Public television's production of "Hamlet," with Kevin Kline as the gloomy prince, shows how elegant and riveting the medium can be when it is intelligently and expertly employed. Even those who have seen the play umpteen times will hear some lines for the first time, and the uniformly excellent performances should set to rest the scurrilous canard that Americans can't talk Shakespeare. It airs tomorrow on Channel 26, at the unfortunate hour of 3 p.m.
There is no single element that stands out above all others, because the production, directed by Kline and Kirk Browning, is coherent and balanced in every respect. I admit to having trepidation at the prospect of Kline, so deft in contemporary and comic roles, as the dark prince, but he offers a finely tuned performance. He is a very physical Hamlet, rolling, writhing, tossing Ophelia around like a rag doll and weeping with abandon, but all the action is a corporeal manifestation of the character's inner turmoil. Kline is clearly in full command of his powers. This production is adapted from one first given at the New York Shakespeare Festival five years ago.
The style is spare but stately. The costumes are modern, rather like what might have been worn in a small European country in the 1950s -- except for Kline, who wears basic Hamlet black most of the time. Polonius (Josef Sommer) wears a business suit, Claudius (Brian Murray) a generic uniform with braid and medals, Gertrude (Dana Ivey) evening dresses and diamond earrings and crimson nail polish. Laertes (Michael Cumpsty) is in a gray turtleneck, and Horatio (Peter Francis James) looks like an old-fashioned Ivy Leaguer in a tweed jacket, very much the student that indeed he is.
Castle Elsinore seems suspended in fog; the characters appear in bare, cavernous rooms with planked wooden floors and stone walls, only to leave and walk offstage into a void, a great empty darkness of the soul.
Ivey, looking very Maggie Smithish, is a stunning Gertrude. Anguished but clearly something of a wimp, she is all too willing to follow power and sacrifice morality. One does not get the sense that she is irresistibly in love with her dead husband's brother, but rather that she is afraid to be alone and off the throne. Sommer, as that pompous old blabbermouth Polonius, shows what a bore the guy is but does not become so tedious that we can't understand why his daughter Ophelia starts to become unhinged after his death.
Diane Venora is quite exquisite as Ophelia, usually a thankless role that involves a lot of wailing and staggering around looking crazed. Venora invests the part with depth and delicacy, and the often-interminable mad scene becomes a chilling portrait of a breakdown.
Although the staging is clumsy at times -- as in the play-within-the-play scene, when Gertrude and Claudius are seated on the stage and the players amble around them -- for the most part it serves well. Television cannot supply the big pictures, the grand tableaux, but on the other hand it does provide intimacy, a quality particularly rewarding for this play. And the tube can display the more spectacular production numbers -- like the fight scene (the number of bodies that pile up at the end is always a surprise) and a neat backward fall off a wall that Kline executes at the end of his encounter with his ghost-father -- to excellent effect.
Kline has a bland, ordinary face that seems, at times, at odds with the tormented soul he is inhabiting. But overall he surmounts this weakness, delving deep into the psychological plumage of this most Freudian of Shakespearean youths. When he watches his mother smooching with his uncle, the terrible well of feelings this sight provokes is palpable, misery and anger vying for dominance.