Saturday, February 7, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Zeffirelli '90

Though not the most verbose of scenes, Zeffirelli still manages to cut a fair bit of material, making the sequence of triumph of staging over text.

Hamlet is herded into the throne room where a fighting area has been erected, and where people mill around unceremoniously until the trumpets sound and the Royals enter. Hamlet makes an apology to a smirking Laertes, but does not blame his madness or paint himself as a victim. Consequently, the crowd is heard to cheer Laertes on, not Hamlet, but in the second exchange, the Prince plays the bout for laughs - acting like his sword is too heavy, winking at the Queen, running around the room, calling a time-out to sneeze in Osric's face - and regains the crowd's favor.

Zeffirelli's excision of the word "unbaited" and failure to mention what weapons are being used means he can stage the action with heftier swords. Each exchange has a different arrangement of blades and armor - sword/chain mail, heavy sword/chain and plate combination, and two swords/frilly shirt - to give them a distinct flavor. Laertes is violent and eager right out of the gate, Claudius feigning shock when he exchanges a look with the Queen, and this does highlight the fact this combat could be deadly, poison or no. After Hamlet scores the first touch, Laertes tries to have a go at him right away, but is stopped by the judges. Combat often goes just a little bit too far, and in the third exchange, Osric must break a hold for the fighting to continue. When Hamlet breaks it is when Laertes takes advantage and scratches his arm with his green-tipped blade. Enraged, Hamlet attacks him hand to hand, the poison sword falls, Hamlet picks it up, and Laertes spends the right of the "fight" looking deathly scared of its point.
Meanwhile, the Queen has drunk from the poison cup, and gone from wiping her son's brow to wiping her own. Sweating gives way to pain and the editing makes it clear she knows what's happened. The culprit is also easy to determine. When she looks at Claudius, he can't endure her gaze. She knows. Her death will be as violent as everyone else's, with spasms and cross-eyed indignity. It's a bit much, actually.

Laertes' turn, from anger to regret, is one of the weakest elements here. It seems barely justified. One minute he is frustrated and angry, the next the fear of death has shocked him into friendship and the rejection of the King's plan.
The poisoned Hamlet, for his part, acts drunk. He pokes at his wound, pathetically, stumbles over to his mother, gags on the poison, and slips to the ground dangerously - the mark of an actor who doesn't mind the stunt work. Throughout, the assembled audience stares in shock, Horatio included, with frequent cutaways to stunned swordsmen just standing there. Eventually, Horatio will go to him, but never will he attempt to follow him in death. They just don't have that close a relationship in this adaptation. Absent any notion of Fortinbras, we will simply accept that Horatio will tell the tale to whoever wants to hear it, and the camera zooms out from above, as if representing Hamlet's soul finally free of his wretched physical existence. If there is hope in the tragedy, it is through devices like these, subliminally indicating that the hero goes to his peaceful rest.

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