Acorn Media // 1988 // 53 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // January 22nd, 2011
Two of Britain's greatest actors stage Shakespeare's greatest tragedy.
In 1988, Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius), considered by many to have been the finest Hamlet of his generation, was hired by the upstart Renaissance Theatre Company to direct a production of Hamlet. It would be Jacobi's first attempt at directing, and in the lead role was one of the founders of the RTC, a young Anglo-Irish actor whose early promise led some to speculate that he might be a worthy successor to Jacobi -- Kenneth Branagh (Dead Again), in his first professional performance of the title role. Filmmakers Mark Olshaker and Larry Klein followed the company through four weeks of rehearsals, from the first read-throughs to opening night. Interviews with cast and crew reveal how each member of the company met the production's challenges. The resulting footage was edited into Discovering Hamlet, an hour-long special broadcast in 1990 on PBS.
The special itself is entertaining, offering a fascinating glimpse into the intense collaboration that goes into any stage production, let alone one as daunting as Hamlet. At an hour, there's only so much you can do, but it's still an excellent choice to a high school English teacher struggling to get students to see the possibilities lying beneath the text. Here you can learn, among other things, how David Parfitt worked out an approach to Rosencrantz, one of the more thankless roles in the play. You won't learn how to be an actor, but you will get a better appreciation for how difficult it is -- for leads and supporting players alike.
For those wanting more, fear not: The special is but the tip of the Danish iceberg, though; the insane wealth of extras -- almost three and a half hours worth -- expand on those glimpses, transforming this title from an intriguing teaching video to a must-own for Shakespeare fans. The extras begin with a new interview with Derek Jacobi, in which he talks not only about the production but also the way that Hamlet shaped his career -- he has a wonderful story about Richard Burton coming to see his own performance as the melancholy Dane (No pressure, none whatsoever, why do you even ask?). The interview itself is about 30 minutes long, but you also get the rough interview from which it was edited, as well interviews with the principal cast and crew. The filmmakers shot close to 30 hours of film that was culled down to the initial hour-long special; about 3.5 hours of that material is included on a second disc, including rehearsals, interviews, and backstage footage.
One annoying omission is the actual performance itself, but to be fair, that may be asking too much, as a performance recording was, in 1988, probably not in any of the performers' contracts; they could, however, at least get an idea of how the production was received. A more practical alternative would have been a special segment following the development of a specific sequence from first rehearsal through the finished performance. There's even a perfect candidate: The famous "To be or not to be" speech. In a radical departure, Jacobi believes that the speech should be delivered not as a soliloquy, addressed to the audience, but rather to Ophelia -- a rare instance of Hamlet letting down his guard and revealing his innermost thoughts. Jacobi makes a compelling case for the decision in both the old and new material, and the actors appear energized by the change in the dynamic between Hamlet and Ophelia. However, we never see the finished scene in performance -- or even in rehearsal, save an all-too-brief snippet -- so we cannot judge for ourselves how well the interpretation works. The issue could have been developed into a master class in its own right, with Jacobi and the players seriously digging into the options opened up by the change. The only glaring omission is a new interview from Branagh, to get his memories and impressions of the experience, and how they might have shaped his 1996 film of the play.
Technically, the disc is in pretty good shape. The video is clear enough; there's some grain and there are some intrusive shadows at times, but that's more a function of the filming conditions than a problem. The stereo track has a touch of hiss, and Patrick Stewart's narration is over-mixed so that the sibilants almost spurt forth from your speakers.
Discovering Hamlet is a wonderful discovery. While there are certainly some gaps here and there, the breadth of the extras makes up for them nicely. There's certainly nothing rotten here. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 53 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Backstage Footage
* Wikipedia: Kenneth Branagh
* Wikipedia: Sir Derek Jacobi
* Text of the play
* Wikipedia: Hamlet