A 'Hamlet' fit for the small screen

Once is not enough for an actor who plays the melancholy Dane. There is always more to discover about "Hamlet," about the character, and about the play's treasure of insights into human nature. The play still separates the men from the boys among actors.

"I have a vep2-s1ry personal relationship with this play," says actor/director Campbell Scott. "I've played it twice on stage … this play sticks with you. I couldn't get rid of it…."

So now he has performed the role a third time - this time for television's Odyssey Channel (Sunday, Dec. 10, 7-10 p.m.). The production was completed on a shoestring budget in 29 days of shooting. Mr. Scott, who also directs the film, projects as much warmth and intelligence in the role as he does in an interview.

"There is something so large and so detailed and so idiosyncratic and so delicate about this play that it changes as you change," the actor/director explains. "Either as an audience member over the years or as an actor, as your life experiences change, you take different things away with you."

He jokes that the easiest role in the play is the title role - because Hamlet has all the good lines.

"There are many things I like about the character [of Hamlet] - he's not a classic hero," Scott says. "He's funny - witty - he complains a lot, he wants to act, but doesn't. He is an intellectual who is grasping around for the right thing to do, and many people can identify with that."

But there are differences between doing "Hamlet" on film and performing it on stage. On stage, there is immediate feedback from the audience, many of whom know the play and are eager to hear the lines again. Even those who have never seen the play know so many of its lines because they have become part of our idiom: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." "To be or not to be, that is the question." "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." And many more.

"Hamlet" on screen is much tougher for the audience than it is on stage. "Words, words, words …," as the prince himself says. And while there are murders, sword fights, a scary ghost, and a couple of love stories, it's still the words that dominate. And yet film is largely a visual medium.

Of the other "Hamlets" available on the small screen - from Sir Laurence Olivier's excruciatingly Freudian interpretation (1948) to Nicole Williamson's intellectual Hamlet (1969) to Mel Gibson's charmingly manic mishmash (1990) to Kenneth Branagh's lavish, more exact reading (1996) - each actor and director has brought out nuances, emphasized different insights into human nature, and told the truth as he saw it.

And the truth is in the details of this particular revenge tragedy. Nowhere is that more clear than in Derek Jacobi's no-frills videotaped 1980 BBC production in which Hamlet's mental process is so honestly laid bare. And yet, as great a Hamlet as Jacobi was, the production does not work as television. Virtually no thought was taken for the demands of the small screen. It was simply a taped play, a mere document of a brilliant performance.

On the other hand, Branagh's luxurious visuals are far more suited to the large screen than the small - his version is too crowded with visual detail to work well as TV either.

But Scott's Hamlet does work as television. Every scene is nicely composed and layered enough to stimulate the eye - but not so crowded with gorgeous fripperies that we are overwhelmed by them congesting the small screen.

And his honest, intelligent approach to the role suits the nature of television. He does not "play to the back row." Scott's performance is intimate, intuitive, and highly accessible without condescending to the TV audience. Yes, he's changed a word here and there, where the meaning of a word has changed: "I'll make a ghost of him who lets me" becomes "stops me." And a few of your favorite lines may be missing. But what he has eliminated (for the sake of time) makes sense.

"It's easy to impose your own ideas on the play, but Shakespeare has already done the work … your job is to step out of the way," Scott says.

The turn-of-the-century look of the production is vaguely American, also dressed down to suit the strictures of the small screen. All the actors are American. LisaGay Hamilton makes a marvelous Ophelia - breathtakingly modest and vulnerable through the first part of the play. Then in her mad scene, she underscores the truth she tells with a razor's edge of anger. Roscoe Lee Browne's Polonius is no fool - he is an elder statesman of an earlier, more courteous era.

Scott says he did not deliberately cast for racial diversity. He wanted Ms. Hamilton for Ophelia. Mr. Browne, a longtime family friend, agreed to play Polonius. And Roger Guenveur Smith was cast as Laertes. But the fact that the famous family is played by African-American actors only lends a new meaning and depth to their roles.

At last, a "Hamlet" fit for the tube.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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