“Hamlet” (1948) directed by/starring Laurence Olivier

[1] Heartbreaking, well acted, great script and direction, well paced,… it’s the clearest telling of Hamlet I’ve seen, old or contemporary.

[2] …Olivier is superb, his finest filmed acting performance. His Hamlet is measured and nuanced and brilliantly crafted…

-Excerpts from Amazon reviews

[1] Olivier portrays him primarily as “a man who could not make up his mind,” and his fine and often subtle acting brings to his role a deep understanding of his character’s inner struggles and dilemmas, both moral and practical.

[2] He shies away from the humor completely, and instead takes a slow, purposeful tack. To that, it might not appeal to some.

[3] The camera moves and sweeps everywhere… It creates extraordinary images and energy that make many scenes unforgettable- without calling too much attention to itself.

…the climactic fencing scenes are genuinely great- easily the best fencing scenes in a version of Hamlet and possibly among the best in film history.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This is the first English movie adaptation (w/ sound) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; it cost $2 million to produce (a large sum at that time). This is also the first British (non-American) film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Laurence Olivier became the first person ever to direct himself and win the Best Actor Oscar. It was shot in black and white b/c (as Olivier later admitted) he was in a fight w/ Technicolor! Desmond Dickinson (the cinematographer) had a special maneuverable camera dolly made w/ tires (the first of its kind in England). To appeal to a wider public, Olivier and Alan Dent (text adaptor) modernized and/or clarified some phrases. This version omits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” scene is missing. Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, also doesn’t appear; some of his lines were given to Horatio.

Olivier (who wears a blonde wig and tights) can pull off many looks; he created his characters from the outside-in. He speaks his lines in a natural way, as if he had just thought of them. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Shakespeare, you’ll understand and be able to follow Olivier. The famous “To be or not to be” speech is done in an unique way atop a tower; at first, we hear Hamlet’s thoughts, then he speaks out loud. The scene where Hamlet peruses Ophelia’s face is done well (and somewhat unexpected). The adventure w/ the pirates is briefly shown; we don’t see that in the theater. Near the end, Hamlet leaps off the high stairway and stabs Claudius- another unexpected (and potentially dangerous) directorial choice! Olivier was uninjured, but the stuntman for Claudius was knocked out from the impact and lost two of his teeth.

Some critics/viewers didn’t agree w/ the emphasis on the Oedipal complex (a concept arising from theories of Freud) in this adaptation. Hamlet is more affectionate w/ Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) than I’ve seen in other movies and plays. Herlie (who hailed from Scotland) was quite younger than Olivier; she looked familiar (she played a matriarch on the American soap opera All My Children). She also played Gertrude in the 1964 movie starring Richard Burton. Gertrude and Claudius (Basil Sydney) made a believable couple, though you can also sense some tension. I think Gertrude knows the cup of wine is poisoned in the pivotal fight scene!

Christopher Lee (Count Dooku in Star Wars; Saruman in LOTR) is one of the palace guards; he holds a spear. Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars) is Osric, a foppish courtier. Lee and Cushing worked on 22 films together- wow! Anthony Quayle (The Guns of Navarone; Lawrence of Arabia) plays Marcellus, one of the friends who sees King Hamlet’s Ghost (John Gielgud). Stanley Holloway (Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady) is the darkly funny gravedigger. Terence Morgan (in this first movie) is Laertes; he is boyishly handsome and shines in the sword fighting scene. Norman Wooland (who worked w/ Olivier in Richard III) is Horatio; he has very thick/dark hair and a strong physical presence. Jean Simmons (w/ blonde hair) is Ophelia; she is youthful and vulnerable. She does a good job, but I wanted to see deeper characterization. Vivien Leigh wanted to play Ophelia, but Olivier (then her husband) said she was too famous. The scene of Ophelia floating down a river w/ flowers all over her dress and around her body is reminiscent of the painting by Sir John Everett Millais.

“Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” (BBC: 1980) starring Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, & Claire Bloom

This movie (available to rent on Amazon Prime) was part of the BBC TV Shakespeare project (1978-1985). Claudius (Patrick Stewart) played Derek Jacobi’s stepdad though he is 2 yrs younger. Gertrude (Claire Bloom) was only 7 yrs older than Hamlet. Jacobi was mentored by Olivier while he was a new actor on the London stage! Jacobi played Claudius in the 1996 movie version directed/starring his mentee- Kenneth Branagh. Jacobi’s long-time partner, Richard Clifford, has a fine supporting role in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Originally, Director Rodney Bennett wanted to shoot on-location, but BBC said all productions were to be studio based. He said: “it is essentially a theatrical reality. The way to do it is to start with nothing and gradually feed in only what’s actually required.” The production design is open w/ no time-specific architecture, and a lot of empty space. It looks like a kind of filmed-copy of the stage play. The play is in its entirety, which is rare in film.

As I watch Jacobi, I’m tempted to think that he’s every bit as intelligent as Hamlet himself, so alive is he to every nuance of this character’s wit. He deepens, rather than solves, every puzzle regarding Hamlet’s character.

