a warm glow on a cold September Saturday night

TV One of the problems with the BBC’s new policy of seemingly sending Doctor Who preview discs (or passwords) out to anyone with a keyboard is that those of us who haven’t had the giant golden finger of their publicity department pointed at our letterbox (email in-box) have to endure a week of chatter across blogs and the social networks related to an episode before its been broadcast, never mind the Pick of the Day paragraphs which appear in newspapers. The buzz ahead of Tom MacRae’s The Girl Who Waited across twitter was strong bordering on ecstatic and this morning The Guardian called it “world class television” and “outstanding”.

That shouldn’t be seen as a burst of jealousy from this keyboard. I like watching it with everyone else, well half of everyone else, when it's broadcast on a Saturday night. It gives me something to look forward to in a world were there are increasingly fewer things to look forward to. But the knock on effect of the chosen ones chattering is that it can, if they’re not too careful create expectations of what’s about to appear, and in the case of this week’s episode, expectations so high that the episode that followed could never quite fulfil them. If someone else had implied that it the new Blink, I would have unfollowed them with extreme prejudice.

Luckily, and I’m going to savour these paragraphs because it’s not often I’ve been able to write this lately, The Girl Who Waited lived up to the hype. More than lived up to it. As with Blink, it’ll take some thought, a few polls and perhaps a Hugo before it can be heralded in as one of the great classics of the series, but sitting here with a warm glow on a cold September Saturday night, I’ve been reminded of why I love this franchise, why along with Shakespeare and films it’s the closest thing I have to a religion, and how as ever it doesn’t matter how many Daleks you have in your season finale, it’s the smaller stories about human choices that are the best.

For much of its run, apart from the early dalliances with pure historicals, it's been generally agreed that Doctor Who has two plots, alien invasions and bases under siege and sometimes at the same time. But really, there’s always been the third thread of time paradoxes. They appeared as early as The Space Museum, but because every other episode of The Space Museum was rubbish (no matter the political thematic aspirations of the writers) it went unacknowledged for years. But there were others, notably Mawdryn Undead (with which this also has superficial similarities) but only recently has the tv version really begun experimenting with the concept, and in nuWho it’s become, as Moffat said recently, an extra character.

The central premise of two different time streams touching has been done a few times in the past few years then, most recently in Time/Space, the Children in Need special, in which like The Girl Who Waited, there were two Amys and in that case two Rory’s chatting, passing information along. Then there’s the Doctor himself in The Big Bang and well, I’m just saying everything which went through your head tonight. Two Amys? We’ve already had two Doctors this series, that sort of thing. It’s Kazran in A Christmas Carol again isn’t it? The Girl in the Fireplace with a giant spyglass replacing the many mirrors and curtains and the fireplace. Well, yes, but like alien invasions and bases under siege the most important thing is what you do with it.

If The Girl Who Waited transcended its premise, became a truly great episode of Doctor Who, it’s primarily because of two things. Firstly, like I said, the simplicity. Shot in just a few functional but tasteful white box Evan Hercules inspired sets, Wales Millenium Centre and someone’s beautiful garden this is a story unencumbered by an over-elaborate setting, and definite contrast to MacRae's previous entry, the reintroduction of the Cybermen from series two. The scenario, a kind of nursing home for people with only a day to live, with medical robots that can kill again has all of the elements of complexity but in reality are just there to serve the dilemma at the heart of the story. Even the information computer was just a beam of light and Imelda Staunton’s voice.

That meant that for once in this era, plot could take a back seat to character and allow Smith, Darvill and especially Gillan, not just to act, but offer some of their best ever performances (quite something for a group which have already been consistently excellent). Karen in particular has always had something of a question mark over her for some people, partly because neither she or Amy have been as instantly likeable as Billie or Rose. I’ve never had that problem, I’ve always adored both of them but I have at least been able to understand why her slightly nervy approach could irritate the less tolerant viewers, especially during Confidential. Who was Karen Gillan and as Amy Pond was she just playing a version of herself?

