Saturday, September 12, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Zeffirelli 90

Zeffirelli likes to play fast and loose with the play's scene structure, upending certain lines, changing the sequence of scenes around, and turning single scenes into multiple ones. Act I Scene 2, which I have split into three, Zeffirelli splits into five, not to mention one of its lines thrown to the prologue/de facto Scene 1. The overall effect is to stretch the timeline of events. They don't all occur at the same time, but spaced over a vague period of time. At the same time, Zeffirelli reduces many lines to their barest essentials, which of course changes our reading of the play.The first sequence is, as traditional, the wedding banquet before the Court. The throne room is huge, a real seat of power, and the royals rather far from the Court. Though Claudius speaks, it is Gertrude we watch for signs of affection. Glenn Close plays her as a little nervous, but definitely content.
Again, this version of the play intimates that the two have had an affair prior to Hamlet Sr.'s death, or that she at least knows she jumped beds rather quickly after his passing. She is nervous to see if the Court will agree or afraid of the gossip.

Ian Holm's Polonius is rather austere here and doesn't get a line, but his demeanor nonetheless reveals something about him and the situation.
He's the one who stands in front of the Court and moves them to rise when the speech is over. He is very much the one pulling the political strings and because he controls the Court, there's the inference that the Court needs to be controlled. Are the courtiers easy to manipulate (or eager to be manipulated), explaining why there is no dissension in the ranks? Or is there something sinister in Polonius' look that speaks to some threat made on the king's behalf?

Notable cuts: The Norway subplot is absent from the film, so there is no need for Cornelius and Voltimand. That was expected. There is a missing line, however. In this version, Claudius does not thank the Court for having freely gone with the affair. This might indicate that the Court WAS threatened in some way and it has not FREELY sided with Claudius. This makes him one of the more villainous Claudiuses.

Change of Venue: Laertes
Zeffirelli has Laertes' wish to leave Denmark take place in a whole other scene. Time has obviously passed, drawing out how long Hamlet remains in his melancholy state, but also making Laertes a bit less eager to go. In the play as written, Laertes witnesses the wedding and immediately wants to return to France, speaking to the ambiguous relationship with the king revealed in the BBC staging. Note that the encounter also happens behind closed doors, not in public. It no longer occurs before the Court (so nothing is modified for "appearances"), and no longer before Hamlet (so not a slap in the face, either public or private).

And here, villainy is far from Alan Bates' performance. I'll admit to not liking his Claudius which, in large part due to the cuts, is rather two-dimensional. But if there's a scene that redeems him for me, it's this one. Claudius is affable, warm and full of good humor. If it were not for the creepy stare and delivery in the movie's first scene, we would not understand Hamlet's reaction. Perhaps Claudius is simply good humored because he is basking in his victory. "Ask me anything, for I can DO anything." But as discussed previously, it is totally correct to portray Claudius as being more familial with Polonius' family than he is with his own.

Nathaniel Parker's Laertes, for his part, is a fresh-faced, almost naive youth, awed by power and reverent. We do not feel any fear in his demeanor, and his character is generally lighter than some other performances.
Notable cuts: "You cannot speak of reason to the Dane and lose your voice." This line has several functions. First, it reveals Claudius' pragmatism (or the image he has of himself as a pragmatist), the clockwork logic that led to his fratricide and will inform his ploys at the end of the play. Second, it has an ironic undertone. What is reasonable in this disjointed state? These nuances are lost, but they don't affect our understanding of the play. Claudius also fails to say that "The head is not more native to the heart...t than is the throne of Denmark to thy father", downplaying his connection with Polonius, and Polonius' role in his political rise to power. Finally, Laertes does not consider Claudius a "dread lord", but more importantly, omits the words "that duty done". As mentioned above, this Laertes is not afraid of the king and even has warm feelings towards his "kindly uncle" (we can again look at Laertes and Hamlet as brothers).

The overall effect of Laertes' demeanor in this scene is to hide Claudius' villainy. Is Zeffirelli trying to play it as a reveal for audiences that do not know the story? Possible, since this was a high profile Mel Gibson project possibly meant to be larger audiences' "first Hamlet".

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