Wednesday, June 15, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Tennant (2009)

An important thing to remember as we get into this section with the Tennant version is that this adaptation placed Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia (and "To be or not to be") BEFORE this part, not after. In other words, the relationship between Hamlet and Polonius is different. The older man has just seen his daughter violated, while Hamlet knows her father was spying on him and had used Ophelia to betray him. This gives the metaphor of Jephtah more resonnance. In the play as usually structured, it comes off as playful if prophetic mockery. Here, Hamlet has a right to say it in anger, and it becomes bitter reproach, though Polonius still fails to get the reference. The minor cuts made to the exchange (the rest of the pious chanson) make this more plain, and Hamlet simply snaps Polonius' tie instead, and "that follows not" becomes an overt comment on Polonius' parenting skills in response to "a daughter I love passing well". Not only does Polonius' response not follow Hamlet's set-up, but it is not coherent with his behavior as a father. Polonius was right then to enter the scene already on the defensive, though he distractedly forgets about the danger once he gets into defending the players' quality. This Polonius gets lots in the possible genre combinations theater might produce, and is unready for Hamlet's attack.

The players' entrance (heralded in the previous sequence by car horns) suffers minor trims (the "beard me" comment, for example), but Hamlet still welcomes "my young lady". This character is a grown man, and the idea of his cracked voice is a good joke. Hamlet then jumps on a trunk and starts the Pyrrhus speech, but he doesn't remember the words as well as some Hamlets do. There is a lot of prompting from the entire troupe, played for comic effect. Hamlet is a surprisingly bad actor here, doing many of the things he complains bad actors do - sawing the air with his hands, for example. Though it makes Hamlet more believable (at least by our 21st century standards), I'm not sure this layer of irony helps the play. Though he may not be a trained actor, the Hamlet of the play is still a consummate one, creating a vast performance for all of Elsinore. Not that this take on it is actually incoherent with the text. Hamlet may know what he likes in theater and still be unable to render it himself. The scene is a very human one, in which the prince gets prompted so many times, he abandons his attempt and lets the real actors finish, sitting on the floor, like a child. Despite his many hesitations, Polonius, even the sycophant, raves about the performance. Hamlet shushes him rudely.
While the players are played by actors who hold other small parts (Reynaldo, the priest, etc.), just like they do in most theater productions, the First Player is played by the great John Woodvine, who has no other role (nor should he). Woodvine mimes some of the actions described in the speech and uncovers some of the play's themes through judiciously placed pauses. He talks of a "painted tyrant" which brings us to the just-mentioned images of Claudius sold to the population. He plays Pyrrhus' moment of doubt, with the sword sticking in the air, putting Hamlet squarely on Pyrrhus' side. Hamlet is a hesitating avenger like Pyrrhus, which makes the pitiable Priam Claudius, and poor Hecuba Gertrude. In that moment, might Hamlet's doubts seem to stem from an inability to hurt his mother by twice widowing her? Where I usually read the parable of Claudius killing Hamlet Sr. and an ironic mirror of both Claudius and Gertrude's actual reactions, Woodvine manages to create a different picture, one that creates even more doubt, doubt that must be resolved through the "Mouse-Trap".

In the end, the players are sent off to their quarters with Polonius, but Rosencrantz & Guildenstern stay behind. Hamlet, eager to "unpack his heart with words", curtly dismisses them, his attitude belying his words of welcome. He shows them the way out, purposely forgetting his previous accusations and leaving his conflict with them unresolved­. Hamlet dismisses them and their subplot as unimportant, as he is seized by a different impulse, a small but telling example of Hamlet's breaking of dramatic rules as he continually expands his self beyond the play's boundaries.

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