If The Girl Who Waited proved anything, it’s that Karen is a proper actress, that Amy as a role has been carefully thought through and when presented with the challenge of playing an older, wiser, kick-ass version, the actress is entirely capable of tweaking her performance to suit. Aided by sympathetic make-up, she is able to bring to the fore the weariness of a person who’s not seen a living soul for decades and suddenly presented with what might as well be a hallucination, on the other side of the moment in the TARDIS corridors during The Doctor’s Wife when she sees an older version of her husband. Like Rory, she’s grown to hate the man who’d put her in that position, in this case the Doctor, and to some degree become him.

Which as Rory says in the climactic scene was what the episode was about, putting the Ponds in the position of becoming the Doctor, she to survive, he to face up to the moral dilemma the Time Lord has to face whenever he opens that door. Who to save? Sometimes its easy, largely because the Whoniverse is filled with enough morally ambiguous potential Darwin Award nominees so all he has to do is hang around for a few episodes and see who’s left standing. But sometimes he finds people he can genuinely care about and then it’s all about who to leave behind, who to sacrifice and who’ll be willing to sacrifice themselves for him. Cue the Davros montage from Journey’s End.

This is one of those occasions when it looks as though the friendship between the Doctor and Rory is finally going to fracture or at least return to the cynicism in evidence during Vampires in Venice. Rule One. The Doctor lies, and he does again, putting Rory in the very worst decision, the anxiety lacerating Darvill’s face. Those of us lapsed-Trekkers would have recognised is a similar impasse in the Deep Space 9 episode Children of Time, in which the crew had to decide whether to crash and allow the descendents they’d met to live or fly away and save themselves from years of suffering building a colony.

Like them, having made the difficult choice, arguably Rory is saved from himself by the older Amy’s sacrifice. The braver move for the series would perhaps have been to continued with the older Amy and damn the merchandising implications, but what sells this solution is the emotional poetry of the dialogue (“Tell Amy, your Amy, I’m giving her the days, the days with you, the days to come, the days I can’t have…”), Arthur’s tears and Nick Hurran's direction which brought the two of them together in the frame despite the obvious gap between shooting the exterior and interior of the TARDIS, confirming again the benefits of making those doors a very real threshold.

Was this as The Guardian Guide’s preview suggests “to all intents and purposes a perfect Doctor Who” episode? Like I said, it is early hours and we did witness the destruction of what has to be a copy of the Mona Lisa since it looked far more convincing than the version in my favourite Doctor Who story and this admittedly had no Louis Kearns scene. But a few minutes ago, I went back in to find and transcribe the quote in the previous paragraph and found myself being captivated again and crying, just as I did the first time. If our expectations of what constitutes perfection have changed, that’s as close as we’ll ever get.  Amazing.

'Bad Night' & 'Good Night'

TV Doctor Who Online has news of the complete series six boxset coming this November, which includes ...
"Meanwhile in the Tardis feature – Five newly filmed scenes for episodes 1, 3, 7, 8 & 13, telling what happens between the episodes. (Two of which, 'Bad Night' & 'Good Night' are directed by Richard Senior, as confirmed on his agencies website).  Also included are the 'Space' & 'Time' mini episodes which formed part of Comic Relief 2011."
Five new chunks of people talking in the TARDIS which are always my favourite bits. Assuming they happen after the actual episodes, perhaps 3 will explain what happened with the disappearing pirate in the middle of the Curse of the Black Spot. He was there at the end. How did he get there?

puncturing the god-like qualities

Comics Or rather some news from the comics coal face.

Wandering through my local comics emporium earlier checking if the first of the new series of Buffy is out (next week), I just randomly, snearily asked the comics man if the new DC Comics were selling, still under the impression it was the worst move the company could have made in this financial environment and another blip in the dwindling fortunes of the big two.

