Wednesday, May 4, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Branagh '96

Branagh finds a number of ways to make sure his audience doesn't grow bored during this sequence. There's a long, single taker (or "oner") that follows Hamlet for what is probably an entire roll of film. Because modern audiences are not likely to know the Iliad of Aeneid, the Player's speech is illustrated with silent scenes. And as with many of the smaller roles, he makes use of stunt casting. We'll get to all that in a moment, but let's start at the top of the sequence as Polonius arrives to announce the players' arrival.
This announcement is, of course, redundant, because Rosencrantz & Guildenstern have already done so. Polonius can never be anything but tedious, relating information Hamlet already has. This is also underscored by Polonius reading from the troupe's artistic statement, going through ever redundant genres. Hamlet tries to walk away, and takes an actorly voice to mock him when he can't escape. He recites from the biblical story of Jephtah, he puts on voices, he acts out his madness for Polonius. At the same time, he's letting R&G in on the joke, making them complicit in his disrespect of a lord that while below Hamlet's position, is well above theirs. He certainly has reason to believe Polonius will tattle to the King and Queen, so he sows mistrust between the conspirators. Throughout this scene, R&G look like they don't quite know what's happening, or if this will wind up costing them their heads. When they next interact with Claudius, we'll see characters desperate to make their case and a king who doesn't care to listen. They probably think they've been compromised by their "friendship" with Hamlet. It is doubtful Claudius even registers their presence by that point. As for Polonius, he is visibly irritated by Hamlet's performance, and distracted by it. He fails to recognize what lies under the Jephtah allusion, though this might also be a way to further elevate the puritan Hamlet from the corrupt court. Polonius doesn't know his Bible.

The players then come in, and to respect the time period, the girl who should watch her voice lest it crack is played by a little girl, not a boy. Hamlet is teasing her, and we do get the sense that the entire family is on tour. It immediately makes us compare this family with Hamlet's, and indeed the Player will be King on stage, the lady Queen and another actor the assassin. They seem happier of course and only "play" at tragedy. The point of the sequence is to show actors having more sincere feelings than real people do, so there's that mirror there as well. Later, Hamlet will ask his mother where her blush is. Claudius will pray and not mean it. Hamlet swears revenge, but can't follow through. Here, we have an actor who shows great passion in a speech about fictional characters. If Shakespeare teaches us anything, it is to feel. His characters do and through the poetry, they describe those feelings and make them real. And so in the play, it is the actors who similarly teach Hamlet how to feel.

Hamlet himself is an actor - he plays the role of the madman - and this becomes more literal in this sequence as he starts reciting the speech he asks from the First Player. If the speech was never acted, or only once, as Hamlet claims, he certainly has a strong memory of it. We're reminded that we're in the presence of a great mind. Branagh has fun with it though, with even the kids knowing some of the punchlines (like "gules"). He is finally taken out of his performance by the sight of his own hand holding an imaginary dagger, an invisible reminder of the task ahead.

The First Player is played by Charlton Heston, a choice Branagh says he made to properly show that the Player is a legend of the theater. And indeed, Heston has that (screen) presence. And it's probably his best performance ever. It blew me away and is one of my favorite things about the film. If his casting evokes a legend of the acting world, his speech is also about legendary characters, and these are played by true legends of the stage in the live action "illustrations". Priam is played by John Gielgud:
And Hecuba by Judi Dench:
Could it get any better? Their small roles are still a challenge, as they must show a great deal of emotion in a completely silent performance. Though they are not strictly seen by the other characters in the play, they make the same point the Player does: Actors showing a great depth of emotion (again in an idealized King/Queen configuration).

The Player's speech is interrupted by Polonius, and comically, the music also stops and starts with in between his interventions. Tension mounts between Hamlet and the old counselor until he gets his wrists slapped at the end. It's what he gets for showing evident dislike and disrespect to the players. As the party breaks up, Hamlet sends R&G away, and for some reason, Horatio is now included (having come in with the players). He has no lines, but Hamlet gives him a secret signal to go with them and keep a close eye on them. Perhaps it was felt Horatio had not appeared in too long. Other directors have placed him as a silent witness to all of R&G's scenes, so his presence isn't unwanted.

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