Sunday, December 9, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Tennant (2009)

Penny Downie's Gertrude starts the Closet Scene by taking off her Queen's reinments. This is to be an intimate scene, without benefit of make-up or hair piece, played in simple gray silk pajamas. When Polonius comes in, she's smoking a cigarette, drinking scotch whiskey and generally angry at both her son and this little man who imposes his presence on the moment. He hides behind a mirrored closer door, which will become an important symbol, as she downs her liquid courage. Hamlet can be heard coming from deep inside Elsinore, shouting and ranting, cawing "Mother" as if a crow. When he enters, he's still wearing his player's crown, which takes off his head impatiently. For all her outrage and bluster, she misses the point that this is exactly what she did to him by marrying his uncle, interrupting the normal succession. She took a crown from him. But Gertrude, though sharp-witted, has a particular blind spot when it comes to her family relationships and for example, did not catch the suggestion that Claudius killed her first husband from the details of Hamlet's play. The trouble they have communicating, likely a recent development, is what makes them act so impatiently towards one another. She almost slaps him, but turns into a kinder tap on the chest. Emotional blackmail rather than punitive violence, but Hamlet, at this point, will have none of it and responds with violence.

Tennant's acting strategy is to discover the text as he says it, which creates an impressive freshness to words more than 400 years old. For example, he plays with "your husband's brother's wife" as if comically working out its complexities. Later he'll find epithets like "fanged" only after a pause, considering the word "adders" less than sufficient to describe the treacherous Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. And so it is with the violence and intensity of the scene. He throws Gertrude on the bed, pulls her face towards newspapers with photos of the two kings, jumps on the bed, and makes it all seem unchoreographed and dangerous. He also discovers Gertrude's text. When she asks if he would murder her, it makes him take pause, disturbs him, shocked that he might have done it in a fit of rage. She starts to crawl towards her nightstand, in fear for her life, and in the drawer is a gun, but she doesn't draw it. That's when she starts to shout for help, making it very clear that she's asking for Polonius specifically, her eyes darting to the closet. Typically, he's slow on the uptake. Hamlet grabs the gun and shoots him, shattering the mirror (a device also used on a large mirrored wall in the stage play). Polonius stumbles out and collapses behind more mirrors, and it's only when Hamlet illuminates his form with a match that he realizes it wasn't the King. As the match burns out, Polonius' life on stage is extinguished forever.
The fractured mirror is an important element in the staging of this adaptation. Hamlet looks at himself in it, an image of his fractured mind (even if we accept he is not mad, he is still split between competing motivations, as is the Queen by the end of this scene). The shattered mirror occurs when Polonius is killed, representing the fracturing of Danish society. Remember that Laertes will return to avenge his father, revolt in his voice, and rebels at his heels. And it's also a play on the idea that Claudius and the Ghost are played by the same actor, the latter character walking "out of the portal" i.e. that shattered mirror. The presentment of two brothers, nearly identical, takes the bent of irony, but as we accept them as two different men, we'll note that Gertrude looks long and hard at her first husband in the newspaper, still apparently grieving. She knows what she's lost and that her second love doesn't invalidate her first. In fact, she turns to Hamlet and recognizes his father's bearing in him. The love she bears for her son informed by Hamlet being all that's left of Hamlet Sr.
We were warned about the witching hour, and it arrives with a gently chiming clock on the dresser. It's midnight and the Ghost makes its appearance, a gray figure, pointing at its son, angry. When it notices Gertrude, it grows kinder, and director Gregory Doran's contribution to the scene is to place them in the same shot, close together, an image of a family reunited. The Ghost even touches her hair, which she slips back into place without noticing. It's an image that will make Hamlet accept he must work with his mother rather than against him, but it's also an ironic image. For all his allusions to Claudius being death itself, a somehow revolting rotting thing, here his mother is sitting on the bed with an actual dead man. This is the state Hamlet would have preferred for his mother, a widow sleeping with the ghost of her husband forever more. Gertrude's subtle reaction to his saying her blood is tame says it all. Children seldom want to recognize their parents' sexuality, even though they obviously sprang from it.

Because she can't see this apparition, her fears that Hamlet is truly mad are confirmed, and his attempts to reel her back into his plan very nearly fall on deaf ears. What she responds to is the childish part of him, which comes and goes. They are trying to reconnect, but though he can plead with her "don't tell [step]dad" and hug her waist, and she can play a game of secrets with him, fingers on lips, and shush him while he cries, it's not long before he must become an adult again, one that talks of killing. They don't need to find the old connection, they need to forge a new one, and it's what they do as uneasy co-conspirators. Gertrude's reactions in this last sequence are incredible. When Hamlet asks her to throw away the worse part of her cleft heart, she laughs in his face with an expression that says "easier said than done" (because it's not a woman's place to refuse her husband's advances? Or because she can't deny someone she loves or, perhaps, someone who could kill her?). It's why he keeps giving her advice in that sense, showing her how she might stay on the wagon, as it were. Penny Downie's performance is incredibly naturalistic as Gertrude's own mind is in danger of snapping under the emotional strain.

Before Hamlet leaves, a final cruelty. Though he repents what he's done to Polonius, he can't help but pronounce a disdainful eulogy for the man. He gives his mother a quick and surprising kiss on the lips, and knavishly intones his good nights. The absurdity of it all makes her break out laughing, a laugh that immediately turns into a tear-stained grimace. This adaptation of the play continues to enchant and surprise.

1 comment:

Prof. Chronotis said...

My favorite cinema closet scene, and for all the reasons you describe. A great post as always.