Much to my surprised, he grinned. "Well ..." he said and then entered one of the bubbliest, most ebullient monologues about the power of comics I've ever heard.

He reminded me that the shop usually receives its deliveries on a Wednesday and that within a day and half they'd sold almost all the stock. He showed me the racks which were filled with small fliers apologising for various titles being sold out.

Even titles which under the old regime weren't the most popular in the range, Animal Man or Swamp Thing had flown off the shelves and that within the space of a few weeks Marvel have started to look very old fashioned.

The reason he gave, and I'd be interested to hear if anyone agrees, is that its because the quality of the books has been so high. He said it was as though the various creative teams have been told to let rip and just do what they want without many restrictions.

The writing was sharp, the art spectacular (I'm paraphrasing that bit) (well OK I'm paraphrasing all of this but the sense is right) and that each title has a substance to it which wasn't previously there.

It feels like there's four issues worth of narrative per book. And complex, underscoring the fallibility of superheroes, puncturing the god-like qualities which made them seem rather stale before.

Whilst we stood chatting two customers passed through enquiring about DC Comics. One had become tired with the dozens of Wolverine titles and wanted to get in on the new Batman titles from the first issue and the other took the handy order card with all fifty-two titles listed and said he'd be back.

They're both representative of the kinds of customer they've been getting through this week, people who they'd never visited the shop before and who's interested had been tweaked by the publicity and liked the idea of getting in on this new universe from the start.

In other words, from this anecdotal evidence, the biggest gamble in DC Comics history has paid off.

Well, good.

Not really reading anything without Joss Whedon's name on it, I was never really in a position to properly criticise the decision other than that they'd be throwing out all of those decades of continuous mythology, a multi-faceted monument to narrative for the sake of selling some comic books.

My first reaction had been utter horror and that it was the comics equivalent of demolishing an Georgian building in order to build a mock-Georgian building with new plumbing. It might have better running water, but what good was that with all the history that had been lost?

But amazingly, from this store visit and watching the blogs, DC have managed to do two things:

(a) Not cheese off old fans by making the new material compelling enough that they can adjust and even be curious about what's happened to their favourite characters and the changed status quo.

(b) Simplify the whole process of buying their titles to such an extent that people who haven't bought comics in years are actively seeking them out.

One of the reasons I haven't gone past Whedon is because these comics sections are intimidating. With so many titles and so many books about the same character, it's difficult to know where to begin, and there are few jumping on points.

I'm DC's perfect audience. Multiple jumping on points and a whole new universe to watch develop.

And I'm tempted. I can't quite afford to at the moment (George Lucas has seen to that), but I'll be keeping an eye out for the inevitable graphic novels.

The question is, how can Marvel compete?

Our guess in the shop today was that they'd watch the DC situation for a bit to see if it can sustain the sales beyond the initial curiosity stage and if creativity can be maintained -- not to mention the publication schedule.

If they do, and if it actually hurts Marvel's sales, here's what I'd suggest:

Don't do a total reboot, run Brand New Day across the whole line essentially copying DC. Because it's been done. People will just think they're copying DC.

Plus that was the point of the Ultimates universe and that's apparently run out of steam and been rebooted itself.

But they can simplify things.

One of the problems from a customer perspective is that there are too many universes, so many in fact that it's not entirely clear which is the "main" one. The original, and which titles fit that universe.

Assuming the Ultimate universe doesn't take off and despite murdering their version of Peter Parker, it doesn't look like it has yet from what I've read, I'd simply wind it down.

Indeed, I'd wind down every universe that isn't the "main" one. I'd attempt to absorb anything that is working into the main run if possible but ultimately I'd make it so that if a newby enters the comics store and they pick up a Spiderman comic they know what they're buying.

Next, I'd reduce the number of titles a given character appears in. As I said, the main complaint from the new Batman reader was that he was tired with having to follow a half dozen titles so that he can keep track of one character knowing full well there was half a dozen more.

