Sunday, March 27, 2011

II.ii. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern - Branagh '96

In Branagh's production, R&G arrive on a small steam train, evoking their childhood friendship with Hamlet. Almost immediately, they fall into the sort of clever banter they used to indulge in with the witty prince. The setting also seems important. Meeting them outside Elsinore reminds us that they are outsiders to the Court they desperately want to be a part of, but exteriors also give weight to Hamlet's line about being a king of infinite space, and in his black figure against the snow connects Hamlet to the shadowy dream (his unrealized revenge) and the outstretched echo of a hero or monarch who is but a beggar (as he refers to himself soon after). Another reason to place this scene outside is to reveal R&G's duplicity. We have already seen them inside Elsinore, so their surprise "arrival" is a con. When Hamlet tells them their news is not true, it seems at first that he means "the world's grown honest", but it may just as well refer to their entire arrival.

Branagh plays Hamlet as emotional here. As soon as he calls R&G on their untrue news, his eyes start to water, perhaps in anger. He realizes early on that he has been betrayed by childhood friends. This emotion pours out when he confronts them about it. And he does so head on. "I have an eye of you", scripted as an aside, is here a warning. Hamlet in fact uses his emotion to shame them into admitting their connivance with Claudius. He then seems to take them into his confidence, the lie out of the way so to speak, but he may be playing with them. Branagh plays him as sometimes vulnerable, sometimes mad, sometimes angry, giving them knowing, ironic looks. For example, he starts "What a piece of work is a man" while looking at Guildenstern, an edified man he will bring down in the course of the speech. He also looks at each of his friends in turn when he mentions the hawk and the handsaw, playing on the joke that the characters are nearly identical, but also saying that he knows friends from enemies.
For their part, they don't quite know what to make of him, and where Horatio seems to be on the same page as the prince, their interactions are often inappropriate. They are OLD friends in a very real sense (as opposed to LONG-TIME friends). They are only comfortable in nostalgia. They can handle banter and theatrical gossip, but they can't deal with Hamlet's depression or flights of poetry. This culminates in their turning one of the play's key speeches into a gay joke, their chuckling visibly insulting Hamlet. They revert to childhood when interacting with their childhood friend.
The theatrical gossip section is not often played, and Branagh wastes as little time as possible, making the rapid-fire discussion so quick it's hard to really get any meaning out of it. So why is it there (in the text)? It of course tells us something about R&G and Hamlet. Thematically, they're also talking about pretenders. Young actors coming on the scene and stealing the work of more established ones, their worthiness in question. Hamlet relates this to his uncle usurping the throne - and getting the two suck-ups to laugh along with his joke - and condemns "fashion" for elevating both. And then there are the pretenders that are R&G, ironically trying to elevate themselves like the "boys" did. So while Branagh does not necessarily convince us that this section needs to be in play, it does support many of the play's ideas.

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