I have always had a bit of an issue with reading plays intended for theatrical performance. Given that these texts are almost entirely dialogue, it can occasionally be difficult to determine the exact tone of the characters and their actions. Because of the inherently unsubtle nature of the theater (as the actors need to speak loudly enough to display their emotions to the entire audience), I tend to read the dialogue of a play in a fairly dramatic tone whether the scene calls for such a reading or not. Take, for instance, the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 1 of Hamlet. It is a powerful speech from a character who is grappling with a great deal of anxiety and depression over his situation; it calls for a measured and understated performance, yet my brain has always unwillingly visualized the exact opposite. Seeing the scene performed by David Tennant in a television film adaptation of the play (link to the scene provided below) ended this issue for me, as he and director Gregory Doran perfectly capture the essence of the character and the scene through Tennant’s low-key performance of the speech and Doran’s minimalist approach to directing it.
The camera maintains a close-up shot on Tennant’s face (first from behind and then up front) throughout the entire speech, which immediately displays its intense focus on only the most essential elements of the scene. Apart from his initial entrance into the main area, Tennant barely moves a muscle throughout his speech; in addition, his voice barely ever raises above a whisper, and his tone is one of absolute exhaustion. Some viewers might wish for a more outward display of emotion during such a critical moment of the play, but Tennant’s weary performance perfectly encapsulates everything the character is going through at this time. Hamlet has experienced loss and betrayal from his family members, and these events have drastically altered his place in the universe to the point where he is seriously considering the potentially positive aspects of death. A person in that sort of mental state is likely to be lethargic and morose, not spirited in the way that we might expect a theater performer to play the scene. Through his minimalistic acting, Tennant effectively demonstrates the weight that Hamlet’s sorrows are placing on him. Another effective aspect of the performance occurs when Tennant reaches the “Aye, there’s the rub” part of the soliloquy. At that moment, there is a small shift in his eyes that puts his line of vision directly towards the camera – and by extension, towards the viewer. As he goes on to wonder about the mysteries of what might occur after death, it is as though he is looking into our souls and speaking directly to our own fears about that very issue. The soliloquy is powerful enough on its own, but that small detail adds a potent personal touch to it that makes it even more impactful.
Other adaptations of the play tend to dramatize the scene in one way or another. Kenneth Branagh, for instance, performs the scene in front of a mirror and pulls out a dagger mid-speech. Other versions of the play (such as the ones starring Laurence Olivier, who also pulls out a knife during the speech, and Mel Gibson) depict the scene taking place in a flashier setting (a cliffside for Olivier and a tomb for Gibson). And many of the different versions feature dramatic music accompanying the scene (rather laughably so in the Olivier version). Virtually all of the actors also speak in a much more theatrical tone. Many of these performances are fine in their own right, but they needlessly rely on these outside elements to demonstrate Hamlet’s state of mind. Doran and Tennant do not use these or any other methods to artificially increase the drama of the scene; instead, they rely solely on the power of the words and the performance to display Hamlet’s inner turmoil. That restraint proves to be an incredibly effective creative choice, as it allows them to give us the perfect version of this iconic scene.
Link to scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYZHb2xo0OI