Saturday, August 29, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Olivier 48

Olivier's most intriguing contribution to the wedding banquet is actually the transition leading into it. The camera, which you'll remember is roving through Elsinore (is it God? the Ghost? 3rd person omniscient?), is looking for the wedding party and lands on an empty bed.This lends credence to the theory that the camera is actually the Ghost's point of view as, driven by jealousy, it takes a peek into the adulterous bedchamber.

The banquet itself is a much more stately affair, with everyone pretty much sitting around and talking. Claudius is a particular disappointment for me, Basil Sydney stiff in both posture and delivery.
Some of the blame should go to the costumes (gaudy, rather than rich), and Claudius' wide shoulders-tight tights combo is particularly ludicrous. The Court certainly contrasts with Hamlet's simple black attire in this, perhaps symbolic of Denmark's complicity in Claudius' corruption (audible in this version as they mutter in agreement a number of times through the speech). Everyone's getting rich in this new regime.

Unfortunately, Syndey doesn't play Claudius sympathetically (not uncommon, actually) which makes him more transparent as the villain. He's smug and self-satisfied. A glimmer of hope exists in his relationship to Gertrude. Does he actually love her?
His sighs denote lust for sure. He's helped along by a rather young Gertrude. Though I think she just barely pulls it off, Eileen Herlie is 11 years younger than Olivier who plays her son! Bizarre casting, but useful in establishing one of those Freudian through lines I dislike so much. The younger the Gertrude, the more sexual tension can be drawn from their Oedipal relationship. Herlie would return to the role more mature (one would think) in Richard Burton's version.

The other characters we meet here are Terence Morgan's young and enthusiastic Laertes, who should seem much changed when he returns from France with revenge in his heart.
One would hardly believe this fresh, naive face would be credible talking about cutting Hamlet's throat in a church! The success of the character will hinge on his ability to sell the character's moral downfall. His father Polonius is played as a typical "kindly old man" by Felix Aylmer.

The Cuts Continued
Just as in Scene 1, all mention of Fortinbras, Norway and the world at large has been expunged. This takes a chance to show off away from Claudius (I'll unkindly say "mercifully" here) and reduces this Courtly meeting to the essential family affairs of the day.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Branagh 96

Branagh sets the banquet in the most important set of the film, the Hall of Mirrors. This long ballroom is bright where Elsinore is often dank and each of its mirrors is a door, lending a reflective quality to spying scenes, as we'll eventually see. Claudius, played by the always excellent Derek Jacobi, fits into this world seamlessly. His bright red military uniform and bristly bleached hair allow him to revel in this kind of opulence. Not only is his red the color of blood, the blood that is on his hands, but it also identifies him as a preening peacock, full of self-love. His red contrasts Hamlet's black. He is most definitely not in mourning, but rather celebrating his brother's death.

An important bit of staging here: Claudius' opening speech is made in front of a large audience. This is his first speech as King, having taken the previous king's queen as his own. A political move that requires a certain measure of justification. Claudius excels at what today we would call "spin", as he is a creature of appearances. A false king, in power under false pretenses. Everything looks gorgeous although we know Denmark to be diseased. That is how he uses his charisma, and Jacobi's performance is a sympathetic one. The villain does not reveal himself for quite some time and you want to believe him in this early scene. Jacobi has also chosen to make his Claudius truly be in love with Gertrude, which the full text supports.
Pretty easy, you might say, since Gertrude is played by Julie Christie, a still striking woman (she certainly doesn't look 55) whose blood may not be as tame as Hamlet would have it.

Of course, he makes it plain that this would never have happened if the Court had not "freely gone with this affair along". So the whole State is complicit in this usurped throne/incestuous bond, and so it is doomed along with Claudius himself (cue Fortinbras later).

Speaking of Fortinbras, in an often cut bit, Claudius deals with him in his particular idiom, i.e. with dramatic flair and arrogance.
The Court eats it up. Claudius is media savvy, but as everyone else's unease has taught us, he may not actually be up to the challenge of defending Denmark. Here, he dismisses the threat posed by Fortinbras, misjudging the entire situation. I've noted Claudius' military dress, but all the men in the Court also wear military uniforms. In this version of the play, war is very much on everyone's minds. Denmark is a military state, and Fortinbras' movements are part of the larger campaign Hamlet Sr. took part in.

