Monday, September 28, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Classics Illustrated

The Original
As previously stated, the wedding banquet does not appear in the original Comics Illustrated adaptation whose focus is on "adventures for boys". A wedding would seem to go against that. The adaptation leaves Laertes' introduction to Scene 3, which admittedly, covers his leaving for France as a plot point.

The Berkley versionTom Mandrake's adaptation cuts very little from this section of the play, keeping the rant about Fortinbras' ambitions, though predictably cutting the appearance of Voltimand and Cornelius. Introducing characters requires panels, and the comic's relatively low page count often requires it to do entire speeches in one panel, as above. The problem with this is that the artist cannot change a character's emotion mid-speech, and things play out all the more flatly in static shots. For example, in this panel, though Claudius says of Fortinbras "So much for him," there is no accompanying action. It's like the character is just dismissing Fortinbras out of hand (which I suppose he does), but not even with the proper physical punctuation to get the crowd's response. Also cut is Claudius' thanks to the Court for going along with the royal wedding.
Mandrake's Laertes is timid when begging to Claudius, in line with performances that play on the line "dread lord". Comics tend to physically caricature the characters, so Claudius is something of a rough sort and Laertes wise to be afraid of him. By contrast, Polonius is drawn as a kindly old man, creating an unshakable sympathy for the character that makes his death seem undeserved. I prefer my Polonius with a dark streak (as mandated by the full text). The overall effect here is that Claudius is a bully and that despite his honey-laden words, he is just using both Polonius and Gertrude for political gain.

I'm afraid the images lack the subtlety to really carry the play's truths, and the contrast between words and action is a harsh one.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Slings & Arrows

Slings and Arrows is rather playful with the banquet scene, using our knowledge of the actors' stories to give each scene an extra level, one that actually manages to comment on the play. The Claudius of this play is only known as "Alan" and is not really a character in the series. Once he gets going, we cut to Cyril and Frank watching the performance on closed circuit and saying how he's got a good voice tonight. Cyril notes that it's really "all he's got". A perfect moment for these guys who regularly act as a comic chorus, as if on a balcony at The Muppet Show, but also a poke at Claudius as a character. He is an arrogant blowhard full of hot air and no substance, contrasting with the quiet and sensitive Hamlet. Note how Hamlet is right at the front of the stage in the staging.While we don't see most of the scene (the editing basically cuts from the first speech to Claudius' exit), we can imagine Claudius going through the motions and addressing everyone in turn, very much ignoring the elephant in the room. When you reveal that Hamlet was there and draw him out, then Claudius was perhaps forgetting him. When he's in full view like this, Claudius is actively ignoring him and prioritizing other characters over him.

During the initial speech, there is a nice bit of double-acting from Gertrude as played by Ellen Fanshaw played by Martha Burns. Jack Crew (Luke Kirby) is deathly afraid of being shown a fool (he's the action movie/teen heartthrob cast as Hamlet) and is just keeping from throwing up. Ellen/Gertrude looks down at him with a look of sudden concern.
The actress wonders if this will turn out to be the disaster she predicted, but the character seems to register something amiss with her son, motivating the interrogation/comforting to come. Works perfectly in the series, where "use it" is often used in response to something that should distract the actor (just as Jack is "using" his nausea in the scene).

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Fodor (2007)

Fodor intercuts various parts of Scene 2 and Scene 3 as if occurring more or less simultaneously at the banquet (here a cocktail party or reception). Claudius is making his speech in one part of the room, while Horatio is telling Hamlet about seeing the Ghost in another, and Ophilia and Polonia (the transgendered Polonius) give their goodbyes to Laertes near the window. I'll still deal with each part individually in its own article.

The scene (or the film, really) opens with the title card: I say "No more but so", which is a line from Scene 3 (intercut with Claudius' speech). The line has Ophelia acquiesce to her domineering brother's wishes. There's a fatalism about it that doesn't always register, but by placing it at the top of the play (even if it wasn't after a prologue that shows Ophelia's death), it takes on the greater fatalism of the entire play. "This and nothing else," a line that underscores a pervading sense of doom, a sense that there's no changing destiny. Notable since Claudius has just usurped a brother's destiny...

