18 February 2004 | madbeast
A theatrical experience
For those looking for a strictly cinematic version of "Hamlet" you should probably look elsewhere, but for a theatrical experience of the classic tale of the Melancholy Dane, you could do worse than pick up this version of the 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton.
Essentially a photographed performance of a stage production, this "Hamlet" was directed by John Gielgud with the concept of being a dress rehearsal (to pacify Richard Burton's dislike of wearing period costume) with actors in street clothes and bare bones set and props. The concept falls flat but Gielgud does a fine job of staging the action (the convention of showing the ghost as a massive shadow voiced by Gielgud works wonderfully well), making one wish that he'd used a more conventional look for the show. The cast is decidedly uneven, ranging from brilliant (Hume Cronyn in his Tony-winning role as Polonius) to incompetent (Alfred Drake as a rather hopeless Claudius). While Burton is hardly the definitive Hamlet, frequently resorting to vocal pyrotechnics which are ultimately meaningless, there is no doubting his intelligence or brooding charisma in the role. He may not have hit a bull's eye, but he is so far beyond such recent mediocre Hamlets as Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson that his performance truly gives the viewer a splendid example of what a distinguished classical actor is capable of. His handling of the soliloquies (especially "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I") are very effective indeed.
Those who quibble with the lack of close-ups or iffy cinematic qualities are missing the point of the experience: the faraway perspective makes the viewer fell like they are seated at an actual live performance at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre in 1964, and gives a much more uniquely theatrical experience than attempts to "cinemize" the play such as Branagh's vulgar and miscast film version or Olivier's celebrated bowdlerized adaptation (whose gutting of the text frequently plays like "Hamlet's Greatest Hits").
Not much thought was given to the Special Features of the DVDs: the listing of the awards won by Burton, Cronyn and Gielgud are laughably incomplete, and it seems to me that the producers missed an opportunity by not including observations by a living cast member on a second voice track (cast members William Refield and Richard L. Sterne each wrote books on the production, and it might have been rewarding to hear the remembrances of Hume Cronyn or John Cullum or Alfred Drake on this DVD).
But despite it's faults, this is a valuable little treasure for anyone with serious interest in Shakespeare's play and a unique opportunity to see a memorable theater production without leaving your living room.