Shakespeare Uncovered: David Tennant on Hamlet

The story so far: Shakespeare Uncovered is a series of six introductions to plays introduced by leading actors and directors produced in association with the Globe theatre. The highlights have included Joely Richardson magically covered in snow during her first visit to the recreation of Shakespeare’s playhouse and discovering during Trevor Nunn’s exposition on The Tempest that there’s a recreation of Blackfriars in Staunton, Virginia. Less appealing is Sir Derek Jacobi’s ten minute detor into authorship madness during an otherwise informative introduction to Richard II and Ethan Hawke subtly damaging a First Folio by stroking his finger across a page and knocking out an existing burn mark leaving a hole, the text on the next page now clearly visible.

Now we reach David Tennant on Hamlet and although I’m biased the best of the episodes. Focusing on Hamlet’s struggle with his mission and his own mortality, David gallops through the story from the ramparts to “the rest is silence” aided by a number of fellow actors, academics and as he wanders about in the bridging cutaways the architecture of Stratford-upon-Avon and the Southbank, struggling with the question of why the play is still considered the pinnacle of English literature, the one secular text which continues to enthral and inform us as much as holy texts if not more so. But again, I would say that, I’m biased. Yet as Ben Whishaw notes for six months after playing Hamlet in 2004 he found himself applying all of life’s big questions and presumably some of the small ones to the play, recalling the text over and over. I do that too.

Utilising a synopsis of the play as a spine for observation is a fairly typical approach (cf, Imagine ... Being Hamlet and Playing the Dane, the inspiration for this blog), questioning the action at key points, with contributors providing their experiences of playing the part or analysing them. Because Hamlet is so thematically rich the producers have had to make similar decisions to a company producing the play so the focus is very much on the domestic elements, with little to nothing on the politics of Elsinore and Denmark, the succession.  Fortinbras is cut. Lost too are Rosencrantz and Guidenstern other than the fact of their existence so nothing on the implications of their murder. “England” is generally glossed over. This is all about Hamlet’s personal j-word and those who’ve chosen to follow him.

All of which is perfectly understandable actually since entire books have been written about all of them, and there’s just an hour to play about with. It’s natural that you’d want to concentrate on the icons, whilst hinting at what lies beyond, the feigned madness, the implications of the willow scene that sort of thing. That’s especially true of the section shot at the Novell Theatre in which Michael Dobson offers a potted history of the closet scene which glanced towards Freud and also explains how Hamlet’s sometimes inappropriate attitude to his mother developed. Some productions almost treat the action in two discrete sections but as David notes there’s something very uneasy about Hamlet being so obsessed with Gertrude’s sex life with Polonius’s cadaver close by.

There are some unexpected inclusions. As with some of the other episodes, David was given the opportunity to see original copies of the text, in this case at the British Library and crucially all three versions including their copy of Q1 (one of only two in the world), comparing and contrasting the different versions of the big speeches and stage directions, discussing with curator of Early British Literature, Tim Pye the source of this earlier version. It’s worth noting that one of the potential weaknesses of the documentary is when David rhetorically asks who created this extraordinary character and where he came, we're not told about the Ur-Hamlet or Saxo Grammaticus but (admittedly touchingly) Shakespeare’s family and the death of Hamnet, which was also an influence on Twelfth Night in a very similar sequence in the Joely Richardson episode, one of the few occasions when the original source of a piece hasn’t been expounded upon.

Indeed, David has an impressively full participation, the episode’s presentation echoing his earlier presenter led episode of Doctor Who Confidential, “Do You Remember the First Time?” in which like this, he shared his affection for a much loved character whilst wearing a brown jacket. Then he visited the hallowed ground of Studio 8 of television centre, here it’s King Edwards Grammar Schoo, Shakespeare's school. Then he interviewed fellow fans like Steven Moffat and here we see him joshing over old reviews with David Warner and comparing approaches to the character with Jude Law.  At least in terms of the language of television, my favourite interview might be with Simon Russell Beale who (like Whishaw) has appeared in nearly all of the episodes in interviews clearly shot all together and so it seems here until David asks a follow up question and camera whip-pans in his direction. Beale himself almost startled to suddenly have his fellow actor sitting there.

Like that Confidential, this features dozens of illustrative clips though interestingly limited to Olivier directing himself, Zeffirelli directing Gibson and understandably Doran directing Tennant. An early trip through the RSC shop with David indicates other versions are available, but these three are interesting choices in that they’re not traditional renderings of the text, Olivier adding some, Zeffirelli deleting practically everything and Doran shuffling the order of the scenes. Odd that we should have the Warner interview but not the clips of his RSC appearance seen elsewhere. As with the other episodes, the emphasis instead is on newly filmed sections performed by the Globe’s cast with Jack Farthing (pictured below) cutting a youthful, lonely figure in a near empty theatre during “To Be Or Not To Be..” and Tom Lawrence later a teary Horatio as his prince dies.

As well as David greeting Andrei Tchaikovsky's skull again (pictured) the most poignant section for me is right at the very end, when he’s pondering what the part means to him and startling it resonates with comments he made when he left Doctor Who. Indeed just for a moment (thanks to a reference to filming), I wondered which role he’s actually talking about:
"In the end, there’s just no other character like him. […] I remember on the last day of filming thinking, “I’m so proud to have done that. I’m so pleased that’s something I got to do. And now I will never go there again.” And there was a huge relief to that. It was like having a weight lifted off your shoulders. And then, where are we now? Three years on… I do find myself, I catch myself, slightly fantasising about doing it again, going back there and seeing what that would feel like. But … that way madness quite literally lies.”
Fiftieth anniversary next year then.

[Assuming I haven't spoiled it too much for you, David Tennant on Hamlet is available on the iPlayer until 26th July.]


  1. Interesting post for an interesting programme. And thanks for pointing back to the Imagine doc, not that I have much chance in finding it. Late 80s I remember seeing another Hamlet documentary, American this time, it left a big impression. I am unsure whether it's available in any form now.

    I would love to see Nicol Williamson in any material related to Hamlet.

    Talking of Hamlet resources, my favourite audio recently is Simon Russell Beale (and others) talking about Hamlet at the FT podcast

  2. Cracking review - I made sure we caught up with the programme last night just so I could read your review today!

    Tennant is articulate and easy on the eye: he was also a dazzling Hamlet which is perhaps most important, and yes, I too felt this was much in league with the Blink DW Confidential.

    I also agree there an opportunity missed about acknowledging the pre-Shakespeare's Hamlet texts - ironically, it's precisely this sort of deification of WS (it came from nowhere!, it's all him!) that at least in part has informed the growth and idiocy of the stances on authorship (I feel like thrusting copies of 'Contested Will' at not just every naysayer and Oxfordian but even some of the rabid Shakespeareans).

    Enjoyed the review a lot.

  3. That was what was refreshing about the Shapiro and Schama documentaries, they acknowledged both that other writers were working at the same time as Shakespeare but also that he worked with some of them.

    But like I said you have to gage your audience. There's always a fear with these things that you don't want your audience to fall behind or feel like they're being ignored. But apart from a few odd things, this worked pretty well.

    Like I've said elsewhere, the problem with these things is if you already have a working knowledge of a topic you'll always wonder why some things you already know aren't mentioned.