I spoke last time of Fodor's myriad devices in the credits sequence, which included line readings, outtakes and dramatis personae. Add to this a stylish, but ultimately irrelevant device to introduce the characters in the extended banquet sequence. Each time we meet a character, there is a freeze frame and an overlay such as this:(I'll present each one in whatever bit of scene it actually appears in.) Characters are divided into two colors, White (the Hamlet family) and Red (the Polonius family) and into chess pieces (King, Queen, Knight and Pawn). Why? There is no chess motif in the rest of the film, nor does Fodor keep up this visual style (which reminds me of Snatch and the like). The effect is to oppose the two sides of the board, with the Reds being against the Whites, which isn't normally true. I think it interesting to see Polonius as moving against or manipulating Claudius for his/her own personal gain (quite believable from the utterly corrupt Polonia of the film), using other family members in various ways against Hamlet and in some sense, Claudius (moving against Hamlet pushes him ever closer to killing Claudius and gives the king impetus to trust Polonius ever more). However, it falls apart when you examine the White side, since Hamlet and Horatio are NOT on the side of Claudius. Which piece is assigned to which character is also of note, but again, I'll talk about each when it comes up in their scene. Claudius and Gertrude are, of course, King and Queen.
Weaving in and out of various scenes within the same party reduces Claudius' initial power considerably. There is a lot of noise in the room, both from the driving electric guitar music and various groups of people enjoying themselves (and not). Claudius doesn't address the entire "Court", just a couple of people he's mingling with. From a speech designed to manipulate public opinion, his lines become anecdotes - how he came to marry Gertrude, how he got a message from Fortinbras - and the sound drops in and out and we move about the room. It's like it's just an overheard conversation (because we hear it through Ophelia's or Hamlet's ears?). Claudius doesn't thank an assembly, politics seem less important. Probably appropriate since this dreamlike Denmark never quite seems like a country.

Completely cut from this part of Scene 2 is Laertes asking leave of Claudius. More expectedly, Voltimand and Cornelius don't make the cut, nor does the vast majority of the speech about Fortinbras. Again, Claudius' royal power is undercut. In this version, Denmark may just be two intertwined important families (Red and White), of which Claudius is the main patriarch (it was perhaps important then to transgender Polonius so as to remove the Red patriarch). Fodor eliminates the political and regal elements, bringing the play down to its basic familial drama. The father and mother are the king and queen of a family and Fodor's experiment here may show the State is not required to make Hamlet work, though it does reduce the overall feeling from epic to banal (courtly pageantry to tacky cocktail party).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Hamlet 2000

In this modern retelling of Hamlet, the banquet is a press conference, which makes perfect sense in the point of view of the adaptation. The new CEO/King announced publicly to the world (via the press, not the court) how he has stabilized the company (Denmark) and how he's not afraid of a hostile takeover by Fortinbras. In this way, the company is a "warlike state". Makes perfect sense, as do most modern transpositions in the film.

Claudius is played by Kyle MacLachlan, who is convincing as a charismatic but tough corporate maneuverer. He and Diane Venora as Gertrude appear as a younger-than-expected power couple. Their apparent youth and sexiness is a sign of the times. In the 2000s, people tend to look younger than they are, or at least strive to. This is important, because it really puts the lie to Hamlet's later contention that "at your age, the blood is tame". Difficult to agree with that sentiment when the two are still quite attractive and openly lustful with each other.

One bit of re-attributed dialogue: The line "For all, our thanks" is divided down the middle, the latter part given to Gertrude. This is clearly staged by the characters (it's an organized event, after all), but it's a clear symbol of their joining ("man and wife are one flesh") drawing her into Claudius' culpability through that association.

On Fortinbras
Claudius holds up a newspaper with Fortinbras' picture on it. In this modern world, "pestering with message" is done a lot more publicly, which can be said to have an effect on the scene. In a traditional staging, Claudius chooses to tell the world about Fortinbras' message, whereas here he is forced to by the media. In both cases, he uses it as an opportunity to show off, with more bluster than substance. The difference is that this Claudius is perhaps not as calculated as the Medieval one. Better at improvising? Dangerous when cornered?

While the scene is replete with extra stage directions for the non-speaking characters (which I'll get to in a moment), Claudius at least manages the ripping of paper he traditionally has to do in almost every staging (the newspaper). No Voltimand and Cornelius to send another message. They are scarcely needed since the corporate adversaries are speaking through the press.