His displays of emotion swing from hatred to sorrow, love to vengefulness and everywhere else on the map… some of the more powerful sequences occur when he underplays them, with stillness, soft speech and thoughtful expression. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

We know the story, some of the lines, and the role is coveted by actors from all over the world. Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Richard Burton, Kevin Kline, Campbell Scott, Mel Gibson, Branagh, Ethan Hawke, David Tennant, Adrian Lester, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Simm, Andrew Scott, and Paapa Essiedou have all played Hamlet. Jacobi is able to show Hamlet as indecisive, funny (in a dark way), passionate, judgmental, and thoughtful. He puts the feeling behind the words, but it (for the most part) feels natural and not forced. When the players arrive at Elsinore, we see Hamlet’s flair for drama. One of the “meta” moments comes when the players gather around Hamlet as he takes on the role of director.

Is Hamlet really mad (crazy)? I don’t think so, though there are a few points where that can be debated. Is he contemplating suicide in the famous “to be or not to be scene?” I didn’t think so when I read it in HS and college, but now think differently. Does he want power himself or is mostly angry about the murder of his father? It’s up to us to decide; though he sees in young Fortinbras the “man of action” which he can’t (or maybe doesn’t want) to be. I thought of Hamlet as a scholarly type who (though 30 y.o.) isn’t quite ready for a leadership role. Though this took me two nights to watch, I thought the last hour was very compelling (incl. the sword fight w/ Laertes).

“Shakespeare’s Globe: A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (2014)

This is a very appealing production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays that should get wide attention. The cast is good, John Light ably doubles as Theseus and Oberon, and Michelle Terry impressed me as Hippolyta and Titania. -Excerpt from IMDB review

Trailer for the production

The play (which I saw last week on YouTube) opens w/ a dance/battle, showing us that Hippolyta (Michelle Terry), the leader of the Amazons (a tribe of women), was captured by Theseus (John Light) during war. Terry reveals intelligence, sensitivity, and power. She makes a connection w/ Hermia when she is threatened w/ death or life as a nun (if she doesn’t marry Demetrius- her father’s choice). As the play goes on, Hippolyta’s proud manner turns to teasing of Theseus; they share chemistry and could have a happy marriage.

The fairy land ruled by Oberon and Titania is decorated w/ animal heads and full of mischief. The quarrel between the long-married king and queen (over an orphaned Indian boy) has upset nature. Light’s Oberon is charismatic and full of energy in his gymnastic moves; he can act tough, but also has a soft side. He sympathizes w/ Helena when she’s chasing Demetrius, the man she loves. Terry’s Titania falls for (the ass-headed Bottom) after being tricked by Oberon.

The young lovers (Helena, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander) are cute, funny, and energetic.They become muddy and disheveled as they tumble through the woods together. Hermia (Olivia Ross- also seen in Killing Eve) and Helena (Sarah MacRae) show real pain and confusion as their friendship is tested. The young men, Lysander (Luke Thompson) and Demetrius (Joshua Silver) try to one-up each other. The mischievous fairy, Puck (Matthew Tennyson), is there to make sure they don’t hurt each other.

The Mechanicals are also clog dancers; the sounds of their arrival breaks into the goings-on of the lovers. This group of Athenian workmen are planning to present an entertainment for the Duke’s wedding. Led by the comic/anxious, Peter Quince (Fergal McElherron), they attempt at presenting the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe w/ seriousness (despite their lack of talent). Flute (Christopher Logan) plays Thisbe w/ sensitivity, though he is rather clumsy. Snug (Edward Peel) has to use his joiner’s skills to repair their little stage, even during the performance- LOL! Bottom (Pearce Quigley) starts out wanting to play all the parts; he also flirts w/ the (live) audience. The Renaissance music helps to bring it all together.

A Fresh Take on the Bard: “Royal Shakespeare Company: Othello” (2015)

addresses the character of Iago in a very different way, I think. Because suddenly, it heightens – for me anyway – the sense of betrayal. The sense of broken trust, the sense that you and I – as [Iago] says right at the beginning to Roderigo – we have fought in Rhodes, in Cyprus, on others’ grounds, Christian and heathen, we’ve seen war together, you and I, we are brothers. We’ve done it all together. But you went and chose that guy over me. -Lucian Msamati, actor

This is the first RSC production of Othello w/ a black Iago- and it really works! It’s also a modern adaptation featuring a diverse cast (who speak w/ a variety of accents) and live music (incl. from an oud). The director of this production, Iqbal Khan, is of Pakistani heritage. He grew up in inner-city Birmingham, England; his mother raised five sons after their father died young. Khan (who is now 50) was the first British Asian to direct a play in the West End. Iago (Lucian Msamati- born/raised in Zimbabwe of Tanzanian heritage) has an unique take on the famed villain. You may know Msamati as the charming pirate, Salladhor San, on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Othello (Hugh Quarshie- known for his stage work in the UK) is not as “noble” as we’re used to seeing.

