Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

42. Mark Olshaker’s Discovering Hamlet (1990)

Documentaries about Shakespeare tend to bore me, as they must. I may be a rogue, but I do have some bona fide academic credentials, and most documentaries cannot gracefully bridge the needs of the novice Shakespeare viewer and the not-novice. If there was an A&E Biography of Richard Burbage, I confess I would watch the shit out of that. It is one of my steadfast articles of faith that a good production of a Shakespeare play does not need interpreting from some intermediary cockalorum in order for the average viewer to get it.


And this is more or less how I felt watching Discovering Hamlet, which chronicles Derek Jacobi’s Renaissance Theatre Company’s stage production of Hamlet starring a rather young Kenneth Branagh.

discovering-hamlet-3The documentary follows the week-by-week rehearsal process, showing how Jacobi’s direction is so intensely collaborative—since he is himself such a great, veteran Shakespearean actor—that he wants his direction to fuse with the actors in performance. Nothing goes wrong with this 5 week rehearsal process; the lessons to be learned, the entertainment to be gained, is from watching the process itself just work. To make sure people who have never read or heard of Hamlet could keep up (I mean you, Trevor), the play’s plot is often summarized.

discovering-shakespeare-2Patrick Stewart narrates, and his voice is, of course, immensely enchanting, so much so that the broad nature of Discovering Hamlet’s observations almost sound interesting. One almost expects Stewart to remind us that Shakespeare was not only an Englishman, but a mammal.

Some of what is seen in Discovering Hamlet looks so exciting that one wishes Discovering Hamlet would have just been a film of, you know, Hamlet. For example, Jacobi has Hamlet perform his “to be or not to be” speech not as a soliloquy, but with Ophelia as his audience, which deepens his emotional turn in their dialogue shortly later.

discovering-hamletWatching Jacobi and his actors block out scenes and rehearse was sometimes rather fun to watch, to see how unpretentious the work of rehearsing is despite the complexity of the play. Sometimes the actors struggle to remember their lines precisely. When Jacobi gives notes to his actors, including “Ken,” he chastises him for not listening properly to his fellow actors, so that he was not reacting sufficiently to them.

I wonder if perhaps this documentary in part gave Branagh his idea for A Midwinter’s Tale, a comic story about a sort of doomed production of Hamlet.

I really do wish I could have seen a film of Jacobi’s stage version of Hamlet, for that is the most tantalizing thing of all in this rather basic documentary that treats Hamlet and even the theatre itself as almost unimaginable entities.



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.