What Was The Question Again?

LOL, as I believe They say.

When I was doing my post the other week about Hamlet’s famous soliloquy — the To Be Or Not To Be bit — I watched a few different performances, just of that bit, before I picked David Tennant’s one to link in my post.

I couldn’t tell you why, specifically — I’m no a theatre critic nor an expert in Shakespearean acting. All I can say is that his delivery of the lines kind of resonated the most — though that’s not to imply any of the others were bad. I’d be on dodgy ground calling a Proper Actor — doing Shakespeare no less — anything short of awesome when I can’t even manage to be an Improper Actor.

As it were.

But it was interesting to see the different styles as the actors read out those famous first lines, “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” The different intonations; the emphasis — the mood the actor tries to convey in the words. Of course the mood is consistently ‘Hamlet’ — in other words, it’s invariably as grim as All Get Out — but there’s a lot of nuance in the way the actor in question expresses the grim. David Tennant’s version as linked is quiet; anxious; weary, as he almost whispers the words into the dark. Benedict Cumberbatch injects the words with a great agitation in his 2014 performance: more pronounced diction and a tremor in the voice suggests the prince is, at least at first, almost trying to force himself to express the ideas out loud. Kenneth Branagh stands before a mirror, glaring at himself and kind of challenging himself to answer the question: his speech is stern, staccato, the words directed straight at his own reflection. Paapa Essiedu in 2018 presents a broken man, his voice ringing with despair and barely containing himself, and by the end his words are stinging with frustration and anger.

Each one of these brings a unique tone to the words, and I wonder how much is their own instinctive reading, their own understanding, and how much is directed. These examples are professional actors who are surely very familiar with the work so I’ve no doubt they’ve all had a great deal of experience interpreting that speech. But then, what if you get a director who has a very particular emphasis in mind?

What is the question any… way?

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