Be radical. Streamline. Just have Wolverine in an X-Men title and perhaps his own book. Same Spider-man and the rest. One comic to themselves and an appearance in a super-team.

Its worked (just about though its early days) for the Avengers film series. Could be replicated in the actual comics.

I happened to flick through an issue of X-Men and Ben Grimm featured and looked like a regular character. How did we get to this?

With luck readers will still want to read the same number of titles, it's just that they'll be able to read a greater variety of titles. Though I'm aware this could backfire and they'll simply buy less because they can, but these things are always risks.

And stop with the annual events. Everyone I've spoken to hates them. They feel like they're being fleeced and they disrupt the ongoing to story of their favourite characters too much.

Either way, I'm genuinely delighted that so far DC have had a resurgence. Anything which increases the audience for comics has to be good thing for the industry and culture in general.

"I realize that when I met you at the turkey curry buffet, I was unforgivably rude, and wearing a reindeer jumper."

Paul Erickson’s stock in trade

TV A crack? Another crack? Nine weeks and The Blessing is a crack? As well as quoting from The Eleventh Hour, Torchwood’s Miracle Day actually has the temerity to borrow its macguffin as well? In the admittedly apprehensive few seconds before Kitzinger was introduced to this gaping maw I did consider a few other options, an Ood brain, the meat monster from Meat, son of the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe and as usual Davros. But somehow given the aimless wanderings in search of a plot that have exemplified the rest of the series, a crack running through the Earth is about what we should have expected rather than something as imaginative as any of those three.

John Fay’s The Gathering exemplifies the twin frustrations of the series. On the one hand the concept is sound and given room to breath is capable of producing some tense moments, in this case the capture and carting off of Gwen’s Dad, which, because it is happening to a character we’ve been with for longer than a few episodes is genuinely moving.  The inadvertent benevolent looting seems ill advised given recent events but as ever when the show returns to its geographic roots it regains a sense of unity. The retcon moment with the obligatory spy of no fixed employment opposite the house is entertaining and the sudden appearance of Danes in the domesticity of Gwen’s house holding the baby very creepy indeed (if given an explanation weaker than offered by the Master on a monthly basis).

Some of the US elements coalesce too. Alexa Havins finally looks like she understands how to underpin Esther’s inexperience. Lauren Ambrose has never been more radiant and funny and her visit to Shanghai beautifully photographed wherever it was really filmed. The scenes at the CIA, Rex’s literary investigation reminds us of the Torchwood of old and similar scenes with Owen.  They're still no substitute for the boardroom scenes and slow burn moral ambiguity from CofE, but at least we're finally seeing some justification for eavesdropping inside he walls of power.  Even the most liberal  governments of the world, when faced with catastrophe, have become faceless totalitarian regimes.

But on the other hand, we’re presented with a “two months” later caption card and the impression that if the series had been five or six episode rather than the ten required by Starz this would have been a pretty good penultimate episode. Instead we’ve had to sit through wadded episodes full of wildly irrelevant exposition, lessening its impact.  The same problems which have dogged the rest of the series still exist, and I know I’m repeating myself, again, the logic disconnects and just plain squiffy storytelling that might have been Paul Erickson’s stock in trade but you just can’t expect from what’s purporting to the adult television, blasting a hole in our sense of disbelief.

How are we meant to take the moment when Rex, having researched and found this long lost evidence, doesn't go straight down to the archive to retrieve it himself?  When he says he’s undercover but that he had to book the case in through the embassy and that they should be ok if no one checks the list and in the next scene the anonymous blonde is doing just that then phoning the Channel 4 triangle so that they tell them where the gripping action sequence in episode ten is going to happen?  We're back to wilful obliviousness and a disinterest in upturning the audience's expectations.  Unless anonymous blonde is revealed to be a double agent.  But let's face it, that's unlikely.

