Sunday, November 29, 2009

I.ii. Ghost Stories - Olivier '48

Olivier actually follows the soliloquy with Scene 3, placing it almost simultaneous with the end of Scene 2. At the end of it, Ophelia sees Hamlet from afar in the position we left him in, and he sees her. But more on this when we sink our teeth into Scene 3. The end of Scene 2 follows from that moment, with three shadows falling across Hamlet's way.As usual, Hamlet does not recognize Horatio right away, here because his friend is just a shadow. He must come out of his gloom to actually see him. Through the staging, the idea of a castle full of ghosts resonates. Not only is there a Ghost walking about, but the way the camera moves is spirit-like, lovers glimpse each other from afar, haunting each other in plain sight as visions, and the play of shadows seen here. Hamlet could be alone in that castle as shades solidify in his presence.
Unlike Branagh's Hamlet and Horatio, Olivier's don't share a joke at this point. In fact, there's an awkward moment created by Horatio when he tells Hamlet he came for the funeral. Instead of letting Horatio off the hook with terse humor (as in the Branagh version), Hamlet puts him on the spot, practically accusing him of being insincere. The Hamlet-Horatio relationship is much more hierarchical in this film, with Horatio clearly afraid of Hamlet and his moods. And he should be. Olivier's Hamlet DOES try to catch the trio in a mistake, quite confrontational in his "Then you saw not his face".

The whole matter of the Ghost is introduced as Hamlet looks into the distance, so that when he says "Methinks I see my father", Horatio thinks he really did see him there. An understandable mistake, if a bit on the nose with the staging.
Once the three men have left, Hamlet is alone with his thoughts once again. Olivier puts emphasis on the fact his father's spirit is "in arms", which we must look at. Hamlet Sr. appearing as a warrior (when he wasn't killed in that uniform) is significant. The spirit goes to war against the new regime, representative of old values bucking against the new. His last appearance in his wife's closet is the only one where he is wearing something else. In that scene, he restrains Hamlet's violent temper. His intentions are different regarding Claudius and Gertrude, and he wears the proper attire for each.

The scene ends with a fade to black, as if prompted by Hamlet's prayer that "night were come". And as we cut to night, we understand why someone who place Scene 3 before this.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

I.ii. Ghost Stories - Branagh 96

As long as we're in the ballroom, the shot remains unbroken. Branagh's Hamlet may be a visual cinematographic feast, it is still squarely in the realm of theater, and the performances are probably the better for it. As Horatio and the soldiers walk in, Hamlet, coming out of his first soliloquy, is on automatic pilot. He gives them a greeting without recognizing them. Here is a man who's received everyone's condolences or congratulations, most of them hypocritical (in his view). So there's a bit of a double-take:Though Hamlet is quite happy to see Horatio, there is no loving embrace as there sometimes is in other versions. Branagh tries to "earn" their later intimacy, here keeping it to a friendly and enthusiastic shaking of hands. When performed, the lines take on their full meanings, and I keep noticing things I wouldn't normally have from just reading the text (see previous article). For example, how long has it been since Hamlet saw Horatio? They were at Wittenberg together, but Hamlet's probably been home less than two months (since his father's death). It could be less. Travel being a slow proposition in this era (Horatio arrives late for the funeral), he might not have gotten the news until late, then undertaken the trip, and so arrives with his mother already in the arms of another man. There's no real sense that he was at Elsinore when his father's murder occurred. And yet "I am glad to see you well" and the actors' performance seem to have the two friends separated for a good length of time. Is this just more of the play's "elastic time"? Time is out of joint once again.

As mentioned in the previous article, Hamlet and Horatio are not of the same social class, but Hamlet likes to consider him so (part and parcel of his gracious "princeliness"). When Horatio calls himself Hamlet's servant, Hamlet responds with an equalizing comment: "I'll change that name with you". He accepts neither of Horatio's attempts at self-deprecation (servant and truant) because he places his friend on par with himself, and he is neither.

Note also the difference between Marcellus and Bernardo. Marcellus is addressed by name, so Hamlet knows him. Cast as an older man, he probably served under his father and Hamlet trusts him. Bernardo is only addressed as "sir" (and barely at all), leading me to believe Hamlet doesn't know who he is. In effect, Horatio and Marcellus are vouching for him by allowing him to be present.

