Saturday, June 1, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Slings & Arrows

Allow me to upend the usual order by starting with Slings & Arrows, but while the scene is part of the onscreen performance (above), the show also features, in the season's penultimate episode, one of my favorite moments of dramatic criticism, and it relates to that scene and to this entire endeavor.

One of the subplots of the show around the play focuses on the character of Claire (Sabrina Grdevich), a talentless brown-noser the play's director, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), has inherited. In rehearsals, she's going on sense memory to simulate Ophelia's madness, reenacting what it's like to be stoned because she surmises that it's the same thing. So it's a whole lot of staggering about, mouth open, twirling... After all, there's nothing Claire can take from the text. Ophelia is just singing nonsense songs.
Geoffrey's intense piece of advice to Claire is wasted on her (hilariously, she's back to twirling in the background of the next scene), but I can't watch it without tearing up. Let me just reproduce it here in toto:

"Ophelia is a child. She has been dominated by powerful men all of her life and suddenly they all disappear. Her brother goes to France. Her father is murdered by her boyfriend. And he is shipped off to England. She is alone for the first time, grieving and heartbroken and guilty because, as far as she's concerned, it's all her fault. She ignored her brother's advice and fell in love with Hamlet and now, her father is dead, all because of her. And the pain, and the loss, and the shame, and the guilt, all of this is gnawing away inside that little child's mind, and it comes out as little... songs. 'And will he not come again? And will he not come again? No, no, he is dead.' My father is dead and I killed him."

This is dead on, and hearing the quote he uses spoken by a man, reveals how the songs also relate to Hamlet's own situation. He too has gone mad from losing a father (or three, if we count surrogate Yorrick and stay-at-home uncle who betrayed his trust Claudius), and Geoffrey makes us feel that loss and how guilt played a part in his own bout of madness. We almost intuit what his own legendary Hamlet was like.

Thankfully, something happens to Claire and understudy Kate (Rachel McAdams) must take over for her. Her performance as Ophelia, make-up dripping, voice shaking and breaking, even gets to Claire, who bitterly wipes a tear away in the audience. Ellen (Martha Burns) playing Gertrude is also visibly affected, another case of seeing the actress behind the role, not expecting that level of emotion. It makes me realize how important Gertrude's reaction to Ophelia is in this scene. In the text, she isn't particularly kind to her. She doesn't even want to deal with her at the moment. But if she lets herself be touched by this moment, or if she visibly doesn't, it changes how we might understand Gertrude's later narration of Ophelia's final moments. On one end of the scale, deep empathy, on the other, the sense she might have played a sinister. part in those events.

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