Sunday, April 20, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Branagh '96

One of Branagh's tricks is to fill the smaller roles with big names to give them, and their words, more power and potency. Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger is one of the better examples of this. If there's a question as to whether this First Clown is foolishly dense (à la Dogberry) or pitting his wits against Hamlet, Crystal's performance and persona make it crystal clear that the latter is true. His Gravedigger is curious, thoughtful, witty, and used to being the smartest man in the room (in his circles anyway). And his incisive intelligence makes it clear as well that the text supports this interpretation better than the other. First, he has a reason to gently take down a nobleman, because he condemns them for having rights (in this case, suicide) the peasantry doesn't. There are nobles and there are noble professions. He sees the difference and it empowers him. Second, there comes a point when he wins the battle of wits, when Hamlet can't help but laugh, which in turn makes the Gravedigger smile. From then on, the Gravedigger answers questions straight, without word play or obfuscation. In other words, the first part of the exchange was a game, a character he was taking on, not unlike the madness assumed by Hamlet earlier. The Gravedigger twists words around and confounds Hamlet just as Hamlet had done to Polonius.

The other cameos are less obvious to American audiences, but still yield better performances than most. The Second Clown is played by Simon Russell Beale, for example, a famous stage Hamlet who gives his gravedigger a sweet innocence. The man is just happy to come up with an answer to the First Clown's joke, and so becomes the most basic of Shakespearean characters - one that hears and reacts to his own language. The dead clown in the scene, Yorick the jester, need not be played by anyone, but Branagh provides us with a flashback to Hamlet's youth - happier times - with Ken Dodd in Yorick's role. This has a few notable effects. It brings a reality to Hamlet's horror, as we too see the skull used to be a living, breathing, sparkling person. The flashbacks also give weight to the idea of Yorick as a surrogate father, though Hamlet Sr. is also in the flashbacks. The idea that Sr. is an idealized figure, while the real family had people like Yorick and Claudius in the actual, practical roles, is only slightly squelched by this. Finally, because Dodd's teeth are rather recognizable, it allows the production to create a similar skull, which is how the Gravedigger can tell who it is, and Hamlet can better recognize it as well.
Because we can tell the skulls apart, there seems to be some light satire to the idea that Hamlet at first identifies it as a lawyer's, and even absent any specific skull, could Shakespeare be doing the same in the text? Hamlet expounds on the decay of all these higher-class professions, but the revelation is that the one he's presented is a clown's. It's a subtle take-down of courtly life. Twisting it back on itself, the iconic image of Hamlet holding a clown's skull becomes a personal experience with death and decay, and turns a comedy scene into human drama again. Cutting to the Gravedigger who finds Hamlet's reaction rather deep and heavy provides some relief at least.

One of the lines that reached out for me in the performance is the one about Caesar's remains patching a wall to expel the winter's flaw. Perhaps it's the frozen-seeming, but winter and Denmark are necessarily connected in the play, and one might wonder if Hamlet is now seeing his own death as the required "patch" to fix a broken country. Everything he says from now on should be taken in the context of his readiness.

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