Thanks to the actors' quiet intensity, another line I'm picking up on here is "He was a man, take him for all in all". Hamlet has just spent some time deifying with analogies to Hyperion and Zeus, but now he's "just a man". God or ghost, Hamlet Sr. is now a creature of the supernatural, and one of Hamlet's difficulties is figuring out on which side of the afterlife his father rests. It also puts in question whether Claudius is a "man" at all, since he does not compare to, say, Hyperion, and Hyperion is analogous to "man". I'll try to remember this line when we get to Hamlet's "What is a man?" where again man is "like a god".
Then, change of venue and the first cut since Claudius and Gertrude left the stage. Hamlet says "Let me hear", but doesn't want to do it in the open. We soon understand why as he steps into a secret passage into the study. The ballroom is full of access points from which someone might spy or catch the characters in conversation. As Horatio tells the story, there's a cute moment from Jack Lemmon/Marcellus I never noticed before. On Horatio's "whilst they, distilled Almost to jelly with the act of fear, Stand dumb", Marcellus gives him this look:
It's the only time he takes his eyes off Hamlet (in fact, all eyes are on the protagonist's reactions), as if in slight outrage that Horatio would calumniate him so. And yet, he can't quite mount a defense. Horatio is on Hamlet's level, and he's just a lowly guard. It's not his place to speak and he has to bear it. It's a nice, subtle character moment that goes with the exasperation evident elsewhere in the play. First, Horatio won't believe him about the Ghost, and later, he is forced to swear multiple times ("We have sworn already!").

In the previous article, I said Hamlet's questions about the Ghost could be a kind of test to see if the trio really saw what they think they saw. Branagh doesn't really play on that. Instead, his Hamlet seems worried about the state of his father's spirit ("look'd he frowningly"). And still, he mistrusts the apparition from the first. "If it assume my noble father's person" implies a doppelganger. He'll have to see for himself, and lets Horatio and the soldiers out from yet another secret door.
The staging continues to support the paranoia and conspiratorial mood of the play. When they're gone, Hamlet starts speaking in voice-over for a line and a half before using his voice again, something he also did at the start of Scene 2. Branagh keeps bouncing between the two modes, keeping it dynamic, but also for believability's sake. The voice-over section comes while his friends might be in earshot.

Hamlet's reaction is a scholarly one. He goes to his books and looks up "Daemons".
He calls the Ghost his "father's spirit" but also "doubts some foul play". Once could think he means the murder of his father with the latter line, but they might also be misgivings about the identity of the spirit. The book underscores that interpretation and supports the action of the end of Act II Scene 2, and Hamlet's doubt over the Ghost's motives.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I.ii. Ghost Stories

The final section of Scene 2 is Horatio's revelation to Hamlet about the ghost of his father. Because it treads over the same narrative ground as Act I Scene I and does so more dramatically (i.e. without speeches about historical context), this scene is often used to justify cutting Scene I. Consequently, many versions of the play will have us meet Horatio and the soldiers here. Either way, it's the scene where Hamlet and Horatio's friendship is first revealed and explored.Enter HORATIO, MARCELLUS, and BERNARDO
HORATIO: Hail to your lordship!
HAMLET: I am glad to see you well:
Horatio,--or I do forget myself.
HORATIO: The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.
HAMLET: Sir, my good friend; I'll change that name with you:
And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio? Marcellus?
MARCELLUS: My good lord--
HAMLET: I am very glad to see you. Good even, sir.
But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?
HORATIO: A truant disposition, good my lord.
HAMLET: I would not hear your enemy say so,
Nor shall you do mine ear that violence,
To make it truster of your own report
Against yourself: I know you are no truant.
But what is your affair in Elsinore?
We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.

The relationship as written makes Horatio the commoner and Hamlet the aristocrat, but despite the conventions of class that subjugate one to the other, there is also friendly camaraderie between them. Hamlet teases his fellow student and Horatio is self-deprecating (as per their respective hierarchical positions), but they are still able to share a private joke, equals on an academic level. Hamlet has much the same relationship with Rozencrantz and Guildenstern later, though the missing element there is love. They are false friends, while Horatio is a true friend. By doubling R&G, he also indirectly doubles Horatio's worth. If they characters are balanced against each other in the play, it takes two of Hamlet's treacherous friends to balance Horatio's loyalty.

