Thursday, July 24, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - BBC '80

One thing the Derek Jacobi version of Hamlet does really well is motivate the text. There are several instances of this in the sequence. For example, by having Hamlet and Horatio hide behind a tomb, unable to see the action, motivates and justifies the Prince's lines describing actions the audience sees quite well. He recognizes Laertes' voice, he realizes who they are talking about, through sound alone. (And in the staging, though this isn't all that important on television, all participants would be facing the audience.) In another example, when Laertes jumps into Ophelia's grave, it's to cover her face with her shroud, not mere melodrama. His gesture is a kindness, getting us away from images of incest.

Situations call for lines, but characters react believably to them as well. A pair of notable double-takes tell the story that's found between the lines, for example. The first is Laertes' look at Gertrude when she claims Ophelia was in line to become queen. In that surprised look may be found shock that his sister almost married the man he hates so much, but also a sense of shared responsibility in Ophelia's madness and death, since his misjudgement of Hamlet and the royals caused him to warn her away from the Prince, and quite possibly to betray the couple to Polonius. You can just about see Laertes connect these dots to their fatal end in that moment. Gertrude also registers surprise when Laertes curses the person he deems responsible for her death. She doesn't know Claudius has already poisoned Laertes' mind, and does not see the confrontation coming.

That confrontation, for all its emotion, shows Hamlet in control. Men have to hold Laertes back until his energy is spent, but no one makes any such move against Hamlet. As ever, the Prince is all words, while Laertes would be action. He fights for release, spits at Hamlet (the Prince's own "spitting" is flinging the dog reference at the King, as contrast), and gets a menacing rebuke from Claudius after all is said and done. The King threatens patience into him.

On the issue of this production's minimalistic "exterior" set, it does create an irony here that informs the dialog. When Laertes prays for flowers to bloom on Ophelia's grave, one has to wonder if anything can bloom in this wasteland. Prays fall on deaf ears in a land ruled by an entrenched sinner, and one could say Laertes has inherited his father's capacity for misprision. The blooms he hopes for are impossible in this location, and his emotion blinds him to the fact, as it does to other facts.

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