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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

34. Bill Colleran and John Gielgud’s Hamlet (1964)

As I mentioned last week, The Globe’s film of its stage show of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a vibrant romp in Renaissance style.

The film of Richard Burton’s performance as Hamlet on Broadway is, on the other hand, an exercise in drab modernity.

Hamlet 1The film was directed by Bill Colleran, but the stage play Colleran was filming was directed by John Gielgud, who apparently directed by whim.

Famously, this version uses a sparse stage, and the actors wore street clothes, to give the story an air of being a rehearsal. What meta-theatrical context is there, then, for this Hamlet, by these towering talents of Burton and Gielgud? There doesn’t seem to be any.

The aesthetic messages of these choices seems just to say that this is not fucking Camelot.

Burton had performed in Camelot on Broadway in its legendary, original run. The musical was beloved by John F. Kennedy, and after he was assassinated in 1963, it would be used to craft the narrative of his brief, youthful, tragic, optimistic presidency.

Bill Colleran filmed this Hamlet in black and white, which makes the thing look even drabber than the stage version.

This was 1964, the same year that Burton starred in Beckett and The Night of the Iguana. Maybe he should have taken a break.

I mean, I can imagine vulgarians smacking their lips at the chance to see Richard Burton do Hamlet, but Richard Burton is a bit spastic and very stentorian here, almost like he is doing his impression of Richard Burton overacting in Hamlet. He likes to SCREAM in his WELSH ACCENT.

HE LIKES TO SCREAM IN HIS WELSH ACCENT!

I adore Burton, which makes it strange to watch around him in this iteration of Hamlet.

Hume Cronyn plays Polonius well. He seems like a fond father of both his children, and his finicalness and officiousness comes off as more noble than foolish.

Hamlet 6Linda Marsh is a fine Ophelia, finding a compelling balance between asserting her view of the world and her obedience to the patriarchs who impose a different view of the world upon her. It is the irreconcilable gulf between these two sides of herself that will destroy Ophelia, which is why a Hamlet can survive a mediocre Hamlet, but not a mediocre Ophelia, whose mad scene will not allow for mediocrity.

Hamlet 7Marsh preens herself, gazes at the round paddle of a fan as if it were a mirror, proves her feminine equilibrium during Ophelia’s mad scene, her voice quivering, her eyes flitting without purpose, still trying to be the perfect young woman.

And then she scuttles off, leaving us with Claudius and Gertrude. Hmmmm.

Eileen Herlie’s Gertrude comes off as a cipher, and Alfred Drake’s Claudius about the same. They are more drab furniture. I’ve seen better acting out of the puppets on Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood.

John Collum is a likeable Laertes, for what it’s worth.

Had Burton squatted center stage clutching Yorick’s skull for three hours without uttering a word, the effect would have somehow been better.

Hamlet 8I can see it now: Andy Warhol’s Hamlet.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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