Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - BBC 80

Part of the BBC's Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare collection, this production directed by Rodney Bennett is a studio-bound, multi-camera affair that almost uses the integral text. There are some cuts, mostly a line here and there, but sometimes more important. I won't forget to mention them.

Setting the Scene
This version's exterior scenes are particularly minimalist, and yet extremely dramatic. Denmark is represented as a fogbound, snowy plain with a far-off horizon. An empty studio floor painted white, basically. Bleak is a word that comes to mind, which is certainly appropriate, a luminous but empty background against which shadowy figures are heavily contrasted.The soldiers are somewhat unconvincing, or a little bit too jaded, not all that afraid of the Ghost when it appears, or easily recovering from the shock. Marcellus' "It faded on the crowing of the cock" speech is delivered so matter-of-factly, it loses the awe for the supernatural it usually holds. These soldiers are simple people, not thinkers or even folk philosophers.

Robert Swann's Horatio plays well this unbeliever who even chuckles at the soldiers' claims and so is then profoundly disturbed by the Ghost's manifestation.
Sadly, his Roman streets speech has been cut, neglecting the paganism that comes with studying classical texts, as both he and Hamlet must have done.

A couple of lines jumped out at me here that make me mistrust Horatio in the role of the chorus here (though the performance is sincere). When making the ID, so to speak, of the King, one has to wonder if Horatio was ever on the battlefield. As a scholar, it wouldn't seem so, but he knows just how Hamlet Sr. frowned when he smote the Polacks. That's a very clear detail. The potential answer is in this passage:

Who is't that can inform me?
HORATIO: That can I;
At least, the whisper goes so.

I'd never really thought about the punctuation (funny how the stops in a line reading can make you see all sorts of new things), and presumed it was "The whisper goes so: Our last king, Whose image even but now appear'd to us..." It isn't. The whisper (rumor or story) isn't about the King, it's about Horatio being knowledgeable. "I can inform you, or so they say." Is Horatio admitting to being a teller of tall tales? An embellisher? Someone who speaks first hand of things he has only second-hand knowledge of? It could explain his intelligence on the Polack wars as well as how he fills in the details of Hamlet's story after the play. Those that would make him out to be a more sinister character can also find a way in through these lines. For Shakespeare, it may just be part of his continued juxtaposition of reality and play, a subversion of the story's historical roots.

The Ghost
Due to the production's technical limits, the Ghost is created simply with lighting and Patrick Allen's performance. Sadly, he feels a bit like an armored zombie, shambling across the stage, and that's mostly due to sound. You can hear the steps and the clinks of the armor from the on stage sound, giving altogether too much reality to this creature of the ether. In a sense, and combined with the soldiers' performances, this is a less phantasmagorical Denmark. The Ghost is solid and the people take their superstitions for granted.

Three things to notice about the staging of this scene:
1) The cock actually crows. For some reason, other films have been loathe to include a sound effect.
2) The fog is well used to make the Ghost appear in different places as the soldiers shout "'Tis here!", creating a confusion that would not be so easy to produce on stage (unless you had multiple actors doing the Ghost... not a bad idea).
3) The transition between this scene and the next. Applause from the wedding scene overlaps with the end of Scene 1. A slightly jarring, but I think appropriate, reminder that this is theater. Does make it seem like the director is giving his first scene an ovation though.


Pout said...

I'm amazed that you can still find new and interesting things about this play that you had never realized, even after going throught it dozens of times.

Siskoid said...

That's the magic of it. And still 2more full films to go, followed by other media. I'm sure I'll come to other realizations there. And this isn't even a "big" scene!