Then comes Laertes (remember, Hamlet is last and least on Claudius' agenda) played by Branagh regular, Michael Maloney.
Maloney always gives a competent performance, though I've always thought of his Laertes as a bit wishy-washy. Maybe it's the haircut. In any case, we don't get a great sense of his character here, nor of Richard Briers' Polonius or Kate Winslet's Ophelia, except that they seem to be very nice people.
If we didn't know any better, this Denmark would seem to be a nice enough place. The new King has well judged the mood of the country and appears both sympathetic to their loss and aware of what needs to be done for political stability. The presence of civilians on the balcony and way everything is handled publicly speaks to an open government, not a tyranny. How will people react when Hamlet starts acting up? This sets up a Denmark decidedly on the side of Claudius. Does it contribute to Hamlet's doubts and delays?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet

One of the challenges of doing a project like this is that some scenes are incredibly long. So I've decided to cut of them into pieces for both theme and manageability. Act I Scene 2 will be split into three: The Wedding Banquet (everything before Hamlet is named), Enter: Hamlet (through the end of his speech), and Ghost Stories (from Horatio's entrance to the end of the scene). The next batch of essays will only look at the first of these sections, holding off Hamlet's first lines until the next part. Versions of the play that have done away with Scene 1 will usually start with the banquet. How does that affect our understanding of the play?

This is also the introduction of a number of important characters - Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Laertes - so I expect to spend quite some time discussing casting. It should also be our introduction to the interior of Elsinore, which of course affects staging. But let's look at the text before doing anything else (Shakespeare's in italics, as usual).

SCENE II. A room of state in the castle.

Enter KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, HAMLET, POLONIUS, LAERTES, VOLTIMAND, CORNELIUS, Lords, and Attendants
KING CLAUDIUS: Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him,
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,--
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,--
Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr'd
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all, our thanks.

Claudius is a practical man who presents himself as someone who gets on with things. This is an important point to make about the character not only because he uses his pragmatism to convince the court of his ascendence to the throne (and one could imagine a pre-Hamlet scene in which he used his brand of logic to explain why he'd make a better King than Hamlet Jr.), but because it may well be how he could follow through on a fratricide. It also makes him the perfect nemesis for Hamlet, with an attitude that stands in stark opposition to the lead's excessively intellectual ambivalence. Claudius is King because he acts. Hamlet isn't because he doesn't.

Now follows, that you know, young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth,
Or thinking by our late dear brother's death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleagued with the dream of his advantage,
He hath not fail'd to pester us with message,
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bonds of law,
To our most valiant brother. So much for him.
Now for ourself and for this time of meeting:
Thus much the business is: we have here writ
To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras,--
Who, impotent and bed-rid, scarcely hears
Of this his nephew's purpose,--to suppress
His further gait herein; in that the levies,
The lists and full proportions, are all made
Out of his subject: and we here dispatch
You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltimand,
For bearers of this greeting to old Norway;
Giving to you no further personal power
To business with the king, more than the scope
Of these delated articles allow.
Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty.
CORNELIUS VOLTIMAND: In that and all things will we show our duty.
KING CLAUDIUS: We doubt it nothing: heartily farewell.
Exeunt VOLTIMAND and CORNELIUS

If Scene 1 was slashed in any great measure, then so will this speech which pertains to the outside world. I may still work to set up Fortinbras for the end, but seems completely useless without the Norwegian sublot. In the full play, it sets up Claudius' arrogance and the eventual loss of what his brother had won.

