2000: Michael Almereyda
This is one of those versions of Shakespeare that is dedicated to making everything modern and relevant to today’s audiences — especially those with trivial attention spans and a complete lack of imagination for how the world could be other than it is right now. Michael Almereyda seems to specialize in this flattening transpositional approach to Shakespeare. Rather than relying on the penetration and the universality of the play as it stands, he needs to control all its implications. On my more skeptical days, I’m inclined to believe that he’s chiefly seeking to be admired for his cleverness in finding some arch contemporary mapping for something old and less obviously relevant to the viewer’s daily experience. The drama of Hamlet is not entirely expunged, but it’s kicked into the back seat rather unceremoniously. The central driving question seems to be about bit-to-bit mapping: what would this element in that culture mean if brought forward to our own? On its own terms, this is probably not a wholly fruitless exercise, but it’s problematic. Teaching people how to parse the elements of another culture by translating it to our own also teaches them that our own is really the only one that counts, and that understanding can only be achieved in the here and now. It’s a narrowing, rather than a broadening experience.
The production of The Mousetrap, therefore, is reduced to a video montage made up of snippets from other movies that Hamlet has rented at the local Blockbuster. (What’s darkly amusing is that this push toward contemporary relevance will age more quickly than others: Blockbuster is now extinct. Do we need a revision, for those who don’t remember video-rental stores, based on Netflix or YouTube?) Guns and elevators are much in evidence, and video technology. To see how these same elements might be used more plausibly, I would recommend that one compare this production with the Bruce Ramsay production (2011) with David Tennant, who is magnificently in control of the language of the play, even while setting things in a contemporary context.
This is Ethan Hawke’s first foray into Shakespeare. One might well wish that it were his last, though that’s perhaps ungenerous. He doesn’t seem, however, to understand much of what he’s saying, and that’s one of the recurrent problems I have with modernized Shakespeare productions. He recites some of his lines as a six-year-old might repeat an assigned piece for memorization. I think there’s reason to believe that he’s learned something since then (at least he claims so in the production interviews on the Cymbeline DVD), but he was really not in control of the language when this was made.
In all fairness, though, it’s worth noting that not all the other players have the same problem. Diane Venora, who has played Ophelia and even Hamlet with aplomb, brings equivalent acting chops to the role of Gertrude. Kyle McLachlan of “Twin Peaks” fame also has a surprising degree of depth as
Agent King Claudius. Perhaps more revealing is Bill Murray as Polonius: there’s more depth in both of them than one often finds. I’m less certain either way about Julia Stiles’ Ophelia. Some days she seems to me to be convincing.
All in all, this is probably a worthwhile addition if one is doing a survey of several productions, but it’s not certainly in my top ten.
Bernardo: Rome Neal
Blockbuster Clerk: Bernadette Jurkowski
Claudius’ Bodyguard : John Wills Martin
Claudius: Kyle MacLachlan
Flight Captain: Tim Blake Nelson
Fortinbras: Casey Affleck
Gertrude: Diane Venora
Ghost: Sam Shepard
Gravedigger: Jeffrey Wright
Guildenstern: Dechen Thurman
Hamlet: Ethan Hawke
Horatio: Karl Geary
Laertes: Liev Schreiber
Marcella: Paula Malcomson
Ophelia: Julia Stiles
Osric: Paul Bartel
Player King: Robert MacNeil
Polonius: Bill Murray
Priest: Robert Thurman
Rosencrantz: Steve Zahn