HORATIO: My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.
HAMLET: I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;
I think it was to see my mother's wedding.
HORATIO: Indeed, my lord, it follow'd hard upon.
HAMLET: Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!

Though Hamlet has kept quiet about his opposition to his mother's hasty marriage to this point, he now opens up. Certainly, he's spoken of it to himself in the soliloque, but here makes Horatio his sounding board. Horatio is in many ways Hamlet's "control subject". He is Hamlet without the tragic experience (loss of a father/whoring of a mother) from the same school (of thought). When Hamlet speaks to Horatio, he might as well be talking to himself, and in Horation we might see what Hamlet was before his father died. As we'll see shortly, both men have the same open but skeptical mind vis-à-vis the supernatural.

What is perhaps stranger is that Hamlet opens up in front of Bernardo and Marcellus. Does he know these men to be loyal to his father rather than the new king? Or are soldiers, like servants, considered insignificant, mute and dumb?

My father!--methinks I see my father.
HORATIO: Where, my lord?
HAMLET: In my mind's eye, Horatio.
HORATIO: I saw him once; he was a goodly king.

It would be natural for Horatio to wonder here if the ghost hasn't already appeared to Hamlet.

HAMLET: He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
HORATIO: My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.
HAMLET: Saw? who?
HORATIO: My lord, the king your father.
HAMLET: The king my father!
HORATIO: Season your admiration for awhile
With an attent ear, till I may deliver,
Upon the witness of these gentlemen,
This marvel to you.
HAMLET: For God's love, let me hear.
HORATIO: Two nights together had these gentlemen,
Marcellus and Bernardo, on their watch,
In the dead vast and middle of the night,
Been thus encounter'd. A figure like your father,

More on the social class of the soldiers: Horatio tells THEIR bit of the story as if it were his own. As Hamlet's friend and a learned man, he may be better at telling it, but on a class level, perhaps he is closer to Hamlet's position than they are, and would never speak directly to him unless asked to. Hamlet can hear this and trust it from Horatio, but not from them alone.

Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pe,
Appears before them, and with solemn march
Goes slow and stately by them: thrice he walk'd
By their oppress'd and fear-surprised eyes,
Within his truncheon's length; whilst they, distilled
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me

Nor to Hamlet, an echo of his dread father.

In dreadful secrecy impart they did;
And I with them the third night kept the watch;
Where, as they had deliver'd, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes: I knew your father;
These hands are not more like.
HAMLET: But where was this?
MARCELLUS: My lord, upon the platform where we watch'd.
HAMLET: Did you not speak to it?
HORATIO: My lord, I did;
But answer made it none: yet once methought
It lifted up its head and did address
Itself to motion, like as it would speak;
But even then the morning cock crew loud,
And at the sound it shrunk in haste away,
And vanish'd from our sight.
HAMLET: 'Tis very strange.
HORATIO: As I do live, my honour'd lord, 'tis true;
And we did think it writ down in our duty
To let you know of it.
HAMLET: Indeed, indeed, sirs, but this troubles me.
Hold you the watch to-night?
HAMLET: Arm'd, say you?
HAMLET: From top to toe?
MARCELLUS BERNARDO: My lord, from head to foot.

It'll be interesting to see how the various versions make the two characters speak the same line simultaneously and not make it seem artificial (if they do at all).

HAMLET: Then saw you not his face?
HORATIO: O, yes, my lord; he wore his beaver up.
HAMLET: What, look'd he frowningly?
HORATIO: A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.
HAMLET: Pale or red?
HORATIO: Nay, very pale.
HAMLET: And fix'd his eyes upon you?
HORATIO: Most constantly.
HAMLET: I would I had been there.
HORATIO: It would have much amazed you.
HAMLET: Very like, very like. Stay'd it long?
HORATIO: While one with moderate haste might tell a hundred.
HORATIO: Not when I saw't.
HAMLET: His beard was grizzled--no?
HORATIO: It was, as I have seen it in his life,
A sable silver'd.

This is all part of Hamlet's skepticism. He asks about specific details to see if the trio's story is coherent.