A look around the room
Hamlet is visible in the scene even before Claudius and Gertrude. He's filming the event for use in his videos/soliloquies (this will pay off later). He appears bored and disconnected from the proceedings, with dark glasses hiding his eyes. Possibly all part of "holding his tongue" in deference to his mother.

We also get a good look at the Polonius family:
From left to right then: Bill Murray provides one of my favorite takes on Polonius, here already noticing shenanigans between Ophelia and Hamlet (setting up the next scene). Ophelia is played by the omnipresent (at the time) Julia Stiles, who keeps looking over to Hamlet, trying to get his attention. Liev Schreiber as Laertes is either aloof (he can't wait to get back to France - this may be one of those Laertes who doesn't care for the new king) or simply distracted as he too notices what passes between his sister and Hamlet. This is a problem very much on the family collective mind. Also note the ghost of Hamlet Sr. hovering above them in the background as a painting.

Through the use of extra stage directions for Ophelia, the film manages to juxtapose certain characters in a new and meaningful way. For example, on "With an auspicious and a dropping eye", we see Ophelia's own hopeful eyes drop down as Hamlet ignores her. A clever subtext to the line, but also one that links Ophelia/Hamlet to Getrude/Claudius who speak (as one, remember) the actual line. If there is a relation standing in the way of Ophelia being with the man she loves, the same could be true of Gertrude if indeed she was having an affair with Claudius (with Laertes as Hamlet Sr.). Hamlet Sr. is also a character that is said to be away for much of the time AND good at warlike matters. We're used to Hamlet Jr.-Laertes correspondences, but Senior as well? Intriguing. Laertes as a young Hamlet Sr. (a Jr. in spirit) further accentuates the brotherly link between Laertes and Hamlet Jr. and his treatment at the hands of Claudius (the faux-Hamlet Sr.) as an alternative son to Hamlet Jr.

As Claudius talks about being "pestered by message", we see Ophilia frenetically trying to arrange a meeting with Hamlet by drawing (not really writing - she's an artist) a note.
It is intercepted by Laertes, not that Hamlet reaches out for it. Though Ophelia is the messenger here, we're reminded that Hamlet also used to write her (she has a lot of correspondence [pun not intended] to redeliver later). The correspondence created here is then between Hamlet and Fortinbras, two sides of the same coin (heirs apparent with opposite methods).

The sequence made me realize there is a theme of messages falling on deaf ears or being intercepted in the play. Polonius intercepts a letter from Hamlet and later Ophelia returns his letters. Fortinbras' message is ripped up, and later his answer to Claudius' emissaries turns out to be a lie or tactic. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's message to England is subverted. Claudius' payers do not rise up to Heaven. Should we also see here the Ghost's message not getting through to Hamlet?

Laertes' suit
After the high of the press conference, we have a separate scene with just the immediate families. There's dancing and kissing between the newlyweds and Claudius overlooks Hamlet completely in favor of Laertes. Laertes is surprised, but unlike the BBC version, in which he seems to think Claudius is countering the natural order, this Laertes is distracted by whatever is going on between Hamlet and his sister, finding his way to her side and bringing her back and away from the prince in between lines. There can only be two reasons for this in a modern context: Either he loves his sister unnaturally and is therefore jealous, or he dislikes Hamlet for some reason, motivating his later telling his sister not to see again. Or it could be both. We'll see as the film progresses. Ophelia, for her part, is showing rebellious tendencies usually not afforded her in more traditional stagings, but that make complete sense in a modern context. It's something that will color her lines throughout the play.

The scene ends oddly with Claudius pushing Hamlet away (something edited out?) and he'll not address his nephew until they're later out in the street after the event.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Kline 90

The Kevin Kline version jumps right into the thick of things with a lustful kiss between Claudius and Gertrude (and they kiss again in the middle of the scene), catering to the baser animal qualities of the new king.

The staging is interesting here as the courtiers seem to orbit Claudius, almost moving about the room in a circle as he shakes hands with them.
Brian Murray's Claudius is gracious in his tactility, bridging the gulf between king and courtier, but though he is jovial, he's still a blowhard. There's one particular line delivery that I found strange. "Together with remembrance of ourselves" is played as clever word play that is immediately met with delighted applause from the crowd. There is no grief here.

