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For those who have seen Kenneth Branagh's film version of "Hamlet" from
1996, this documentary will be of interest since it shows the development of
the stage production in which Branagh first learned the part, under the
direction of (Sir) Derek Jacobi, in Birmingham in 1990.
The actors learn their parts from scratch in four weeks for this production, which was staged in Edwardian costume. Although the fact is never stated explicitly, the performers are learning their lines from the green Arden Shakespeare paperback edition of the play (Routledge, London, 1989).
Director Jacobi has some novel ideas for his staging, including having Hamlet deliver his soliloquy TO OPHELIA.
Several of the faces in this production are familiar from other Kenneth Branagh films. David Parfitt, who only fills the unenviable role of Rosencrantz here, went on to become a producer and numbers last year's "Shakespeare in Love" among his credits.
This one-hour film works well enough as a document, but it is unfortunately light on penetration and insight. We are not even informed of the ultimate success or failure of this staging in the eyes of critics at the time.
Discovering Hamlet (1990)
*** (out of 4)
Extremely fascinating documentary taking a look at Hamlet, being brought to the stage by first time director Derek Jacobi with Kenneth Branagh in the lead. The documentary really gives one a crash course on the Shakespeare play in general as we start off hearing about the various legends who have played the part throughout the years and then we get to the production of this play. Jacobi, who at one time played Hamlet, goes into very good detail about the various jobs he has to do in regards to directing for the first time and we see him not only help the actors but also make decisions on lighting, costume and how scenes should be staged. Also fascinating to hear is that they're working on such a small stage that the director really has tough decisions to make to try and get the scene to work on such a smaller scale. Branagh goes into great detail about his thoughts on the play as well as the various changes that the character goes through. Some of the most interesting moments deals with the behind-the-scenes look at the rehearsals where the star and director discuss the character and scenes. I'd also say that this documentary is probably stronger today than it was when it was originally released simply because we all know that Branagh went on to make his own film version of the play so it's interesting to see and hear his thoughts here compared to what they were in the theatrical film. At just 52-minutes there's no question that this isn't the definitive look at Hamlet but if you're new to the subject then I think this documentary is a good place to start.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This 1990 documentary documents Kenneth Branagh's first try at playing
Hamlet. It took place onstage in the late 1980's, with members of the
Reaissance Theatre Company in support, all under the direction of actor
Derek Jacobi. Jacobi had played Hamlet himself on television in 1980,
and would play Hamlet's murderous uncle Claudius in Branagh's own
brilliant 1996 film version of the complete play.
There are fascinating similarities and differences between this documentary (recorded on videotape) and the later film. We can see how Branagh himself (looking amazingly young and rather "green" here) develops his performance. At some points he seems considerably less unsure of himself than he does in his own film version of the play, other times his portrayal is just as confident and mature as it would be in 1996. The actors (except for Branagh) tend to speak the verse in a more "formal" way (i.e., as in Olivier's filmed Shakespeare) than they do in the 1996 "Hamlet", but at the same time, not one of them is stiff in his/her delivery. There are two moments -Hamlet's sarcastic treatment of Claudius after the murder of Polonius, and the "recorders" scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - which Branagh acts in a considerably quieter, less "over-the top" manner here than in his own film of "Hamlet", and one could argue that his sarcasm here is much more withering.
The other actors offer revealing insights into their own characters, and Jacobi, as a director, explains his rationale behind the staging of some of the scenes.
However, I must beg to differ with the previous reviewer who states that he saw this production in person and that the soliloquy "To be or not to be, that is the question...etc." had been omitted. I'm not sure if he is confused or not, but this video conclusively shows not only that the famous soliloquy not only was included, but that Derek Jacobi daringly broke with tradition by having Hamlet speak the lines not to himself, as he does traditionally, but to Ophelia, thus planting the idea of suicide in her mind long before she goes insane. (This is one idea that Branagh did not carry over into his own film version; in the movie, Hamlet speaks the lines looking into a two-way mirror.) While Peter O'Toole, who was ostensibly sitting in the audience, may have disapproved of some of the ideas used for the staging of this production, it is difficult to believe that one of them was the omission of "To be or not to be".
PBS issued this video originally, and it is an admirable supplement to Kenneth Branagh's four-hour film of "Hamlet".
I saw this production of _Hamlet_ in London in late 1988. I had never
heard of Kenneth Branagh then--nor Sir Derek Jacobi for that matter! I
was an American English major beginning a junior year abroad in
England, and I had the quaint idea that I'd spend my first night in
London seeing _Hamlet_. It's safe to say I was not the most
sophisticated member of the audience, so I won't hazard any evaluations
of the production.
What I do remember vividly is that the play was radically edited. They didn't do the "To be or not to be" soliloquy at all, and some of the lines were re-allocated to different characters. Peter O'Toole, who was sitting two rows in front of me, shook his head in disapproval quite a few times during the play.
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