HAMLET: I will watch to-night;
Perchance 'twill walk again.
HORATIO: I warrant it will.
HAMLET: If it assume my noble father's person,
I'll speak to it, though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace. I pray you all,
If you have hitherto conceal'd this sight,
Let it be tenable in your silence still;
And whatsoever else shall hap to-night,
Give it an understanding, but no tongue:
I will requite your loves. So, fare you well:
Upon the platform, 'twixt eleven and twelve,
I'll visit you.
ALL: Our duty to your honour.
HAMLET: Your loves, as mine to you: farewell.
Exeunt all but HAMLET
My father's spirit in arms! all is not well;
I doubt some foul play: would the night were come!
Till then sit still, my soul: foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes.

Hamlet gets a short aside once Horatio and co. are gone, in which he ponders just why his father's spirit has not been allowed to rest. He suspects something already (his "prophetic soul" later), since his own spirit cannot find rest in the world of the living.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - French Rock Opera

As I said under Act I Scene 1, Hallyday actually starts his musical vision of Hamlet with the first soliloquy. It explains the premise, so that's as good a place to start as anywhere. The song is "Le vieux roi est mort" (The Old King Is Dead). Listen to a bit of it HERE.

Here are the complete lyrics in French, followed by my rough translation:

Le vieux roi est mort
Le vieux roi est mort depuis moins d'un mois
L'herbe sur sa tombe ne pousse encore pas
Le vieux roi est mort mais pas encore froid
Qu'on change tout les draps pour un autre roi

Le royaume entier a porté le deuil
Suivi le cortège en criant «je t'aime»
Mais il n'est pas d'arbre perdant une feuille
Qui ne continue à vivre quand même

Ma mère n'est que reine, la reine n'est que femme
La femme n'est que chienne, un batard l'enflamme
Casse toi oh ma voix, brise toi mon coeur
Mon amour, tais-toi, pleure à l'intérieur

Il a mis du blanc sur la reine en noir
Tous deux ont dit «oui» mais leurs voix tremblaient
C'était moitié rêve, moitié cauchemar
D'un oeil ils riaient, de l'autre ils pleuraient

C'est mal et ça fait mal
Oui, c'est mal et ça fait mal
Quand un homme a trop mal
Il n'en sort que du mal!
Du mal! Du mal! Du mal!
Du mal!...

The Old King Is Dead
The old king has been dead for less than a month
The grass on his grave still does not grow
The old king is dead, but is not yet cold
Let all the sheets be changed for a new king

The entire realm has suffered the grief
Followed the procession crying "I love you"
But there is no tree that loses a leaf
That does not continue to live just the same

My mother is only a queen, the queen is only a woman
The woman is only a bitch, a bastard lights her fire
Break my voice, break my heart
My love, shut up, cry on the inside

He put white on the queen in black
Both said "yes" but their voices shook
It was half a dream, half a nightmare
With one eye they laughed and they cried with the other

It's wrong and it hurts
Yes, it's wrong and it hurts
When a man hurts too much
He only sees the evil!
The evil! The evil! The evil!
The evil!...

Notes on the translation: First, I have to stress the word "chienne" is far less harsh than "bitch", but that is nonetheless how the word translates in every sense. There is also some difficulty translating the word "mal", which can mean "wrong", "pain" and "evil". There is a play there that doesn't really translate.

Though the song does cover the wedding banquet more than Hamlet's soliloquy ("an auspicious and a dropping eye" is in there), I have placed it here for a couple of reasons. One is that Hallyday tends to voice Hamlet's point of view above all others, so it's easy to see this first song as the first soliloquy which also comments on the previous part of the scene.

The other reason is that the song features imagery that connects to the soliloque. It makes me note the connection between Denmark's "unweeded garden" and the metaphorically violated tomb of his father. His wronged father has been planted in the ground and he becomes the seed of evil from which the country's doom will spring. The moment when the Ghost becomes a "mole" is another such image which I had not previously considered. In the future, I'll take more care to look at Denmark's connection to the underworld and how the latter's gates are open to let loose evil on the former. Hamlet's father decays even as his state does.

The song also has Hamlet accuse not just his uncle and mother, but the entire country. They also loved his father, and indeed, they should be included in those who have forgotten him.

Though the song uses different images than the play does (I like the black-to-white queen, for example), it also obliquely refers to those of the play. In that way, the "common" return to nature of a corpse is featured as the tree metaphor, but Hamlet/Hallyday also mixes into the idea that a man's memory should outlive him, in his mind, forever.