Even Dana Ivey's Gertrude is unnaturally happy, apparently charmed by everything Claudius has to say, with a look of "oh he's so clever!" always on her face.
Either Claudius is a powerful charismatic or his courtiers are currying favor with their simpering flattery. Gertrude, however, seems completely taken in by his charms, heightening the emotional resonance of Hamlet's outrage and setting her up for a greater fall.

In contrast to Zeffirelli's private audience between Claudius and Laertes, their exchange is very public here as Claudius almost speaks more to the crowd than to Laertes (played by the soapy Michael Cumpsty).
Again we have a Claudius who is a social animal, living his life on a stage and relishing in it. Life as theater is the most potent theme of the play, and while we often look to Hamlet for its presentation, this Claudius is also an actor (as politicians often are). Hamlet Sr., the man of action (the warrior) is replaced by a man of acting who plays out grand conflict in public and with words. Consequently, though Cornelius and Voltimand are cut from the play, the message from Fortinbras isn't (tying off the segment at "so much for him"). Where Hamlet Sr. might have led men into the field of battle, Claudius gets applause for throwing a piece of paper away and undermining an opponent's threat level. It's a false military victory, all played in oratory.

But I digress. Laertes' suit is of course granted after a very stagy exchange (and I mean that to mean it was staged by Claudius, not as a directorial weakness). Claudius makes it plain that he is gracious and warm, and lets it be known that Polonius (veteran character actor Josef Sommer) is his right hand man.
If you have access to this version, check for the courtiers in the background during the "The head is not more native to the heart" speech for some almost parliamentary eyebrow acting. "Oh really!" they seem to imply. Where other stagings of the play have implied that this was common knowledge, here it isn't, and so the entire scene takes on that air of being a practiced spectacle for the Court.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Zeffirelli 90

Zeffirelli likes to play fast and loose with the play's scene structure, upending certain lines, changing the sequence of scenes around, and turning single scenes into multiple ones. Act I Scene 2, which I have split into three, Zeffirelli splits into five, not to mention one of its lines thrown to the prologue/de facto Scene 1. The overall effect is to stretch the timeline of events. They don't all occur at the same time, but spaced over a vague period of time. At the same time, Zeffirelli reduces many lines to their barest essentials, which of course changes our reading of the play.The first sequence is, as traditional, the wedding banquet before the Court. The throne room is huge, a real seat of power, and the royals rather far from the Court. Though Claudius speaks, it is Gertrude we watch for signs of affection. Glenn Close plays her as a little nervous, but definitely content.
Again, this version of the play intimates that the two have had an affair prior to Hamlet Sr.'s death, or that she at least knows she jumped beds rather quickly after his passing. She is nervous to see if the Court will agree or afraid of the gossip.

Ian Holm's Polonius is rather austere here and doesn't get a line, but his demeanor nonetheless reveals something about him and the situation.
He's the one who stands in front of the Court and moves them to rise when the speech is over. He is very much the one pulling the political strings and because he controls the Court, there's the inference that the Court needs to be controlled. Are the courtiers easy to manipulate (or eager to be manipulated), explaining why there is no dissension in the ranks? Or is there something sinister in Polonius' look that speaks to some threat made on the king's behalf?

Notable cuts: The Norway subplot is absent from the film, so there is no need for Cornelius and Voltimand. That was expected. There is a missing line, however. In this version, Claudius does not thank the Court for having freely gone with the affair. This might indicate that the Court WAS threatened in some way and it has not FREELY sided with Claudius. This makes him one of the more villainous Claudiuses.

Change of Venue: Laertes
Zeffirelli has Laertes' wish to leave Denmark take place in a whole other scene. Time has obviously passed, drawing out how long Hamlet remains in his melancholy state, but also making Laertes a bit less eager to go. In the play as written, Laertes witnesses the wedding and immediately wants to return to France, speaking to the ambiguous relationship with the king revealed in the BBC staging. Note that the encounter also happens behind closed doors, not in public. It no longer occurs before the Court (so nothing is modified for "appearances"), and no longer before Hamlet (so not a slap in the face, either public or private).