And now, Laertes, what's the news with you?
You told us of some suit; what is't, Laertes?
You cannot speak of reason to the Dane,
And loose your voice: what wouldst thou beg, Laertes,
That shall not be my offer, not thy asking?
The head is not more native to the heart,
The hand more instrumental to the mouth,
Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.
What wouldst thou have, Laertes?
LAERTES: My dread lord,
Your leave and favour to return to France;
From whence though willingly I came to Denmark,
To show my duty in your coronation,
Yet now, I must confess, that duty done,
My thoughts and wishes bend again toward France
And bow them to your gracious leave and pardon.
KING CLAUDIUS: Have you your father's leave? What says Polonius?
LORD POLONIUS: He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave
By laboursome petition, and at last
Upon his will I seal'd my hard consent:
I do beseech you, give him leave to go.
KING CLAUDIUS: Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!

It is noteworthy that Claudius should address Laertes' wishes before those of Hamlet. Hamlet may be next in line, but Claudius plainly puts Laertes first. This opposes Laertes and Hamlet from their first shared scene, and this will obviously carry through to the end, with Claudius acting as adoptive father to Laertes. In effect, Hamlet and Laertes are brothers, both related to the King, one by blood and the other by politics. Polonius (and thus his family) were apparently better connected to Claudius than to Hamlet Sr. (who being gone to the wars, may not have been so well attended), and has been promoted to a place of influence in this new regime. By giving Laertes favor here, Claudius shows his true colors as a political animal first. The irony, of course, is that had Polonius been more patient and thrown his support with filial rights, his daughter might well have become queen.

Another point I'd like to make about the Hamlet-Laertes rivalry is that while Hamlet studies in nearby Wittenberg, Laertes spends his time in France. That Claudius shows preference to a "son" that has been corrupted by another country, in effect prefers the Frenchman to the Dane, speaks to the weakened state he is now the head of. The country has been usurped by a pretender who does not even love it, but would corrupt it just as a debauched country has corrupted Laertes. (This is not my opinion of France, but it is Polonius', if we go by later scenes where he treats his son's soul as being in mortal danger over there.)

I'm making points here that I don't feel were particularly made by any of the film versions, though we'll see how they play out with the "filter" in place. Perhaps I never noticed because I hadn't really thought of it before. These are relatively recent realizations, once again showing how this play opens up to me in new ways every time I read or see it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - French Rock Opera

In 1976, some would say at the height of his popularity, France's "Elvis Presley", Johnny Hallyday produced a studio double-album based on Hamlet. Though he had hopes of turning this 6-years-in-the-making project into a full blown rock opera for the stage, its commercial failure sealed its fate. With time, it's gotten more respect, but is still an oddity, both in Hallyday's discography and in the world of Hamlet adaptations. You can listen to clips of each track on the French Amazon to get a sense of how it sounded.

For Act 1 Scene 1, we're principally concerned with the first two tracks. The first is a musical Ouverture, just to get you in the mood. Then comes a Prologue, basically an introduction to the project. I will translate it for you here:

"I liked Hamlet's story. I'm not sure why exactly. There are certainly reasons, profound reasons. But... it's not important. I will try to tell you this story... as I felt it. Me. And you will feel the way you want to. You."

A personal vision, but not an expert one. Hallyday doesn't make himself out to be something he's not. And yet, he could be a little more committal about that vision. But since Hamlet is often anything you want it/him to be, it's not necessarily the wrong attitude.

There is no Scene 1. The story starts with Hamlet's first speech which explains the context of the story anyway. So no dancing soldiers with Horatio intoning "Speak to Me" (or some similar song). We'll return to the rock opera then. (And now on to Scene 2!)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - Classics Illustrated

Hamlet wasn't just adapted for the screen. It was also became the focus of two issues of Classics Illustrated. The original Classics Illustrated was a comic book series designed to go into school libraries and, to be frank, was aimed at boys. The focus on the more adventurous aspects of the literary tales adapted through its long run bear this out. Hamlet appeared in #99 and was illustrated by Alex A. Blum. Though it was first published in 1952, Classics Illustrated often went through multiple editions to keep them in print and in the hands of young readers. As an example of how the original series focused on a boy's sensibilities, the soldiers and ghosts of the opening scene are spared 5 pages, but there is no following wedding banquet.

