1990: Kevin Kline
This is a filmed production based closely on a stage version of the play, specifically Joseph Papp’s 1990 production for the New York Shakespeare Festival. It has generalized costuming, minimal sets, and props include guns and other twentieth-century trappings. Still, it’s just a generalized setting, not an attempt to force it into some other time period in order to make it into something that it’s not.
One problem that attends almost all modern performances of Hamlet is the extensive cutting that takes place. This version runs to almost three hours, which, while not perhaps quite enough, is still more capacious than most of the rest. Not a lot of time is taken up with wordless action sequences, either, so that what time there is can be given to the dialogue.
The success of any production of Hamlet (unsurprisingly) depends on the performance of the title role. One can perform Henry IV, Part 1 without a great actor as Henry IV (Prince Hal is more significant), or Julius Caesar without a great Caesar. Without a good Hamlet, though, this play will completely collapse. Where all the main parts are well managed, though, it has a unique magic. Kevin Kline in 1990 was also extremely fit (his performance of the Pirate King in the 1983 version of The Pirates of Penzance is awe-inspiring in its athleticism), and his physical acting of the role is full of energy.
The subtlety of some of Hamlet’s lines occasionally seems to elude Kline. He is a singer, and he relishes the music of the poetry, but occasionally his devotion to Hamlet’s lyricism obscures the overall content of what he’s saying (for example, in the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech (usually II.ii), he gets a bit carried away with histrionics, while obfuscating the meticulous self-examination that underlies it.) Overall, however, he’s very good at capturing the intelligence and irony of Hamlet’s lines. He moderates his diction between his internal and more reflective deliveries and a boisterous declamatory style in other situations.
The remainder of the cast is sound, and occasionally brilliant. Diane Venora plays Ophelia with finesse, and in her interactions with Hamlet she impressively holds her own, conveying both the confusion and pain that has descended upon her for no reason she can understand. (Venora had the curious distinction of playing Hamlet in the same festival seven years earlier, and she played Gertrude in the 2000 Michael Almereyda film.) Her rendition of the mad Ophelia strikes me as initially brilliant, but eventually as somewhat too wild, but that’s a matter of taste.
Claudius carries himself as an established, self-satisfied, and self-justifying bureaucrat. Josef Sommer’s Polonius is canonically perfectly acceptable, though I believe that the character has more on the ball than is normally thought: he is not merely a buffoon. (David Ball’s exploration of Polonius in his Backwards and Forwards is, I think, completely correct.) Dana Ivey brings a cool elegance to the role of Gertrude that is not compromised by the Oedipal nonsense that preoccupied Zeffirelli.
This may not be the definitive version of Hamlet. Odds are good that there isn’t and won’t ever be any such thing, and perhaps that itself is all to the good. But it’s within the bounds of the reasonable, solidly performed and conceived, and definitely worth seeing.
Bernardo; Lucianus: Rene Rivera
Claudius: Brian Murray
Fortinbras: Don Reilly
Francisco; Gravedigger; Player: MacIntyre Dixon
Gertrude: Dana Ivey
Ghost; Priest: Robert Murch
Guildenstern: Reg E. Cathey
Hamlet: Kevin Kline
Horatio: Peter Francis James
Laertes: Michael Cumpsty
Lord: Kenton Benedict
Marcellus; Sailor; Player: Bill Camp
Norwegian Captain; Soldier: Larry Green
Ophelia: Diane Venora
Osric: Leo Burmester
Player King; Lord: Clement Fowler
Player Queen; Lady-in-Waiting: Tanny McDonald
Polonius: Josef Sommer
Rosencrantz: Phillip Goodwin
Servant; Messenger: Erik Knutsen
Soldier: Curt Hostetter
Soldier: David Landon
Soldier: Joseph M. Costa
Voltimand: Tom Klunis