Minimalist 'Hamlet' is decent production, despite shrillness

November 02, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

There is one major problem with the "Great Performances" staging of "Hamlet" at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67): Kevin Kline borrows too much from the 1948 film performance of Laurence Olivier.

Who wouldn't, you say.

Who wouldn't, indeed. But Olivier, great as he was, was never very good on television. His best work simply played too big for the smaller and more intimate television screen. He was too big in gesture, voice and presence.

One of the ways Olivier so effectively communicated the anguish of the young prince, for example, was through speeches where his cadence would pick up speed and the voice would rise until it was up an octave or more and starting to crack into a kind of banshee wail. In a theater or on a huge movie screen with sophisticated audio, it's a highly effective way to make the audience's flesh crawl with the feeling of Hamlet's near or already-here madness.

But when Kline does it in tonight's television production, it has a very different effect. You want to say, "OK, Hamlet, calm down. What are you hollering for? I'm sitting right here in front of you. I don't know what Hecuba was to him or he to Hecuba."

That said, this three-hour production is still pretty fine television. It's a television adaptation of the New York Shakespeare Festival production. The set design is stark and existential -- gray rock wall and pillars, red curtains, stages and more stages, doors and openings leading only to fog. It is almost always the dark night of the soul, with the colors of black and gray everywhere. The costumes are of no identifiable period -- though they are more contemporary than Elizabethan. The minimalism of stage and costume focuses attention on the rich language of the play and the work of the actors.

Kline has a range that even some of his most ardent film fans may not have imagined. The tension and interplay between his Hamlet and Josef Sommer's Polonius is deliciously comic and terribly sad. This isn't a landmark "Hamlet." But it's an involving one.

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