Friday, October 16, 2015
Wholock: A Comparison & Review of Cumberbatch and Tennants Hamlets
(I will admit I first watched Sherlock and fell in love with Benedict Cumberbatch's acting skills, but then my children introduced me to Doctor Who and now I have come to adore David Tennant. As you can see, I am either quite fickle or just lean toward the English actors. I have always favored Patrick Stewart over William Shatner.)
I am ashamed to say that David Tennat's Hamlet is the first I have ever watched. I have read and watched other Shakespeare plays but never viewed Hamlet, always telling myself I would rent the Kenneth Branagh version at some point in my life, but thinking it might just be a drudge. I was mistaken. Hamlet has many layers it would seem.
The Dane is Mad!! Or is he?
My initial reaction to David Tennant's interpretation of Hamlet was that surely he must be truly mad. Tennant appeared to know exactly what someone with rapid cycling Bipolar disorder might act like. The sadness and weeping, the jumping about, fevered speech, and the need to grab and hold people and invade their space. Then sudden solitude and quietness --- introspection. I thought possibly David Tennat had once been diagnosed with bipolar disorder he seemed to play it so spot on -- at least in my eyes. I googled bipolar and David Tennat and came up with nothing except that he once acted the part of a Manic/Depressive in a series on the BBC called Taken Over the Asylum. The series was filmed at an actual asylum and some of the patients were used as extras. Possibly this is where he learned to play a mad man so well?
Their is a debate amongst Shakespeare scholars on whether Hamlet is truly mad or just acting as if he is mad. I believe Tennant is playing him as truly mad and Cumberbatch as acting as if he is mad. A couple of scenes reveal a contrast of their style and how the madness may be interpreted. When the Hamlets meet the ghost, Tennant's Hamlet rushes up to his father and hugs him, Cumberbatch cowers in fear- what a sane man would more likely do. Tennant takes his sword and cuts his hand to swear a blood oath to his father and Cumberbatch writes a note in a book. Not only can the cutting of his hand be thought of as a sign of allegiance but often cutting and mutilating part of the body is used in mentally ill individuals as a release of emotions that are too overwhelming to bear. Tennant's Hamlet has this cut wrapped with a cloth through out the play to remind him of his oath to his father.
We see another contrast between true madness and play acting mad in the initial scenes with Ophelia and Guildenstien and Rosencrantz. Cumberbatch's Hamlet dresses up in a toy soldier uniform hops on a table and walks slowly like a robot Toy Soldier. When meeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstein he is in a play castle - playing the part of a Toy Soldier. Although I believe in a manic state you might very well enjoy wearing the brightly colored uniform of a toy soldier, the scene struck me as more of what "sane" people might think a mad person would act like. And I noticed during this same scene, I could understand Cumberbatch's words far better. Often times it seems that Tennat's words come speeding out of his mouth - he seems to have the more pressured speech patterns you might see in someone that is manic -- but of course as an actor -- Tennant has to be able to not talk so fast that no one can understand what he is saying. After all the audience has to understand the words. In these scenes, Tennat's Hamlet just uses his actions and words to signify his madness instead of dressing up in the part. Although some reviewers believer that the muscle T-shirt and bare feet are dressing up a bit. I read one review that stated that Tennat acted too manic. What the reviewer didn't understand that in madness you are often "too much" of everything -- too sad, too happy, too quick, too bright, too slow, too grabby -- and "normal " people often hate too much of anything. It seems our world prides itself on mediocrity and sameness.
One might ask how either Hamlet could be mad because they both do state that they are play acting as if mad. And both Hamlets seem to "ham" it up at times and play act madness. This hamming it up is often seen when the Hamlets are interacting with Polonious. Actually the Polonious in Tennant's Hamlet would drive any one mad but we will speak of that later. You can be mad and know that you are mad and still act even madder. Their is a bipolar spectrum -- from mild hypomania to full blown manic episode and psychosis. Often times people know that they are insane but cannot control their impulses. There are also those that are insane but are totally unaware of it. I think Tennant's Hamlet knows he is insane and uses it to his advantage. Cumberbatch's Hamlet is most likely extremely depressed about his father's death but I don't think he is manic. He seems to use the play acting of his madness as a way to delay any action on his part while he decides whether or not to seek vengeance.
Now on to that famous speech -- "To Be or Not to Be"
Tennants speech is depressed, quiet sad and seemed very introspective. Cumberbatch was more emotive, he uses a leather belt around his neck as a prop and he is wearing that silly toy soldier uniform but he does get across the fact that he is considering suicide.
How the characters contrast
There is a world of difference in the manner in which Polonius is played. In the Tennat Hamlet Polonius is a fool and is played for laughs. You wonder how such a man could rank so highly in the government ( probably wealth and birth) and I was not all that sad when he died. In Cumberbatch's play he is no fool and he appears capable of his office. Hamlet teases him but rarely does he appear to take the bait but seems to be more exasperated with Hamlet. It is a surprise that Hamlet would be able to strike him dead through the curtains.
Patrick Stewart plays both Claudius and the Ghost in the Tennant's Hamlet. I have to admit -- you just fall in love with that voice. This Claudius does not seem to be so evil, although he does plot Hamlet's death and you can tell that there is some conniving going on. In the end, though, he accepts his death by Hamlet's hand. Cumberbatch's Claudius seems to be a real jerk. He shames and embarrasses Hamlet at the wedding in front of many guests telling him that he is not being manly when he mourns. Stewart's Claudius also entreats Hamlet to stop mourning but he seems to be gentler.
I think I enjoyed Cumberbatch's Ophelia better than Tennants. She seemed so much more confused and seemed to be truly in love with Hamlet. And boy does she know how to play bonkers after her father dies. I never really knew what was going on with Tennant's Ophelia, maybe she just enjoyed the thought of having a Prince courting her. It seemed to be that Tennant's Hamlet loved her -- even in the scene when he is telling her to go to a nunnery, it seems that he is trying to protect her and get her away from the castle.
I didn't see much of a difference between the two Gertrudes and not much between the two Horatios. Except Cumberbatch's Horatio was covered in tattoos and always carried around a back pack. They both played good parts though and were stalwart friends.
Rosencratz and Guildenstien -- I definitely liked Tennants duo better. They would look at each at times and you could just see that they were thinking -- wowza - this guy is crazy - what have we gotten ourselves into? You could also tell that in the past they had all once been friends. I did not get that same feeling from Cumberbatch's pair. They just seemed to be there to listen to Hamlet's speeches.
May the better man win??
Which Hamlet was better -- they were both excellent and I enjoyed both actors portrayals. I am hoping that they will come out with a DVD version of Cumberbatch's Hamlet. If I return to one or the other more often than I will know which one edges out the other. I am in the middle of rewatching Tennant's Hamlet and very much enjoying it again. If I can do that over and over again, then you know that you have a classic.