Considering the volume of critically acclaimed theatre productions that don’t end up on TV – i.e. most of them – I’m not clear how the Almeida’s production of Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott, bagged a prime time BBC2 slot on Easter Saturday. But I’m glad it did and I hope there’s more to come.
I wasn’t planning on watching it. I’d seen Robert Icke’s production twice live and, as magnificent as it was, a third time seemed a bit excessive, especially considering every live play I’ve ever previously seen on TV has looked dreadful.
Being home for the Easter weekend with not much else going on, however, and curious to test my parents’ new TV, which is the size of a small family car, I put it on.
I’m glad that I did. What I really loved about the production, directed for TV by Rhodri Huw in collaboration with Icke, is how unapologetically ‘theatre’ it was.
Film and TV drama tends to use music to explain exactly how you’re supposed to feel. But despite famously featuring a clutch of Bob Dylan songs, Icke’s Hamlet largely unfolds over a backdrop of silence or muted ambient hissing.
Shakespeare’s drama is a masterpiece in ambiguity – even more so in this production – and it was fascinating, challenging and liberating to be sat in front of a screen, forced to try and work people’s motives out yourself rather than have an orchestra do it for you.
‘There was even stuff I missed on stage but saw on screen’
It also felt vastly more contemporary than the stiffly presented plays and teleplays I dimly remember watching at school. The almost constant use of close ups stripped away the sense of a theatre, which was only really given away by the odd bit of audience tittering.
Instead it felt more intense, more claustrophobic than it did in the room – it wisely sacrificed the sense of the set in order to focus on the performances. There was even stuff I missed on stage but saw on screen. It seemed fairly apparent this time that Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude is aware she is drinking poison at the end and has taken a decision to die.
In 2018, the ‘live’ quality of the footage has probably come into its own. What might have looked cheap 10 years ago looks par for course in the age of HD. And yes, much as I hate to admit it, watching it on a whacking great TV screen helps things enormously: it looks like a show happening in front of you.
Finally, lest we forget, Scott was a brilliant Hamlet. Some choices that looked brave in the theatre – notably his downbeat “to be or not to be” soliloquy – feel so in keeping with the current golden age of TV acting that they must stand as virtually definitive screen versions. It is unquestionably the theatre experience, but directed televisually. It was a perfect synthesis.
Inevitably, it wasn’t actually as good as seeing it on stage, and of course NT Live does a similar thing. But that has a paying, much more self-selecting audience. This was one of the zeitgeist productions of 2017, in a prime time slot, for free, and still on iPlayer.
Lord knows we all have our quibbles with the BBC, but let this be the start of something, not a one-off.