Similarly Rhys is now reduced to the bog-headed Welsh stereotype that the writers have previously fought against him becoming, spending much of the episode doing his best impression of Ianto’s brother-in-law until called upon to point out the bleeding obvious with a handy inflatable globe of the kind everyone has in their living room and threatening to kill Oswald, forcing the team to bring him along for no other reason than that he’ll most likely absolve his sins by throwing himself into the crack next episode. Sometimes this feels like we’re in the film Pleasantville, rolling our eyes at the antics of Rex and Rhys like they're characters in some 50s sitcom, until the television claims us for its own.

Yet, and yet, for the first time, I do want to know what happens next week. This is presumably a side effect of the fact that there is no more after next week and we’re finally being handed some kind of closure. Perhaps we’ll discover just why we’ve been watching such an oddball collection of characters and we’ll discover that the episodes with more padding around them than a print cartridge from Amazon were in fact entirely integral making the upcoming blu-ray release more enticing than it currently is. But based on previous form The Blessing will be a giant time-based reset switch the size of the Earth’s core powered by the Empress of the Racnoss' ship.  Unless, of course, it’s simply that Torchwood’s Miracle Day is finally coming to an end.
Elsewhere I've read and reviewed my second novelisation of Hamlet from Ophelia's POV of the week.

Dating Hamlet (2002)

Far from being an academic study considering which side of 1600 Shakespeare’s play was written, Lisa Fiedler’s Dating Hamlet is another rewriting of the action putting Ophelia front and centre. But unlike Lisa Klein's academic or Bergmanesque approach (which I reviewed on Monday), Fiedler (as the cover suggests) turns the character into a kind of Disney princess, albeit of the kind seen in more recent films, more Giselle from Enchanted or Tangled’s Rapunzal than Snow White or Cinders. I’ve had problems in the past with Shakespeare being interpreted as panto, but there’s something about Fielder’s attempt that really engages.

Partly it’s because Fiedler has no truck with Hamlet as a sacred text. She’s clearly a fan of the play and although their aren’t as many literary allusions as the Klein book, Fiedler obviously has the same sense that Ophelia has become displaced in time, has had a "raw deal" and deserves a new destiny. Comparing Dating Hamlet with Klein’s book is probably a tad unfair. They’re tonally chalk and cheese, one tragic, the other comic. But they’re also both written for teenagers and many of the choices of how Ophelia threads through the story are similar.

The main difference is in the treatment of Ophelia herself. Klein very carefully keeps fidelity with whatever’s in Shakespeare’s text, seeking to underpin the characters based on the evidence in their speech, and in that case Polonius’s daughter is washed along by events. In Fiedler’s version, Ophelia drives events and steals the protagonist doublets from her love, putting the indecisive Hamlet very much in the supporting position with the besting of Claudius resting on her slender rather more motivated shoulders. In other words it’s the Maid Marian and her Merry Men approach.

It also keeps within the time scheme of the play but creates a few extra characters. She is friends with Anna, a kitchen maid who it’s quickly apparent is her Horatio, a useful expositional thinking board but there are also plenty of girly chats about boys. It’s that kind of novel. Other characters, like the Gravedigger have their parts built up in surprising ways largely to help the mechanism of the plot. All of Shakespeare’s scenes appear but not every deed done or word said is necessarily in the spirit the playwright intended.

With just a couple of hundred pages, Fiedler hasn’t much time to conjure a very detailed version of Elsinore but what’s sketched in does point towards a Hollywood fairy tale world rather than a realistic geographical place, albeit with more bawdy attitudes. Ophelia’s seen as something of a prize amongst the men in court and spends much of the novel fending off their advances her heart focused on Denmark’s prince. Some of the best scenes are those in which she gives the men folk a piece of her mind or her knee in their groin. It’s that kind of novel too.

Dating Hamlet by Lisa Fiedler was published by Collins in 2002. RRP: £4.99. ISBN: 0007161867

"In that studio was a table."

