It was about twenty years ago that I turned on my television idly one evening to find that a showing of Hamlet had just started. I was instantly transfixed and not just because this is my favourite play of all plays, but because I was looking at my absolute idea of what a Prince Hamlet should look like. It was another two hours before I found who was in the title role, but throughout that two hours I watched the action and listened to the dialogue and monologues acted and spoken by as perfect a piece of casting as I think I have ever yet seen.
Let me say that I have seen Olivier's Hamlet and I have seen Branagh's Hamlet and that I hugely enjoyed them both. I am not greatly concerned in this notice to weigh up niceties of interpretation and direction, because there are enough subtleties and possibilities in this great play to allow full scope for the individual style of every great actor for another thousand years. The literary criticism trade, profession or industry, though it has not yet talked Hamlet to death, has been trying hard to do that, and I would not like to be, without intending it, the straw that broke that camel's back. What puts this production in a class of its own for me is simply that for me Gibson IS Hamlet whereas Olivier and Branagh are acting Hamlet, albeit superbly. The blond fringe and the smallish physique are right for a start, in my mind. Then there is the understated style, the diction quiet, the mood brooding and smouldering. That is my idea of how to do the great soliloquies, not declaiming them, and when the repressed tension is abruptly released as, say, when Hamlet runs his sword through the arras, the contrast is all the more effective and does not require histrionics. Does Olivier perhaps over-act a bit? To my way of thinking he nearly always does, and in Hamlet his final `then venom to thy weh-eh-eh-eh-eh-rk!' definitely goes over the top even if nothing else does.
The supporting cast have won high praise, and I shall join in that too. Perhaps no other play by Shakespeare, unless maybe Coriolanus, is quite so dominated by its lead role as is Hamlet. Nevertheless the best Hamlet in the world could be undone if Claudius or Gertrude or Polonius or Ophelia or Laertes were not up to scratch, whereas if he has the kind of `support' provided here a performance that is already superb seems better than ever. One feature of the production, attributable to both the acting and the directing, struck me forcibly this time in a way it had not struck me before, and it relates to the character of Claudius. Up until the play-within-the-play his sang-froid is remarkable considering the primal crime he has committed, and even though his guilty conscience comes to the surface in the chapel, he carries his burden lightly, to all appearances. The play-within drives him to further desperate stratagems, but what came across to me was just how cool and inventive he remained. He tries to have Hamlet executed in England, and when that fails he arranges for not one but two types of poison to ensure the outcome of Hamlet's duel. Most strikingly of all, when Gertrude drinks the poisoned goblet he still controls his reaction to avoid giving himself away. Iago impressed Goethe enough to serve as the prototype of Goethe's Mephistopheles, but Iago's actions were small beer compared with this, and his planning was nowhere near as clever. Iago has had more attention from the commentators because he shares more of the limelight, but at the end of Othello he runs away as if Shakespeare did not even think him worth killing. Claudius may have deserved everything that Hamlet called him, but his defects did not include lack of quick thinking or want of nerve.
The production, but for the fact that this is a slightly abridged Hamlet, suits me admirably. The camera work and lighting are superb, and there are some excellent little vignettes, such as the terror of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being brought to their executioner. In keeping with Gibson's reading of the title role, the `effects' are less highlighted here than from Branagh, and much less than from Olivier. The ghost is not melodramatic, and significantly the background music is kept within bounds of tolerance. It is a sad pity that William Walton, whose music accompanies the Olivier production, had on the one hand exceptional talent for such music but lacked the experience to know when he was overdoing things. I did not manage to spot what castle was used. It may have been in Scotland, and certainly the scene at the graveside could almost have been from Braveheart. As some will know, the real castle of the real Amled does not beetle o'er any crags, and the Bard's Elsinore is much more imposing than real-life Helsingor, but the Bard's is the concept that we need, and it is what we are offered.
Right at the start we are told that what we are about to see is `based on the play by William Shakespeare'. There are no major liberties, and what we are given is a bit of an abridgement. Hamlet is not a tightly-plotted drama, and I am not unduly upset by what Zeffirelli has done. The opening scene with the night-watchmen is skipped, and at the end Fortinbras is dispensed with. Neither of these acts of pruning bothered me, although I regretted the loss of occasional bits of dialogue from this most quotation-replete of plays. Of all plays that I have ever seen or read it remains my favourite, indeed this production reinforces its primacy. I can't say, as Mr Clive James has said, that it is the best play in the world because I don't know all the plays in the world, but surely it must be a candidate for that honour.