Whatever Shakespeare had in mind when he pictured Elsinore, it probably wasn’t Mill Hill. Yet, back in June, it was in this north London suburb that David Tennant, Patrick Stewart and the cast of the RSC’s blockbuster 2008 Hamlet reassembled to make a film of their pro­duction for BBC2. St Joseph’s College, a 19th-century missionary school that was put up for sale three years ago and has been mothballed ever since, was their Danish royal palace. It sits on an incongruous knoll just beside the A1; had you happened to be driving past in June, the only clue that this was where the theatrical event of 2008 was being retooled for Christmas TV in 2009 was the presence of security guards, stationed at the gate to keep the Whovians out.

Nobody can quite agree what exactly this retooling has created, but they know they like it. Put it to Patrick Stewart that this is a straight record of the play, a nice way to preserve his Claudius in aspic, and you’ll get a suitably dismissive eyebrow-raise: “We were in no way filming a stage production, because none of us wanted to do that. Putting on film a stage production, I think, is hopeless and artificial.”

Even so, the imprint of the stage production is everywhere, as you might expect: Tennant’s Hamlet was a monster hit for the RSC. Greg Doran directs, as he did before. The cast is here in its entirety and the shooting script, based largely on the second quarto, runs a full three hours, with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Fortinbras and the oft-cut Reynaldo all present and correct, just as on stage. Music, costumes and props will also be familiar to anyone who saw the RSC production. Even poor Yorick’s skull is the same as the one used a year ago in the theatre — that of the concert pianist Andre Tchaik­owsky, who bequeathed it to the RSC for theatrical use. (A “skull-wrangler” accompanied Tchaikowsky down from Stratford, and back again, in his box.)

So, definitely not a straight record of the stage production, but manifestly a scion of the same stock. Stewart calls it “in every sense a film”, but it’s not, not in every sense. No sound stages, computer graphics, tricksy camera­work or special effects were involved. It was shot in three weeks, which in Hollywood terms is barely time to put flowers in the trailers. And in normal films, the cast don’t spend the best part of six months performing in front of live audiences before their parts are committed to film.

What a piece of work is this, then? Most obviously, it is the stage play sent on location. About half of the action, including the first big court scene and Hamlet’s climactic duel with Laertes, was filmed in St Joseph’s chapel, now deconsecrated, complete with the shiny black floor that was a feature of the stage production. The rest was filmed around the college, with the cloisters doubling as the battlements where Hamlet sees his father’s ghost and the corridors and anterooms used as dimly lit chambers in which Hamlet’s introspection ferments. The only exterior shots took place in the quad.

“Look, that’s where we buried Ophelia,” says the producer, John Wyver, pointing at a huge pile of earth next to an open grave as he gives me the tour. “I think we’ve got a location that gives this a fantastic sense of space and place,” he adds. “You feel like you’re in rooms, corridors, large spaces — you get a kind of concrete quality, rather than going off to black, which is what you get when you film on a sound stage.”

This Hamlet is filmed with a single camera, as in a movie, as opposed to the multiple cameras you associate with older Shakepearian crossovers and with Play for Today. The camera itself is a Red digital (“It’s like HD, but better,” Wyver says), used to bring out detail that could not be seen in the theatre.

That is important. “Even though they finished playing this in mid-January, the cast still knows it incredibly well,” Wyver says. “Over those 100-plus performances, David and Patrick developed an incredible level of detail and nuance and particularity of reactions and responses. They can bring that to the location, the kind of stuff you just don’t get when you put a rehearsal together the day before [as a feature film would do].
I think it’s much denser in those terms.”

“It’s funny doing it,” Tennant says, “because you know it well, but at the same time you’re slightly rediscovering it for a camera. It's all a bit closer, which I like.”

Wyver adds: “This is neither a straight­forward record of the theatre piece nor a movie. It’s a very particular kind of approach. What we’re not trying to do is make a movie of Hamlet. We’re trying to make a film of the stage production, and there are very, very few direct comparisons.” That might sound like DVD commentary blurb, but, watching them at work, you sense that Wyver might be on to something. This is not like normal filming. There is much less of the stop-start, piecemeal pedantry that can make being on set feel about as dramatically intense as five hours in an airport lounge. They are filming about 10 minutes of screen time a day, which in film terms — where two minutes a day is a good clip — counts as warp speed.

In performance terms, that brings a palpable intensity. I watch the scene from Act III in which Hamlet, with dagger, catches sight of Claudius praying and ponders whether or not to kill him (“Now might I do it pat...”). There is hardly anyone in St Joseph’s chapel. Stewart and Tennant don’t have scripts or prompts — their lines and movements are so well drilled as to be instinctive. Between takes, Stewart mutters and Tennant paces, but nobody talks and the lights stay low. Wouldn’t you know it?
It’s a bit like being at the theatre.

If there are, as Wyver suggests, few direct comparisons for what they are trying to do, then the reason they’re trying to do it is less of a mystery. As the RSC discovered when the stage door at Stratford was blockaded nightly, casting Doctor Who brings in a whole new crowd. “I think this production is a particularly immediate, direct and accessible Hamlet,” Wyver says. “David Tennant’s a bloody good actor as well, but of course the RSC casting him is in part wanting to bring in a younger audience.”

The television film could not have happened without Tennant’s help. His initial RSC performances met with great acclaim, but a back problem in December last year led him to miss much of the play’s West End run. “David was really gutted that he missed those performances,” Wyver says, “and he really wanted a film version made.”

“It was done with a lot of love and enthusiasm, from those of us who were keen to have a record of it,” says Tennant. “It’s what’s great about the theatre — but it’s also what’s frustrating. When the run ends, it’s gone.

So the fact that we could all get back... I mean, if anybody hadn’t been available, I don’t think we would have done it.”

By anybody, of course, he means himself and Patrick Stewart. The production company managed to persuade the BBC and the RSC that this might be a good idea, but the likelihood of getting two of our biggest names on the same set at the same time within a matter of months was minuscule. Tennant, however, took a month out of his schedule to coincide with Stewart being in London for Waiting for Godot. Each day, they would finish filming at five, whereupon Stewart would shapeshift from Claudius in St Joseph’s to Vladimir at the Haymarket in the space of two hours.

Stewart, in particular, finds himself increasingly involved in this kind of augmented stage production. The company that made Hamlet, Illuminations, is now filming Stewart’s acclaimed Macbeth on location in the Midlands. As with Hamlet, the cast is returning wholesale, as is the director, Rupert Goold. The intention, once again, is to retain the integrity of the stage show, but open the house doors to millions, not thousands.
“If the Hamlet is successful,” says Stewart, “and if we bring off the Macbeth as well, I hope it will encourage companies like the BBC and ITV to take a bit of a gamble — it doesn’t cost that much, and there’s so little of this kind of drama on television now, compared to how it used to be. I’m hopeful that this television transmission might just be the highest-rated Shakespeare play ever on television.”

Hamlet is on BBC2 on Boxing Day at 5.05pm

Credit:  Benji Wilson The Sunday Times