Divergences from the play do exist. Hamlet Senior has been dead less than month, making the wedding even more precipitous than in the play. It also has the royal couple delivering their wedding vows with shaky voices. Excitement? Fear? Insecurity? The characters could have separate reasons for this "tell".

I have listened to this album frequently in the last decade or so, but only through this exercise have I been able to notice not only new things in the song, but in the play as well. There's something to be said for a compressed, translated and askew viewpoint on the play. On a personal note of appreciation, "Le vieux roi est mort" is one of my favorite songs on the album. I just like how it starts and its resounding pa-pa-pam punctuation.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Classics Illustrated

The Original
As previously mentioned, there is no wedding banquet in the original Classics Illustrated. Weddings are for GIRLS! Consequently, the comic ignores Hamlet's confrontation with the royal couple. We do get the famous first speech though, and here it is in one efficient panel.Not a lot of artistry to it, is there? While there isn't much to say about the staging here, we can still look at what the rather large cuts do to the play. In this version of the story, Hamlet isn't reacting to anything immediate. He's alone in the castle, brooding. Nothing in the text truly suggests the immediacy of just having confronted one's parents, but such a cut would probably undercut an actor's attempt to provide context for his emotional outbursts. In such a straight and actor-less translation of the speech, such things are not particularly relevant. However, as the funeral and wedding are not represented in the comic except as a caption on the spash page, it doesn't help with clarity.

The Berkley version
Tom Mandrake gives a lot more room to this sequence, thankfully. Hamlet DOES confront his parents, in this case appearing from a shadowy staircase. He wasn't necessarily present at the previous scene's posturing, hypocrisy and disrespect for his status (above Laertes'). Regardless, this is an angry Hamlet more reminiscent of Maloney's in A Midwinter's Dream. Since comics feature static images, Mandrake must choose a single expression for any given chunk of dialogue. Hamlet's is anger as he delivers his first puns. Claudius is also angry as he asks about his prevailing grief, while Gertrude is obviously concerned.

The characters don't really shift from those expressions panel to panel. The result is that Hamlet is angry both at his uncle AND mother, and that Claudius' "unmanly grief" accusations are stern indeed. It also means that when Claudius leaves the stage, he does so impatiently. Her concern for Hamlet remains, and she is led away perhaps before things are satisfactorily resolved to her mind. An interesting direction I haven't quite seen from filmed versions.

Hamlet starts his soliloque before other characters are entirely out of the room, which is a little off-putting, but it does get four panels to the original's one.
The first pictured here (actually the second) is interesting because it almost looks like a silent panel. The monologue is actually on top of the next panel and the speech bubbles completely cut off from the character. I don't know if it's done on purpose, but it does make the speech somehow more internal. As if by a disembodied voice, a bit like the voice-over in certain films. In keeping with his anger, Hamlet kick a bench.

Now you'll excuse me for this, but I can't help but think of those old Charles Atlas ads at this point, especially since it's done on the Hercules line (Hercules/Atlas... some relationship there). "Mac" in those ads is so angry at having been bullied at the beach and losing his girl to the bully kicks a chair when he gets home. He vows to work out using the Atlas method and goes back to the beach to kick the bully's ass. I'm afraid there IS a certain parallel with the play...

The very end of the speech is on the next page in yet another panel, but since Horatio enters in that same panel, I'll have to save it for next time.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - A Midwinter's Tale

Again, sorry about the quality of the screencaps. All I have is a VHS tape, and I'm taking pictures right off the television.Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale is a comedy, first and foremost, but not all characters are send-ups. Richard Briars' Claudius plays it straight, as does Michael Maloney as Hamlet. Of course, by this point in the film, Maloney's character Joe has been offered a part in a Hollywood movie and had to leave on the eve of the play's opening. His sister Molly has taken over the role, but as soon as Claudius addresses her, she shows why she was only the script girl. She freezes.

Then out comes Joe from behind the crowd as Hamlet. He has returned just in a nick of time, prepared to sacrifice his career for the purity of theater.
It creates some interesting staging. Though a youth on stage seems to be spoken to, it's not Hamlet after all. Claudius might as well have called out at the sky. Hamlet is hidden in the room, somewhere. The confusion plays with other identity reversals, such as Polonius being killed in the name of the King, Claudius taking Hamlet Senior's place, and Rozencrantz & Guildenstern getting beheaded in Hamlet's stead. It works thematically. On stage, we have a new father who doesn't know his "son" enough to recognize him in the Court.

