The slow process of transforming "Hamlet" from a string of pretty speeches into a play -- a play loaded with mystery, action and confrontation -- grinds on.
The BBC/Time-Life "Hamlet" (8 p.m. tonight on Channel 26) is a lively, no-nonsense production that discards many a blustery tradition. This latest installment in the six-year plan to commit Shakespeare to videotape is distinguished by an above-the-title star (Derek Jacobi of "I, Claudius"), by the decision to do the whole play -- three-and-a-half commercial-free hours long -- and by a general unwillingness to let the speechifying obscure the story.
When Jacobi comes to weigh the relative merits of being and not being, for example, he seems to feel no burden to mark the speech as one of the theater's immortal soliloquies (by decibel-power, tilt of head, volume of spit or any of the usual means). It is, to him, just a speech, and he has approached it by asking some mundane but useful actor's questions:
Is Hamlet truly on the brink of suicide, or just getting more deeply into the melancholia act he has been affecting for his stepfather's benefit? Does he know his words are overheard -- by Claudius, Polonius and Ophelia? And when he itemizes the pros and cons of self-slaughter, does he mean them in earnest, or is he playing some sort of forensic game?
Jacobi told a newspaper interviewer recently that he had hoped to deliver "To be or not to be" not as a soliloquy at all, but as an address to Ophelia -- perhaps a gloomy form of flirtation. Unfortunately, director Rodney Bennett would have none of it and insisted on the now-standard TV convention of having a head-and-shoulders Hamlet speak to the camera (although Jacobi is allowed to glimpse Lalla Ward, as Ophelia, in the midst of his delivery). This was an unfortunate compromise, since Jacobi's way would allow the character to show a bit of feeling for Ophelia before he turns against her and directs her to the nearest nunnery.
But otherwise this is a bold and venturesome production, full of memorable images. Hamlet actually wrestles with his mother (Claire Bloom) in bed, and seems ready either to kill or rape her as he confronts her with her offenses; the mad Ophelia startles her brother (David Robb) by kissing him on the lips; the Ghose (Patrick Allen) appears on a great flat, empty dish (which turns out to be an all-purpose exterior setting), and looks a bit like Darth Vader in the Danish fog; and the climactic sword fight, instead of degenerating into the usual incomprehensible hodgepodge of blows and blood, is played with unexpected vigor, so that the story gets more involving when it might get less.
Some of the supporting performances are BBC-standard, straight-down-the-fairway stuff, but Patrick Stewart and Claire Bloom make Claudius and Gertrude an inspiringly devoted couple, and Stewart (whose head looks rather like a fuzzy white Christmas tree ornament) is particularly strong, coating the murderous king in a layer of public charm and self-confidence that disappears when he is alone. Other standouts are Robb, a suitably Errol-Flynn-like Laertes (and thus a vivid reminder to Hamlet of his own blunted passion), Robert Swann as Horatio and Tim Wylton as the gravedigger.
As for Jacobi, this splendid actor has been playing the part, on and off, for the last three years -- in China, among other places. He may, in fact, have played it one time too many, for in his desire to carve out a new interpretation, he not only resists getting swept up in the language, but tends to drown Hamlet's wit and charm in petulance and self-loathing. This is a none-too-appealing Hamlet who tends to whine and bleat a lot. But whatever Jacobi does, he does with tremendous authority, and those who recall him as the wan and crippled Caesar-to-be of "I, Claudius" will be surprised by how young, broad, blond and robust he looks here. He is a smallish Hamlet, but if anyone suggests he is too small, he has only to point to the line in which Shakespeare has him describe Claudius as "no more like my father than I am to Hercules."