Thursday, October 27, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Slings & Arrows

"To be or not to be" is a pivotal moment in Slings & Arrows (Season 1, episode 5), as movie star Jack Crew is taken aside by director Geoffrey Tennant and asked to finally do a scene with the text. Up to that point, Jack has been paraphrasing, frustrating his cast mates and preventing the director from "seeing the play". Jack's problem is every actor's. How do you make these words - this speech especially - sound fresh? How do you escape from the shadow of all the great actors who have gone before? On a meta-textual level, the speech IS about to be Hamlet or not to be Hamlet. To make something of oneself, or to fail. In the text, though Hamlet is nominally talking about actual, lethal suicide, on another level he's talking about professional suicide. Hamlet is a role filled with risk. It is fearsome. The fear of "dying" on stage may keep you from ever attempting the role, but if it does, you deny yourself the possibility of an enterprise of great pith and moment. That's what's at stake for the actor as much as it is for Hamlet, himself an improvized actor and playwright.

Geoffrey also asks him to make an important choice: Does Hamlet know he is being overheard or not? Jack doesn't have to reveal his choice so long as he makes it. Ambiguity lingers. Jack sits his back to the spies, but also smirks at the end of it. That smirk may be directed at the appearance of Ophelia to stage right though. So did Hamlet just perform for Claudius and Polonius and smiles to himself, a job well done? Or is he darkly amused at remembering his sins thanks to Ophelia's appearance? Or while unaware of the spies' presence, does he nevertheless see through the transparent ploy of his ex-girlfriend being "loosed" upon him? In any case, while Jack's delivery is solid, if without much nuance, his body language makes good use of the actor's own discomfort and shame. Jack is visibly contemptuous of his ability to portray Hamlet, and that makes his Hamlet contemptuous of his own ability to trap Claudius and avenge his father.

As Jack utters the speech, Geoffrey starts to see the play take shape (with the usual musical cue the show uses to render the theater as a magical place), and he and the ghostly Oliver walk through the fantasy. Geoffrey's image of scene has the spies behind a red curtain, steeped in blood as they are, and Hamlet surrounded by candles, a symbol of spiritual illumination, or perhaps an image of mortal life's brevity and snuffability. As the sequence ends, we return to reality and Hamlet stands up to face his Ophelia, a look of marked disappointment in himself on his face. The regret is palpable.
During the play in episode 6, we briefly alight on the sequence again. Budget cuts have made the fantasy version of the play impossible, but the show must go on. Jack's new Hamlet costume is a simple hoodie out of his own wardrobe. The jewelry, including the appropriate skull ring, is also his, part of the osmosis between role and actor that is part and parcel of Slings & Arrows.

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