Joe/Hamlet makes great use of the church space by coming out from behind and barrels towards Claudius with anger. His opening puns lash out at the King. There is no ambiguity about Hamlet's outrage here.

And then back to comedy, as Molly gets pulled off the stage, and John Sessions as Gertrude overacts and mangles a line: "Can thy colored nighty off!" The joke is that a queen is playing the Queen, and though it sounds stupid and insulting when I say it like that, Sessions' character is so endearing and touching that it comes off very well.

So some do's and some don't's for prospective directors here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Slings & Arrows

In Slings & Arrows, the faith people have in the character of Jack Crew, action movie star trying to find legitimacy on a Canadian stage, is pretty slim. As he comes into the light to deliver his first speech (we do not see the confrontation with his parents), other actors call it "the moment of truth" and critics sharpen their pencils. Jack himself has little confidence in his performance, and visibly has a hard time swallowing as he eyes the attentive crowd, who are only waiting for him to screw up.

We only get to "That it should come to this", but Jack does quite well. As with many characters in S&A, he "uses" his own feelings t inform his character. His insecurity becomes Hamlet's, his outrage and hurt stemming from resident pencil pusher Richard Smith-Jones (who in the previous episode had tried to sabotage his performance) becomes Hamlet's. Jack has his own unweeded garden here, and his sarcasm is palpable.

It is said that Hamlet is such a deep character, there are as many legitimate performances of him as there are actors to play him. S&A plays with that by showing us how an actor's particularities come to inhabit the character and thus the play. They further merge the real world and the world of the play by making Jack as reticent as Hamlet (though of course, there's another Hamlet analog in the story to incarnate his brilliance/madness).

Though I can only discuss Slings & Arrows briefly on this blog, I hope people will try to discover its three 6-episode seasons (Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear). It's excellent television, and a real charm for Shakespeare fans especially.

Friday, November 6, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Fodor (2007)

Fodor omits both Hamlet's traditional entrance AND his first soliloquy, skipping instead to Horatio telling him about the Ghost. What is the effect of this sizable omission?

In this version of the story, Hamlet is not confronted about his prevailing grief, and at the cocktail party, does not appear sad at all. His drama will begin with the visit from his father's ghost. He seems to have completely accepted the situation before that point. This is a major difference and one of many changes that make the film less about the character of Hamlet and more about fiddling with the play itself. Billed as a ghost story, it may be appropriate for it to make the Ghost the sole motivator of the action, leaving Hamlet's moral judgment by the wayside.

Without Gertrude's supplication that he not go to Wittenberg, we have a Hamlet who wasn't really going anywhere in the first place, and certainly, Wittenberg's religious connotations are not an issue. This Hamlet is a man of the modern world, with a morality (or lack thereof) to match. Nothing is rotten in Denmark for him. Not until he's told it is. And that, friends, probably makes him the weakest Hamlet of the project.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Hamlet 2000

Hamlet 2000 also presents a change of venue away from the "Court" (the Media, in this version) for the parents' confrontation with Hamlet. They catch up to him on the steet in a dynamic walk and talk that works well for this Manhattanite Denmark's hustle and bustle. Claudius hangs back as Gertrude accosts her son, and hidden from her view, he gives annoyed and impatient looks back at his bodyguard.

Speaking of hiding, note the sunglasses. Characters trying to hide some shame wear them in this scene. Gertrude never takes them off until the very end, and Hamlet takes them off when he bares his soul to her with his first speech. Hamlet is ashamed of his feelings, or else he would have vocalized them before now. Certainly, he's hiding his true self from Claudius who doesn't deserve to know him. Gertrude is visibly shamed by Hamlet's speech, in this version rather more aware of her improprieties than most, and so she continues to hide behind the shades. Claudius, for his part, is shameless.

