Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, guided by Franco Zeffirelli, is by no means a sustained great performance but it’s one hellofva try and thus respectable. If you’re a Shakespeare purist, you’ll argue successfully there isn’t much left of the tormented prince because Zeffirelli trimmed or eliminated much of the text; in short, this Hamlet has been synopsized. If you were one of the those whose juices flowed while watching Gibson (when he was in his prime), nothing will matter except that he’s in it. This is the gamble the director took: utilizing the actor’s comeliness, he edited the play to make a 90s interpretation of Hamlet as sex-obsessed. The risk eventually pays off: while the first 45 minutes are bogged down by too many close-ups of Gibson, and while his clownish bouncing from one balcony or castle’s ledge to another may even make us recoil, as soon as we get to the play-within-the-play revelation about Hamlet’s mother’s sudden wedding to the brother of her recently deceased husband (Paul Scofield in magnificent voice), there’s a transformation. It’s as if Gibson’s energy—and Hamlet’s realization of the perfidy permitting the marriage that is now public ridicule—transport us into an altogether different movie. We reel from the incestuous charge between this Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, played by Glenn Close, who, in her Lady Godiva do, is so absolutely thrilling that she causes an outbreak of gooseflesh. Flabby in the morals department no matter whose version, Close’s Gertrude seems to have a not-so-secret thing for her son; if it’s contestable that Shakespeare intended the hots, could Close have played her any other way? (When she kisses Gibson, what else but lust could rise?) Zeffirelli said that he wanted to make Hamlet after seeing Gibson in Lethal Weapon, bravely assessing that Olivier’s Hamlet was “too soft, too much like a ballerina. A wonderful piece of theatre, but you wouldn’t believe for a moment that he was the Prince of Denmark.” (Robert Helpmann in fact did perform the play as ballet.) Highly competent as Gibson is, there are a few difficulties we have to get past—like his brownish blond hair and its almost contemporary cut. We’d rather hear and appreciate the verbiage but our eyes get distracted by the coif and we wonder “Why?” In the superb poster-advertisement there’s a more fitting darker-haired prince. (Trivia experts note that Olivier is blond in his 1948 Oscar winner, and Kenneth Branagh in his version is too.) But Zeffirelli’s gift is the delirious worship of the physical, as he showed with The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet; he’s got it real bad for the beautiful people. Lamentable as the crushes may be, they’re probably the only way to get large numbers into theatres to see Shakespeare. (According to statisticians who calculate these kinds of things, the director seems to have proved it: more people have supposedly seen his three Bard movies than all of the productions of his plays performed throughout history.) For those who worry about Zeffirelli’s infamous overdosing of Cimmerian effects, relax: this production is fairly free of the dusty tapestries and oppressive junkiness that have been deluxe in his filmed operas. In fact, some of it is cheesy: as Claudius, Alan Bates wears a brown fur cape that’s like a K-Mart bathroom rug, and Close wears a blue-green frock that could be a heavily laundered chenille bedspread. Perhaps Zeffirelli had visions of Twitter and Instagram, as his production is tailored to zapper-minded audiences who want Shakespeare condensed and headlined as mixture of hyperdrama and pre-Freudian sexology—a disposable compost of barbaric glory and disease.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.