Radio This week's BBC Ariel letter's page is a vintage especially the first letter from Pete Bestwick, GNS on the subject of tables:
"Once upon a time there was a radio studio in TVC used daily by guests talking to the BBC's finest radio stations. In that studio was a table.

One day, something very heavy was dropped on the table and it broke. Guests were left with an apology and many spilt drinks on the un-even surface."
You'll have to read the rest yourself but needless to say it ends ... predictably ...

The BBC's Drama on 3 does A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The BBC's Drama on 3 radio slot has returned after its Proms enforced hiatus and next Sunday (September 11th) they're offering a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream recorded on location in Sussex woodland with a brilliant cast that includes Lesley Sharp, Toby Stephens, Emma Fielding and Nicholas Farrell.

Pier Productions has a short documentary with footage of the recording though it might demystify the experience if you watch it beforehand, especially after they've gone to trouble of capturing the natural sounds of the forest. Roger Allam as Bottom does not act in a donkey head.

It should be on the iPlayer too for the following week.

a donkey head

Shakespeare The BBC's Drama on 3 radio slot has returned after its Proms enforced hiatus and next Sunday (September 11th) they're offering a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream recorded on location in Sussex woodland with a brilliant cast that includes Lesley Sharp, Toby Stephens, Emma Fielding and Nicholas Farrell.

Pier Productions has a short documentary with footage of the recording though it might demystify the experience if you watch it beforehand, especially after they've gone to trouble of capturing the natural sounds of the forest. Roger Allam as Bottom does not act in a donkey head.

It should be on the iPlayer too for the following week.

It’s not the most complex of plots

Books While we're on the subject of stuff noticed whilst watching Doctor Who, you won't remember but three years ago I read the single example of published erotic fiction that tangentially fits within the Doctor Who universe. Reviewing the review for various satirical reasons related to a twitter conversation (again) I stumbled upon one small detail I bothered to mention in the plot synopsis:
"Claudia, a recent widow is surprised one day when she discovers a buff young man taking a skinny-dip in the lake on her land. She prays that he’ll find his way to her big house, which he unsurprisingly does, bedecked in an Edwardian frock coat, covered in bruises and claiming to have lost his memory. His only point of identity is a small note which says his name is Paul. She takes him in, and after a doctor friend, Beatrice, gives him an examination, ‘Paul’ moves in with her. Not long afterwards, her best friend Melody, leaves her husband and she moves in too. Then there’s a fancy dress party and the truth of who this male house guest might be is stunningly revealed on television. It’s not the most complex of plots, I’m sure you’ll agree and there’s a fairly obvious reason for that."
Steven's magpie mind couldn't really be referencing The Stranger. Could he?

Elsewhere I've watched my thirty-third Hamlet, Innokenty Smoktunovsky (pictured).

33 Innokenty Smoktunovsky

Hamlet played by Innokenty Smoktunovsky.
Directed by Grigori Kozintsev.

When I began counting Hamlets, I took the decision that a production only counted, as per the about page, if “I've seen or heard it from start to finish through a whole production”. The other more secret rule was that it had to be based on Shakespeare’s text and follow the same plot, which led to the offshoot list “Almost Hamlet” as a place to put The Lion King or The Banquet and also films that followed translations of Shakespeare’s text, which didn’t matter much with Aki Kaurismaki’s Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) or Akira Kurosawa’s Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well) since both deviate quite considerably from Shakespeare’s version of the story.

Not so, Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 film which offers a direct, albeit heavily truncated Russian translation by Boris “Zhivago” Pasternak of the text that goes from “ghost to jest to death” and is probably “more” Hamlet than some of the other versions which I’ve nodded through without controversy (the Meyer twins). It even has the whole of Fortinbras tucked within. So without much consideration I’m nodding Innokenty Smoktunovsky through too as my thirty-third Hamlet. If Peter Brooks says it’s of special interest and “it has one gigantic merit - everything in it is related to the director's search for the sense of the play - his structure is inseparable from his meaning”, that’s good enough for me.