When Claudius comes up to the plate, he's fairly rough with Hamlet, grabbing his arm to accuse him of unmanly grief.
The back half of his speech is cut (as are Hamlet's initial puns, by the way), but what's there is severe enough to make the point. And this Claudius has little time for his stepson's emotional drama. The walk-and-talk takes us directly to a limousine, an impressive display of power and control that thematically replaces the cannons shot at the sky, I suppose, and the parents climb aboard. Gertrude has finally taken off her sunglasses, but she still keeps a barrier between her shame and her son's judgment.
Once Hamlet has given his word he would not go back to Wittenberg, she gives Claudius a radiant smile. It's a good result, and she misses the tone in which the promise was delivered. What we have here is a selfish woman, who though she dotes on her son, still only really thinks of herself. Her shame earlier in the scene is warranted, she's far more a participant in the sins committed here than other versions of Gertrude (and this IS, after all, a more cynical modern world).

Before getting to Hamlet's first soliloque, the film presents its own invention: A silent scene featuring Ophelia waiting for Hamlet at Elsinore's indoor fountain.
She had tried to pass a message to Hamlet for him to meet her there, and he hasn't showed. Ophelia will be continually linked to water in the film, as a way to presage her death by drowning (in that very fountain). The elemental symbol is a powerful one. She is a creature of dreams and emotion, a condition that will eventually drive her mad with grief.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
This speech is done all in voice-over (with very few snips) as Hamlet scans through old footage of the original royal couple. So has discusses his mother hanging on his father, we actually do see it. His voice is more depressed than outraged. Again, this is a more cynical vision where Hamlet isn't really surprised by the turn of events, but is saddened that the inevitable worst case scenario has occurred.

There is an interesting detail in the footage we see. Hamlet Sr. covers the lense of the camera with his hand, probably annoyed by his son's continual filming. And that brings up one of the questions of the play: What was this relationship like? In versions where Senior's war exploits are mentioned, we can imagine an absentee father, idolized from afar, but not necessarily as noble as young Hamlet would have it. After all, we have a father who asks his son to commit murder, whom Hamlet for a long while suspects of being a devil. In this modern adaptation, Senior is not a warrior, but as CEO of a large corporation, he probably wasn't home a great deal either.

Hamlet scans his footage until, in the final lines, he comes upon a shot of Ophelia. It is at this point that he says "But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue." Very interesting. The line has been interpreted up to this point as either meaning that he had to stop talking because Horatio and friends were coming in, or that he didn't want to hurt his mother. Here we get a third possibility. Hurting Claudius (and the company/country) would hurt Polonius, and thus Ophelia. Hamlet's more overt (though repressed) love for her makes his decision to shut himself off from her more wrenching, and Polonius' claims that he is mad for love more believable.

We then cut back to Ophelia herself, still waiting at the fountain, walking dangerously on its ledge. It's a hint that she may already have a death wish or suicidal tendencies. We'll see more of her suicidal fantasies later.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Kline '90

When Kline's Hamlet is called by Claudius, we get a stunned reaction and coldly rendered lines, and that's the problem with his portrayal of the Danish prince. Kline offers a study in stillness (at least in these dramatic scenes, the antic disposition may yield other results), with minimal gestures and a shell-shocked expression through most of the scene. In trying to see if it was just me not getting it, I looked at a few reviews and found the exact words to express my boredom with Hamlet 1990/II: "The man behind Hamlet's various poses remains the wrong kind of mystery throughout, a remote blank rather than a compelling enigma." (Frank Rich of the New York Times) Yes, that's it exactly. While I know that the character of Hamlet has hidden depths, I want to be able to divine those depths from an actor's performance. Here, either Kline is hiding them or ignoring them in a performance not helped by his elongated vowels and stage whispers, making it often sound like he's telling a ghost story (which of course this is, but that's neither here nor there). One thing he does well, however, is search for his words. Hamlet appears to discover them as he speaks, though he doesn't quite manage to make the rhyme sound natural (few do).
I'm not too sure about Claudius in this scene either. He moves between veiled threats through gritted teeth and teary supplications that Hamlet feel better and stay. On the whole, he's kinder than not, even pronouncing "'Tis unmanly grief" in a hushed tone, as if not to embarrass Hamlet in front of the Court. Hamlet is rather kind as well. Though his opening puns are ironic, he does not attack with them. His tone with his mother is as far from bitterness as humanly possible, tenderly qualifying his grief as if she were a poor soul that simply doesn't understand.

