Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Zeffirelli '90

By the time Claudius gets to Hamlet in this version, he's two scenes away from the wedding banquet. We've jumped once again in both time and space, as Hamlet's parents find him sitting in the dark. He shies from the light (which adds a physical sign of his being "too much i' the sun". This has the effect of actually prolonging Hamlet's grief, as we're ever farther from his father's death. The movie retains his two puns, which are here said directly at Claudius. The King is confused by the first (or he at least play-acts confusion) and Gertrude laughs at the second. We don't know Hamlet before his father's death, but we can at least imagine his great wit. With Claudius' sympathetic portrayal early in the story, it is believable that the Queen would these words as more of the same and not see what hides behind them.
Claudius' speech is cut to pieces, so he doesn't hammer home his points as harshly, and he does not chide with his tone. The mood is kept more jovial by moving the "T'is not alone my inky cloak" speech to later. Zeffirelli has orchestrated things so that Claudius remains sympathetic as long as possible. Once his shortened speech is done and he's invited to Hamlet to stay in Elsinore, Gertrude motions him to leave by giving him looks so that she can have a private chat with her son. Glenn Close is rather impish here and throughout the early part of the play - giddy and girlish - which isn't a bad choice considering that she's a thing to be manipulated by men, not an independent woman, as happy with one King as with another.
In this private chat, Hamlet delivers his inky cloak speech. As with Branagh, he make "'tis common" sound like an accusation, but Mel Gibson's Hamlet is otherwise different. Here is a Hamlet who keeps his emotions just under the surface, visceral and in the moment. When Gertrude says "Why does it seem so particular with thee", he is visibly hurt by the word "seems", inspiring that first speech. At the end of it, he turns away almost ashamed of having let this torrent out. He's easily overwhelmed, both by grief and by whatever the present emotional context is.

In this exchange, Zeffirelli also introduces a Freudian Oedipal element, something I truly dislike about some stagings of Hamlet. I agree that there is something Oedipal about the play - Hamlet is jealous of a father figure and winds up killing him - but I don't think the text actually supports an incestual urge (nor is Claudius is real father).
We can agree that kisses on the mouth are not necessarily incestuous in Hamlet's historical context, but we'll see much later how a scene between mother and son turns into a sex scene. Zeffirelli is off-piste there. Gertrude's childish nature brings her closer to her son in age (through attitude), another trick he uses to make the incest work, but again, it isn't supported by the text, and in fact would seem to be contradicted by Hamlet seeing his mother as a sexless being and by his morally judgmental Wittenberg education.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Interesting staging with Hamlet looking out his window at the "unweeded garden" (ironically, barren stonework). It ends abruptly at "Frailty, thy name is woman!" as he slams the window, once again overcome by emotion. His repulsion is too strong for him to continue speaking. This is a Hamlet who cuts himself short because of his outrage. If lines are to be cut, I'd rather it's done to make a point, like it was here.

It would be easy to dismiss movie/action star Mel Gibson, but I really do think he's got the chops to play this Hamlet. It fits him and was the first inkling of what would become possible in Braveheart and beyond. If this version is to be dismissed by connoisseurs and scholars, it should be because of Zeffirelli's attempts to dumb the play down in order to make it more commercial.


Michael May said...

I'm watching Branagh's version again and it's interesting how much it makes me want to see Zeffirelli's again. As much as I love Branagh and parts of his performance in that film, I love Gibson's performance in this even more. Like you say, it's very visceral.

And I especially prefer Ian Holmes' Polonius. I suspect that once you get to "take this from this," I won't be able to hold off watching it again.

But yeah, the Oedipal element bugs the crap out of me.

Siskoid said...

Surprisingly, I am not fond of Holm's Polonius, or at least I wasn't the last time I saw it.

But in reevaluating everything through this project, I've found that the Zeffirelli version has improved the most in my eyes, performances especially. The flaws that remain are largely because of cut text.

Michael May said...

I'll be really interested in hearing more of your thoughts on Holm as you go. My memory is that he's really good at balancing the buffoonish, comical side of Polonius with the dangerously insightful side. He lets both sides play, so you never know which Polonius you're talking to, but he's still utterly convincing that both sides exist in the same person.

In contrast, Richard Briers always seems very intent and calculating, even when he's spouting nonsense. The juxtaposition doesn't quite work for me.

Like I said, I can't wait til you get to some of the big Polonius scenes to hear your take on him. I can say the same about a few other characters though. There've been several times that I've been watching the Branagh version and thought, "I wonder what Siskoid thinks about this." :)

Siskoid said...

I hope my slow pace doesn't frustrate you then.

Just by impression and memory (even if I've seen each version multiple times) is that Polonius is not as much a buffoon in the text as he is usually portrayed. The Briars version gets its strength from that dark side. He's still a fool, but a self-important one. He manipulates, but is transparent doing so. As such, he deserves his death a lot more.

I love Holm as an actor (I believe he holds the record for actor most represented in my DVD collection) and think I'm due for a total reevaluation of his Polonius, but I don't think he's allowed much of a dark side, and it makes the character poorer.

Michael May said...

I totally get that. I hadn't considered that the darkness might be important to what happens to him.

Crap. Now I really need to dig out my old VHS copy and revisit it. :)