Msamati’s excellent Iago is a stocky, tactically highly engaging figure who develops a cheeky rapport with the audience. His wounded racial pride can be heard, though, in the folk song he sings… -Paul Taylor (The Independent)

Desdemona (Joanna Vanderham- of Dutch heritage and raised in Scotland) is more spirited than usual; she was in the popular TV series- The Paradise. Despite the obvious age gap, this Othello and Desdemona have good chemistry. Roderigo (James Corrigan) is a Florentine and former suitor of Desdemona; he thinks he can still win her back. Iago knows just how to manipulate the younger man; Roderigo is like a puppet. Cassio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is the Florentine lieutenant to Othello who can’t hold his liquor; he is untested in battle. Roderigo has a sense of entitlement, as does Cassio (who tries to rap in one scene). Emilia (Ayesha Dharkar- born/raised in India and known work in indie films) is Iago’s neglected wife and serves Desdemona. Dharkar speaks w/ her natural Indian accent. Iago suspects her of being unfaithful (w/ Othello); their relationship has become bitter, much to her disappointment.

…it reinforces the historic bond between Othello and Iago, and helps to explain the trust the former places in his ensign. By making Othello the commander of a multi-racial unit, Khan also exposes the unresolved tensions in the group: you can see exactly why Iago would detest a Caucasian Cassio who tries to show his kinship with the men by taking part in a rap contest… -Michael Billington (The Guardian)

Why does Othello trust Iago so much? Well, in this play, they are both black men in a society that is white-dominated. Othello had gone beyond the bounds by marrying a white woman; Desdemona’s father, Brabantio (Brian Protheroe), even accuses him of sorcery. Othello is of higher rank and more assimilated than Iago; most notably, Quarshie speaks w/ a British accent and Msamati uses one which is thicker than his natural one. We know this a play about jealousy, but it’s also about presentation. Othello won Desdemona b/c of his skill as a storyteller; Iago manipulated many w/ stories he created. You can watch the full play on Marquee TV; check out some videos below.

Director Iqbal Khan gives a brief synopsis of Othello.
Act 1, Scene 1 of the 2015 RSC production of Othello.
Act 3, Scene 3 of the 2015 RSC production of Othello.

“Royal Shakespeare Company: Love’s Labour Won” (2015)

Autumn 1918. A group of soldiers return from the trenches. The world-weary Benedick and his friend Claudio find themselves reacquainted with Beatrice and Hero. As memories of conflict give way to a life of parties and masked balls, Claudio and Hero fall madly, deeply in love, while Benedick and Beatrice reignite their own altogether more combative courtship. Set amidst the brittle high spirits of a post-war house party, where youthful passions run riot, lovers are deceived and happiness is threatened – before peace ultimately wins out. -Synopsis

I saw this play on Marquee TV (which is an arts and culture streaming service); I signed up for the free 14-day trial. The play is more commonly known as Much Ado About Nothing; it’s my favorite Shakespeare comedy. This adaptation is set in the time period made famous by the recent PBS drama series and movie Downton Abbey. Hero (Flora Spencer Longhurst) and Claudio (Tunji Kasim) are the younger/fresh-faced couple. Beatrice (Michelle Terry) and Benedick (Edward Bennett) are the slightly older/jaded pair content to be singletons. By means of “noting” (which sounds similar to “nothing,” meaning gossip, rumor, and overhearing), Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other; Claudio is tricked (by Don John and his accomplices) into rejecting Hero at the altar thinking she has been unfaithful.

We are in an English village w/ an estate fit for royals. In the living room, there is a tall/elegantly-decorated Christmas tree. In one hilarious scene, Benedick hides inside the tree (while Leonato, Prince Don Pedro, and Claudio discuss him and Beatrice). There are songs and dances which come from (or are orchestrated to fit) the early 1900s vibe. We hear “Sigh No More” sung by Balthasar; it tells women to accept men’s infidelity and keep on living w/ joy. In the 1993 film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, the song is featured prominently in both the opening and finale.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,-
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.

Benedick and Beatrice (“too wise to woo peaceably”) are the main interest of the play; they have some of the best (and most memorable) lines. Terry (who became director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2017) commented in an interview that “Beatrice felt very deeply,” so humor was a “defense mechanism” she used. I loved how this actress played the (pivotal) scene in the church.

I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.

Not till God make men of some other metal than earth [would she consider having a husband]

Benedick is a bit disappointed when his best pal (Claudio) has the “intention to turn husband.” Benedick is also adept at using humor. The life of a bachelor suits him best, and only a rare woman would convince him otherwise.

…But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

I wish my horse had the speed of your tongue.

I liked how this production created a balance between the light and serious moments. The humor is played (mostly) w/ subtlety, as would suit Brits from that era. Beatrice, Benedick, and some of the minor characters have scenes w/ physical humor. I was impressed by how light the actors were on their feet (when the scene called for it). You can watch some scenes below!

Beatrice and Benedick meet.
Leonato, Prince Don Pedro, and Claudio set a trap for Benedick.
Beatrice and Benedick say they love each other, but she wants him to kill Claudio!