As the wedding party leaves, we glimpse Ophelia hovering in the wide shot, and eventually pulled away, and then the cannons are shot. There's a lot of emphasis placed on these, with Hamlet covering his ears they're so loud.
It's the symbol of his mother and uncle's wedding that is overwhelming him, not the sound. The connection to thunder is well used as Hamlet's world comes crashing down on top of him. It also highlights a connection I've failed to make, and that's the mention of cannons from both Claudius and Hamlet, and their link to God. Where Claudius fires into the heavens, he tries to kill God. It is an affront that leads to tragedy, a subversion of the natural order that turns Denmark into the unweeded garden, and a mirror of his previous regicide, trying to place himself at the very top. Hamlet's mentions God's own cannon, one fixed against self-slaughter. God's guns aim at sins - and by extension, sinners - so the line invites you to foresee God's ultimate revenge on Claudius.

And we do have more obvious religious overtones here with the cross of Denmark's flag in the background and Hamlet falling on his knees at "O God! God!". It is unfortunate that Kline's performance is so "blank", even though tears stream down his face through the whole speech, his voice reveals someone who is dead inside. Probably acceptable as a choice, just not a very dramatic one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Zeffirelli '90

By the time Claudius gets to Hamlet in this version, he's two scenes away from the wedding banquet. We've jumped once again in both time and space, as Hamlet's parents find him sitting in the dark. He shies from the light (which adds a physical sign of his being "too much i' the sun". This has the effect of actually prolonging Hamlet's grief, as we're ever farther from his father's death. The movie retains his two puns, which are here said directly at Claudius. The King is confused by the first (or he at least play-acts confusion) and Gertrude laughs at the second. We don't know Hamlet before his father's death, but we can at least imagine his great wit. With Claudius' sympathetic portrayal early in the story, it is believable that the Queen would these words as more of the same and not see what hides behind them.
Claudius' speech is cut to pieces, so he doesn't hammer home his points as harshly, and he does not chide with his tone. The mood is kept more jovial by moving the "T'is not alone my inky cloak" speech to later. Zeffirelli has orchestrated things so that Claudius remains sympathetic as long as possible. Once his shortened speech is done and he's invited to Hamlet to stay in Elsinore, Gertrude motions him to leave by giving him looks so that she can have a private chat with her son. Glenn Close is rather impish here and throughout the early part of the play - giddy and girlish - which isn't a bad choice considering that she's a thing to be manipulated by men, not an independent woman, as happy with one King as with another.
In this private chat, Hamlet delivers his inky cloak speech. As with Branagh, he make "'tis common" sound like an accusation, but Mel Gibson's Hamlet is otherwise different. Here is a Hamlet who keeps his emotions just under the surface, visceral and in the moment. When Gertrude says "Why does it seem so particular with thee", he is visibly hurt by the word "seems", inspiring that first speech. At the end of it, he turns away almost ashamed of having let this torrent out. He's easily overwhelmed, both by grief and by whatever the present emotional context is.

In this exchange, Zeffirelli also introduces a Freudian Oedipal element, something I truly dislike about some stagings of Hamlet. I agree that there is something Oedipal about the play - Hamlet is jealous of a father figure and winds up killing him - but I don't think the text actually supports an incestual urge (nor is Claudius is real father).
We can agree that kisses on the mouth are not necessarily incestuous in Hamlet's historical context, but we'll see much later how a scene between mother and son turns into a sex scene. Zeffirelli is off-piste there. Gertrude's childish nature brings her closer to her son in age (through attitude), another trick he uses to make the incest work, but again, it isn't supported by the text, and in fact would seem to be contradicted by Hamlet seeing his mother as a sexless being and by his morally judgmental Wittenberg education.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Interesting staging with Hamlet looking out his window at the "unweeded garden" (ironically, barren stonework). It ends abruptly at "Frailty, thy name is woman!" as he slams the window, once again overcome by emotion. His repulsion is too strong for him to continue speaking. This is a Hamlet who cuts himself short because of his outrage. If lines are to be cut, I'd rather it's done to make a point, like it was here.

It would be easy to dismiss movie/action star Mel Gibson, but I really do think he's got the chops to play this Hamlet. It fits him and was the first inkling of what would become possible in Braveheart and beyond. If this version is to be dismissed by connoisseurs and scholars, it should be because of Zeffirelli's attempts to dumb the play down in order to make it more commercial.