yikes!

      I really love Branagh as a story teller. He has an ability to tell a story clearly and straightforwardly, without trying to be ironic or modern. That's what I love about his Thor and Cinderella, and also about his 3 Shakespeare's I've seen: Hamlet, Much Ado, and Henry V. I also love his less-well-known neo-noirish mystery Dead Again, with then-wife Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, and Robin Williams. It's delightful in a twisted and somewhat supernatural way.

  7. DUDE. You forgot to include Gilligan's Island! ;)

    1. Eva, that might possibly be because... I don't consider it a "real" adaptation? I mean, I didn't include the Star Trek ep "The Conscience of the King" either.

      I've seen one more now, that noir-ish one, and am hoping to rewatch soon and post a movie review.

  8. Two weeks ago, I found the Campbell Scott one, and I fell in love with American Hamlet, I can't believe it.
    I read the book several times, in English and in French, but when I saw it it was as it was easy to understand (I even thought it was somewhat translated in modern English at the beinning...but no).It was only played with simplicity, clarity and a kind of intimacy (I'm not sure of this word in English), far from any theatrical extravangance...
    So I bought the dvd and I will try the other versions after another reading.

    1. Hello, Jik Jik! So cool you found Campbell Scott's version of Hamlet -- it's getting a bit rare these days, at least in the US. I agree that it's a very simple, clear, accessible production. And intimate, in the sense of getting us close to Hamlet and letting us feel we get to know him like a friend.

      Thanks for stopping by :-)

    2. Hello Hamlette,

      It's a bit difficult to find in Europe too, mine is from Holland...with Dutch subs, it seems impossible to have one with English (at least) subs, so I had and still have to brush up my Elizabethan English and read it again and again !!!...the one with Kenneth Branagh has several langages.
      One of our finest stage (and film) directors, Patrice Chéreau, used to say that Hamlet should be played with simplicity, clarity and gentleness, as it is how it was written, and that's what I found in Campbell Scott's version.The one from Chéreau was great..but I missed it, as I was in England in 1988...and I can't find it...too bad, because there was a very fine actor playing Hamlet.
      I found it "intimate" because for once, I felt as if I was inside...and not only watching it...from the outside.
      I'm glad I found you, because there not too many people (actuelly there are...none), I can discuss about Hamlet.
      I've already read it several times, but I really discover it now. So, I think I'm going to spend a few monts doing that, reading and watchig what I can find about it... Usually, I'm more into Jane Eyre...
      Sorry for my English.

    3. Hi again, Jik Jik :-) I take it you're Dutch? I'm actually half-Dutch! Though my family has been in the US for generations, so I really just know a few random Dutch phrases and have a fondness for things like almond flavoring and cheese and rusks.

      I love to discuss Hamlet -- I kind of never run out of things to say about it, so I will happily discuss it with you as much as you like :-) If you wanted, you could even go back through the posts from my read-along of Hamlet that I did a couple years ago, and comment on those. You can find the list of all the posts right here.

      Jane Eyre is my favorite novel!

  9. Hi Hamlette,
    Sorry, I'm French (I'm glad you didn't notice it at once !! we are not the most likeable people...alas..)...but as I've spent some time in England and loved so much to live there, I feel a bit English sometimes.That's why Iwas a bit prejudiced about American versions of Shakespeare (!).
    Jane Eyre is my favorite novel too, I re-read it nearly every year.. and Rebecca, both are a kind of Cinderella story, but much better...
    I thing I'm going to spent some time to read your posts, about Hamlet and some other things, they sound interesting.

    1. Jik Jik, nope, didn't realize you were French :-) And hey, Americans are often not the most likable people either, so I try not to judge people by their country of origin. So cool you've been to England! That's one of my great dreams. I'd like to visit France too, especially Normandy.

      I love Rebecca too! I love how both it and Jane Eyre are kind of combinations of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Gorgeous stories.

      I look forward to more comments from you, then :-) I also post about Hamlet and Jane Eyre on my other blog, Hamlette's Soliloquy. Speaking of Rebecca, did you ever see the made-for-tv version with Jeremy Brett as Maxim de Winter? OH my goodness, it's amazing. I reviewed it here, and last I checked, you can still watch the whole movie on YouTube, though the quality isn't real great. There's a link to it in that post, anyway.

  10. Dear Hamlette...I "have" the 1979 version of Rebecca, and I think in a better version than the one in YT. That's a really faithfull one, something I like...and as I know some parts of the book by heart, that's a real treatt...I fell in love the first time I saw it on the French TV, then when I found the book in England ...and everytime I watch it...and Jeremy Brett is a perfect Maxim de Winter (and a perfect Sherlock Holmes too...) and I love Joanna Davis as the girl, even if she is a it old for the part...but, you forget it.
    I also have an Italian version...well...quite funny, actually, even if it shouldn't, they gave a name to the girl (see what I mean ?)...I think it is also on YT...
    La Normandie (!) is a beautiful place, it's a bit like England, just a bit...I live in the Rhône Valley (La Vallée du Rhône).
    And in England, I used to live in Devon, not far from Hound Torr, the place of the Hound of Baskervilles and not far Torquay, the place of Agatha Christie...
    I will never thank enough Campbell Scott, for his Hamlet and for finding you !!!...well sometimes American are not that bad (!).

    1. Jik Jik, I'm envious that you have that version! I haven't even managed to find it on bootleg DVD over here. I love Brett as Maxim (and he's my favorite Holmes too -- I'm a pretty devoted Sherlockian). Joanna Davis works well, too, I agree.

      So cool you used to live not far from Hound Torr! Yet another place I'd love to visit some day.

      Glad to know you find me one of the not-so-bad Americans ;-) Merry Christmas!


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