Perhaps the film's most famous element is the score by Shostakovich which has developed something of an afterlife through orchestral suite versions. Having heard the pieces in isolation (notably during the BBC Proms in 2007 which themed themselves around music inspired by Shakespeare), I’m quite surprised by how brazenly they particularly underscore the expected “moments of charm” (for want of a better phrase), bursting in from apparent silence during a soliloquy or Yorrick, booming and bombast and melodramatic sometimes working against the on-screen action.  It's most effective in the appearance of Hamlet Snr on the battlements who’s dark moonlight silhouette is greeted by a maelstrom.

From the opening shots, Kozintsev bases his letterbox imagery on Hamlet’s line that Denmark’s a prison. We see first the crashing waves surrounding Elsinore, then shots of Hamlet riding back to into the palace before a drawbridge is pulled, portcullis drop and windows shut. Throughout the film, characters are shown behind wooden slats and balastrades, Hamlet especially shown speaking from behind bars which only disappear from view when he’s taking action rather than brooding. During “To Be Or Not To Be” which like all the other soliloquy’s is given as voice-overed internal monologue, he broods on the rocks looking out towards sea, suggesting that he’s contemplating two forms of escape from this Alcatraz.

The director is clearly influenced by the Olivier version though as the usefully thorough Wikipedia article notes that influence was negative, Kozintsev going out of his way to do the opposite of Sir Larry not least in emphasising the political over the domestic.  He portrays Laertes as a kind of revolutionary seeking to overthrow Claudius even though as I’ve finally noticed after watching this production, even if he’d succeeded he’s still have Fortinbras to contend with. You could almost imagine that in agreeing to carry out Claudius’s plan (a decision made off screen here) he’s still eyeing the crown and once Hamlet is gone he’ll still have the king in his sights.

Not that this Hamlet is easily killed. Kozintsev works hard to make him less of a procrastinator. This prince has few reservations about following his father’s spirit, is cut from Claudius’s confessional so he doesn’t lose his single easy chance of killing his enemy and most remarkably a whole new scene is inserted showing him taking action against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on board ship, something I’ve only ever seen before in Tom Stoppard’s play.  He even dies mutely, simply, with "the rest is silence".   Arguably Smoktunovsky carries all of this rather too subtly and because he’s rarely shown in close-up, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge the extent of his inner turmoil, only now and then given to outbursts of emotional energy which quickly dissipate.

Strengthening Hamlet’s protagonist credentials does have the effect of weakening the rest of the cast. You could argue that Kozintsev is trying to reflect Hamlet’s own slackening awareness of his family, but it’s almost impossible for me to say anything illuminating about any of the rest of the characters, other than that Gertrude’s attitude does definitively change once Hamlet has exposed her husband’s murderous actions and that Claudius seems to be modelled after Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII (or Charles Laughton for that matter). Anastasiya Vertinskaya’s Ophelia is especially wan though she does have one of the best introductory scenes I’ve seen, practicing her ballet moves like a doll in a music box.

Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet is out now from Mr Bongo Films. Review copy supplied.
Elsewhere I've reviewed Lisa Klein's quiet good Hamlet novelisation, Ophelia, which is far more impressive than its cover suggests.

Ophelia (2006)

Of all Shakespeare’s female roles, Ophelia is one the most misunderstood. Too often a director and actress portray her as something of a wet blanket, torn by the machinations of the men in her life, her father, brother, Claudius and Hamlet, no more than the forerunner of the kinds of later female roles in both theatre and film that just exist to reflect the masculine uncertainties of the male lead. It’s true that the brevity of her role does lend itself to that reading, and she does spend the bottom half of the play out her wits.