In 1990, Berkley Publishing and First Comics resurrected Classics Illustrated for a shorter, but much more mature run. These prestige format books had glossy paper and painted artwork, and featured some of the best artists of the time, from Bill Sienkiewicz to Kyle Baker to Peter Kuper. Hamlet was book #5 and was adapted by writer Steven Grant and artist Tom Mandrake, the latter whose work on the Spectre made him no stranger to ghostly revenge stories.

The Original
Meant to introduce kids to great works, Classics Illustrated oftens started with a "splash page" introduction before getting into the story. Hamlet thus begins with a quick presentation of the premise - the father's death, the hasty marriage and Hamlet's melancholy. Then on with the play. The dialogue, though a lot of it is cut, is Shakespeare's. The narration and footnotes help the young reader understand the action better.

It's a stiff adaptation, sticking to the facts of the action. Obviously, Horatio's historical context is cut, combining the Ghost scenes in a way that makes its appearances and disappearances more frenetic. The Ghost is larger than life and intangible, like he's rain or steam or being beamed up.
The adaptation is only really intriguing for its focus on heroics. What is Hamlet like if action and the supernatural are emphasized?

The Berkley Version
The first caption reads "Ancient Denmark", setting the play in a no-man's-land that is more Beowulf than it is the Middle Ages.
Bernardo's furs and the characters' oddly shaped word balloons create an atmospheric Denmark out of time. And of course, there's no one like Tom Mandrake to put fear in a character's eyes.
So as far as mood goes, it is achieved by page one. The Ghost is a steaming warrior with glowing eyes, one that tends to blend in with Mandrake's water colors quite efficiently.
What we have in the Berkley series is a Classics Illustrated for fans of literature, rather than fans of comics (although, ultimately, its audience is probably both). The focus is not on the facts of the story (this is CORRECT, since plot is not Shakespeare's focus either), but on mood and rendering of themes. Though Hamlet is not as abstract as say, Sienkiewicz's adaptation of Moby Dick, it is still highly expressionistic, marrying visuals to the emotion of the scene.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - A Midwinter's Tale

Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale (or A Bitter Midwinter, for UK audiences) is our second "play within a play", and as with Slings & Arrows, I'll try to focus only on the performance of the play within the movie, and not on the rehearsal scenes (which are mostly played for laughs anyway). Not to say that the performance doesn't have its own whimsy. Apologies in advance for the quality of the screencaps - the film isn't on DVD yet and I'm resorting to taking pictures directly off my cathode tube television.

Midwinter shows us very short snippets of the scenes, but enough to make a point with the staging, and uses its black and white film stock to good, moody effect. The church where the play is acted acts as a natural stage and Gothic setting, though in the first scene, it is filled with a thick fog that then tends to linger in the closed space. One thing this staging of the play isn't is easy on the audience (a reasonable effect to want to achieve, actually). Despite the medieval feel of the church, the costumes are world war era, and so Bernardo walks onstage with a machine gun.A machine gun he fires over the audience's heads as they all crouch in fear. Shakespeare has a knack for waking up his audience with the play's opening words, but "Who's there?" has never been so shocking. This is a Denmark so unstable, it might shoot you first and ask its questions later.

Played for comedy, sure, but still offers a potable staging if you were to do it yourself.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - Slings & Arrows

So we come to our first play within a play - Hamlet as done on the brilliant Slings & Arrows. Because the show is about the behind the scenes aspect of a theater festival, we don't usually see complete scenes. And yet what we see of the plays is very sensitive to the text and even insightful. Note that while I'm not above talking about scenes only shown in rehearsal, I've tried to use Season 1 Episode 6's performance as the standard. I wasn't really expecting Act I Scene 1 to make it, but as the play begins, we do get a handful of lines. Onward!

A Minimalist HamletAn early decision of the show's artistic director was to let the text do the work of setting the scene. Black drapes and minimal sets, and costumes taken off the rack by the actors, with no concern for period. Speaks to both the power of the text and its universality.

The play opens on the character of Cyril (Graham Harley) playing the shivering Francisco, relieved by Frank (Michael Polley, father of Sarah) as Bernardo. Now, these two guys are a classic double act, often acting as a chorus on the show, and in the Hamlet parallels of the first season, standing in less for Rozencrantz and Guildenstern than the gravediggers. In the company at New Burbage, they are career thespians who play all those bit parts, often more than one per play. It's very fitting that they would open this version of Hamlet, because they also open Slings and Arrows itself, with juicy tune played at a wrap party.