And here, villainy is far from Alan Bates' performance. I'll admit to not liking his Claudius which, in large part due to the cuts, is rather two-dimensional. But if there's a scene that redeems him for me, it's this one. Claudius is affable, warm and full of good humor. If it were not for the creepy stare and delivery in the movie's first scene, we would not understand Hamlet's reaction. Perhaps Claudius is simply good humored because he is basking in his victory. "Ask me anything, for I can DO anything." But as discussed previously, it is totally correct to portray Claudius as being more familial with Polonius' family than he is with his own.

Nathaniel Parker's Laertes, for his part, is a fresh-faced, almost naive youth, awed by power and reverent. We do not feel any fear in his demeanor, and his character is generally lighter than some other performances.
Notable cuts: "You cannot speak of reason to the Dane and lose your voice." This line has several functions. First, it reveals Claudius' pragmatism (or the image he has of himself as a pragmatist), the clockwork logic that led to his fratricide and will inform his ploys at the end of the play. Second, it has an ironic undertone. What is reasonable in this disjointed state? These nuances are lost, but they don't affect our understanding of the play. Claudius also fails to say that "The head is not more native to the heart...t than is the throne of Denmark to thy father", downplaying his connection with Polonius, and Polonius' role in his political rise to power. Finally, Laertes does not consider Claudius a "dread lord", but more importantly, omits the words "that duty done". As mentioned above, this Laertes is not afraid of the king and even has warm feelings towards his "kindly uncle" (we can again look at Laertes and Hamlet as brothers).

The overall effect of Laertes' demeanor in this scene is to hide Claudius' villainy. Is Zeffirelli trying to play it as a reveal for audiences that do not know the story? Possible, since this was a high profile Mel Gibson project possibly meant to be larger audiences' "first Hamlet".

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - BBC 80

In which we find that there are no small roles in Hamlet...

The BBC's version of Claudius is famously played by Patrick Stewart, clearly having fun in his bouffant toupee.It's a performance that initially disappointed me, though I'm ready to revisit and reevaluate it now. This Claudius is not on as solid a footing politically as some others, which I now realize is straight from the text. This revelation comes from the performances of Cornelius and Voltimand, the envoys to Norway, who are very serious about their duty, so much so, they appear to be driven ONLY by duty. Granted, they have very few lines in this scene, and duty is all they have to play, but their joylessness borders on resentment, fear or resignation. Claudius may have Polonius in his corner, but surely he hasn't replaced everyone in Court. Can he trust the men who were loyal to his brother?
Suddenly, there's a warning in the words "To business with the king, more than the scope of these delated articles allow", and defensiveness in "We doubt it nothing". Claudius is just a little bit paranoid, still cajoling the enemies that surround him. He's guilty of SOMEthing.

Laertes' attitude follows this too. When he is called to appear, he seems puzzled and afraid (thus the "dread lord" line). He looks to his father, unsure of what to do.
What is going through his mind here? Like everyone else in this Court, he doesn't know if she can trust the situation. Maybe he was even loyal to the old king. Is he in a hurry to return to France because he doesn't like this new regime? Certainly, he was a friend of Hamlet's, and has certain loyalties to him. It probably isn't proper for Claudius to give Laertes an audience before he gives one to Hamlet, switching sons as we've previously discussed, so Laertes is caught unawares. He's visibly embarrassed by the event, visibly so as he leaves the Court and gives Hamlet a friendly and apologetic nod.

He has reason to be. Not only is he given audience first, but Claudius is unusually tactile with him.
Once he's done with Laertes (David Robb), he returns to the throne and AWAY from Hamlet as he addresses him, underscoring the distance between them after his unbearably inappropriate closeness with Laertes.

In this version, Hamlet is clearly visible on stage throughout the wedding banquet, rather than revealed, as he often is, on his first line. And he's active too. Standing behind his mother, he seems to be giving her away (that's right, he also went "freely with this affair along").
He also applauds sarcastically. Jacobi's Hamlet is openly disrespectful and scornful of his uncle from the first, which helps sell the idea that Claudius' reign holds by a thread. With Claudius and Claire Bloom's Gertrude standing so far apart, the wedding appears to be a stately affair, and more than ever, a political move. Perhaps Claudius loves her, but he's certainly not showing his weaknesses in this public arena.

Of Gertrude and Eric Porter's Polonius (interestingly younger and stouter than most actors cast in the role), I shall have cause to speak of later, when they get more lines.