But a careful scrutiny of Shakespeare’s text reveals her to be much more subtly intelligent figure, well read and educated, assuming you take the more contemporary view that the content of a character’s speech reflects their intellect as well as the playwrights. I've only rarely seen this reflected in performance. It’s there in both of the Branagh productions in Winslet and Thomson and most pronounced in the Naxos audio starring Lesser with Emma Fielding as a very modern Ophelia. It’s also the Ophelia who tells her story in Lisa Klein’s fictional autobiographical interpretation of the play.

Klein’s book opens with a ten-year-old Ophelia joining Hamlet Snr’s court and becoming a maid in Gertrude’s household, moving up the ranks as a lady in waiting. From a young age she’s desperate to read Ovid and though she’s informed that she won’t get anywhere with men if they think she’s more intelligent than they are, it’s precisely her wit which leads to her gaining Hamlet’s attraction, the one thing which sets her apart from her bitchy court rival Cristina. Slowly events edge towards the action of Shakespeare’s play but it's quickly apparent that not everything will be as it seems.

There’s a danger in these first person retellings that a Mary-Sue element will encroach on proper storytelling and though the book (as the cover might suggest) does employ some of the idioms of the bodice-ripper, hearts beating in chests and an undercurrent of emotional desolation, Klein works hard to make Ophelia a credible figure. Written for teens but at no point lacking in sophistication, the language is of cod-poetic style which in the wrong hands could have come across as parodic but much of the time has such commitment it's easy to imagine that this is exactly how the character would have communicated her adventures.

The world of Elsinore, Klein through Ophelia conjures is very much in the mood, thanks to the thorough descriptions of fashions and furnishings of the late-Victorian or early Edwardian painters and the author has even included an image from W.G. Simmonds's The Drowning of Ophelia on her website. But time captions sets the play in and around the turn of the 17th century and it's possible to recognise the machinations of the court of that period following the hints in Shakespeare's text that he's writing as much about the English monarchy in his own lifetime as a far off place he's reputedly never visited.

Klein steers a steady course between adapting that play and as she suggests in the acknowledgements making sure that “Ophelia now has her due”. Unlike Stoppard who worked with the irony of two peripheral characters with little idea of the events they’ve tumbled into, Klein sometimes does have to strain to keep Ophelia aware of the darkness in court which is shaping her life. She’ll be hiding behind furniture and doors snatching glimpses and phrases, wedging them with rumours and gossip in an attempt to piece together how safe she remains in court, even resorting to some of Hamlet’s tactics in order to survive.

That means that Klein rarely simply novelises the play by-rote and even when we are in the midst of one of Ophelia's big scenes, we're more pre-occupied by Ophelia's thought processes than the action. Similarly, the author uses our hindsight knowledge of the plot to create a Hitchcockian tension even in those moments of high explostion as we await Ophelia's reaction. But the book is at its best when it's making its own course, as in those moments when Ophelia finds herself in some fairly deep philosophical discussions that seek to extrapolate the themes of the play in another form.

Ophelia also isn't the only character to gain weight in Klein's treatment. Horatio becomes her confident as much as Hamlets and Gertrude too is given a mountain of rational for her actions, of the kind which an actress would usually employ to underscore her performance in the hopes that the audience will see behind the her general silence in places. That's probably the best way to view the novel; like any theatre production Klein isn't attempting to piece together a definitive version of the story, just her interpretation of what's there already.

What also makes this a richer read than some Shakespeare prose adaptations is that it refuses to treat the his text in isolation. There are veiled references to plenty of other plays, most specifically Romeo & Juliet. As well as Ovid, Ophelia’s knowledge of botany is from the same sources Shakespeare is presumed to have read and it’s clear that this was much a scholarly exercise as an act of fiction. But it’s also a very imaginative reading especially in the surprising final third which sends Ophelia on an even greater emotional journey than the play allows.

Ophelia by Lisa Klein was published by Bloomsbury in 2006. RRP: £5.99. ISBN: 978-0747587330