Friday, May 20, 2011

II.ii. The Players - BBC '80

The BBC version provides us with a very different take on the First Player's speech, but before we get there, Polonius must announce the players' arrival. As he attempts to do so, Jacobi's Hamlet continues to mess with him. He puts on voices, reads along with the scroll in a show of boredom, throws himself to the ground in worship, imagining Polonius to be the revered figure of Jephtah, and waves his hand in the air with the meter of his quoted lines. This whirlwind of activity confounds Polonius, of course, but sets the tone for the players' arrival. Hamlet is a showman, like they are, and the sequence draws strong parallels between the prince and the people who may play at being princes.
As they enter, juggling torches and tumbling, Hamlet indulges in a bit of stage fighting using wooden swords, prefiguring the play's finale in which he also fights a friend. Hamlet is being bearded by the First Player, a man older than he is, played by Welsh actor Emrys James (the vampire Aukon to Doctor Who fans that same year). The "bearded" line usually indicates the actor being spoken to is younger or as old as Hamlet himself, someone who has grown a beard (i.e. gotten older, from boy to man) since Hamlet last saw him. Subverting the line at once confuses Hamlet's age further and makes us think of the line in more metaphorical terms. I become less interested in the fact the First Player is newly bearded, but more in Hamlet's assertion that the Player would "top" him in some way. He doesn't "beard" him by being more hirsute, but rather by being more emotionally available, and by doing more to reveal the King's treachery with a single scene than Hamlet has managed to do since the start of the play.

Hamlet next addresses the "lady" of the group, and in line with the production's Medievalism, "she" is played by a boy, a boy who proves his voice has not cracked by singing a clear "La". These fun bits are followed by Hamlet's attempt at a speech, which showcases the strong chemistry between him and the First Player. The Player goes beyond his lines by harrumphing here, nodding there, guiding Hamlet through the start of the monologue. He is Hamlet's guide, a telling fact. Jacobi makes less of a meal of it than Branagh does, but at the end of the speech still gets applause. He graciously accepts it, though he mockingly curtsies Polonius when the councilor offers appreciation. When Polonius later interrupts, he does so less brazenly than Briars does in the 1996 version, leaning in on the word "ear" and confiding his comment discreetly, but he draws no less anger from the explosive Hamlet.
As long as we're making comparisons, Heston's Player definitely has more gravitas, while James' emotions are more overt and desperate, bigger and thus more theatrical (as opposed to cinematic). The speech ends with the Player's hands on his face, but when Hamlet takes them off, he is all smiles. And yet, he sniffles through the rest of the scene. The faked "trappings" of grief still required a certain measure of truth. Where James shines as the Player, however, is in how he milks the awkwardness of Hamlet's outbursts against Polonius - slightly amused, but still respectful. He takes sides in the most subtle way possible, an example Polonius might have been smart to follow, but his love for his own wit prevents him from ever being like the Player. Polonius doesn't know his lines or his place, and he will suffer for it.

As the party disbands, Hamlet pulls a wooden sword on Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, providing them with one last scare. They hand him his book back, but he leaves them hanging, never taking it back. The staging here drips with sarcasm, as their "welcome to Elsinore" is anything but heartfelt.


Anonymous said...

"doing more to reveal the King's treachery with a single scene than Hamlet has managed to do since the start of the play"

I'm somewhat confused by this; care to explain? :)

Siskoid said...

Not in this scene, you understand, but by playing the King in the play within the play. While he does so under Hamlet's direction, the "truth" of the scene comes from the playing of it (which is the point of THIS scene), which is what touches/frightens Hamlet. And of course he inspires the idea in Hamlet in the first place.

So he unwittingly reveals the King's treachery, but still does so, either as inspiration or as the tool of Hamlet. The play's not the thing unless the First Player is in the mix.