And yet, for clowns, they give an excellent performance in their Scene 1 snippet. When Francisco confirms that the noise he heard is Bernardo, he is quite obviously relieved.
No enemy from Norway. No Ghost*. Phew. Which brings up one of those puns Shakespeare is notorious for. For some reason I'd never read "For this relief much thanks" as a pun, but there it is in Cyril's performance.

Shame about Frank's Asterix the Gaul costume.

*We're backstage during the Ghost's appearance, so I can't comment on it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - Fodor (2007)

Alexander Fodor's Hamlet is billed as "Shakespeare in the extreme!", which basically means it's highly experimental, made on the cheap, and at times doesn't work at all. And yet, there's a lot of interesting stuff in here. Act I Scene 1 isn't used, leaving a transgendered Horatio to tell the tale at the wedding banquet, but we do get a Ghost scene as prologue.It's a scene that reappears later and that I will explore more fully in its proper context: Ophelia's death. In this modernization, she drowns not in a river, but in her own euphoria, as what appears to be a heroin overdose. The Ghost appears to us, if not to her, as soon as she's injected herself with the potent opiate.
This is part of the film's use of horror, taking the "ghost story" to its next obvious level, with horror, lighting and mood to match. Simple effects that are nonetheless unnerving. What is the Ghost doing there? Well, if she dies, seeing a native of the after-life isn't too surprising, but because he appears earlier, it may be at he is a hallucination. Is the entire play then a hallucination at death's door? Is everything in Hamlet to be filtered through Ophelia's dementia? This interpretation makes everything before her madness suspect, and everything after it a dream. Ophelia as narrator has potential, but she is less reliable than Horatio. The scene makes us plunge into the surreal universe of the film and in a sense, may excuse any of its "extremes".

Whether Ophelia is meant to be the narrative filter or not, this is a Hamlet where the Ghost is a lot more prominent. He is often seen lurking, observing his family as it descends into its own decadent hell.

Though the scene is pulled from later in the play, Fodor still gives us a ghostly appearance to start off the story. Ophelia replaces Horatio and the soldiers, and doesn't live to tell of what she saw, but the feeling is much the same for the audience.

Elsinore
As with Hamlet 2000, Elsinore seems to be a hotel or estate, one that is grubby and in a state of decay. Using what looks like disused buildings works as much to the play's advantage as it does the film's budget. Outside, we can hear seagulls and the sea, though these sometimes seem illusory. If it's daylight, the bright light bleaches everything (as in this scene). This creates a dream-like Denmark as much as fog would.

Opening Credits
Indicative of the rest of the film, Fodor uses a number of different ideas in his opening montage, not a single concept. FirstThere are scenes from later in the story which serve to introduce the cast. On a transgendered Polonia, Hamlet's "rash intruding fool" line, and on Ophelia "I shall obey, my sister" are simple, revelatory lines about those characters. However, no one else gets this treatment. The credits also use outtakes where you can sort of hear the director speaking to the actors, and footage of actors diving off the pier. Breaking the fourth wall is allowed, since Hamlet is very much about being an actor in the world, but it tends to hurt the very thing Fodor was trying to do by throwing us in the deep end with that first scene (the Green Fairy moment, if you will). And there are also dramatis personae shots, again not given to everyone.
The cumulative effect of these is still one of apprehension. The last two shots show a murder and a scare, leaving the viewer in the right frame of mind, I think, to be disturbed both by form and content.

The Song
The song playing over the opening credits is You Love Me to Death by Hooverphonic. Lyrics here. The song starts with "Face your fate" and the refrain goes "You love me to death, but death may love you more", which supports the idea that this is Ophelia's take on the story (or since she just died, that this is "her song"). It speaks both to Hamlet's tragic doom and to Ophelia dying because of love. It has a haunting quality and isn't too much on the nose.

As you can see, there's probably too much going on and pulling in different directions even in a single sequence. Extreme!