Sunday, May 30, 2010

Act I Scene 1 - Tennant (2009)

The Gregory Doran-directed 2009 production of Hamlet uses a stylized contemporary/modern dress setting that defies dating. There are modern trappings, but daggers and swords as well. It is Shakespearean in a manner that today's audiences will understand. A heightened reality. Among those modern trappings is the use of CCTV footage at various points in the television presentation.The director wanted to create a sense of hyper surveillance that would heighten the play's paranoia (in the same way Branagh's hall of mirrors does). We never quite know WHO is conducting this surveillance, an ambiguity that can be frustrating. Sometimes, it could be Polonius, but he's not clued in enough about, for example, the stuff with the Ghost. A secret police then, which we the audience are a part of. Another reason to use the CCTV camera is to create the effect of an invisible Ghost. When the Ghost appears later in Scene 1, cutting to the CCTV reveals Horatio and the soldiers talking to thin air. Another effect, especially when you consider that the first shots of the telefilm are CCTV, is to create a postmodern Denmark that seems just as foggy and spooky as the more tradition Denmark of the play. The grainy gray tones gives off a sense of cold and dreariness without the elements having to cooperate.

For the first few lines of dialog, this version of the play gives us a new spin on the words, a spin that plays on the paranoia conveyed by the CCTV. Bernardo relieves the seemingly freaked out Francisco and asks him "Have you had... quiet... guard?" He chooses his words well, wondering if Francisco has seen the Ghost but not revealing his knowledge of this apparition. Who's in on the secret? Certainly not Francisco. Bernardo doesn't want to give it away. Though we know what's coming, Shakespeare had indicated suspense was required for this scene. He has the soldiers call the Ghost a "thing" so as not to give anything away, and when we cut to talk of politics and history, it's only to give us another "scare moment" when the Ghost reappears.
Peter De Jersey's Horatio is as good as they come in the role, and not the first black man to be cast in the role (the BBC also did it in 1980). I only mention it because I just now realized how this makes Horatio less of Dane and more of a stranger (Hamlet calls him a stranger in Scene 5) and explains why he doesn't know about Danish customs. He studies in Wittenberg, but isn't from the area, just as Laertes is off to France. This is, of course, at odds with the line "I am more an ancient Roman than a Dane." Does he mean to be a Dane by adoption? Cut from this scene are references to Roman history, and Horatio protects himself with a crucifix. This is a more Christian Horatio, more in line with the philosophies taught at Wittenberg. Again, this is at odds with the "ancient Roman" line.

The Ghost
When the Ghost first appears, we don't see it. The sequence is shown from the Ghost's point of view, with the soldiers and Horatio cowering in fear before him. Again, suspense is prolonged. Horatio then goes into his recent history of the realm and the Ghost appears, this time in camera, a long ways behind the men. On the next edit, it has creeped up very closely in the flash of an eye.
Patrick Stewart plays the dual role of the Ghost and Claudius in this version, which highlights the concept of mirroring in the play (also see The Stage Play, below). Hamlet Sr. and Claudius are two brothers, both fathers to Hamlet, likely to look alike, and never share scenes. The casting is not only possible, but laudable. The strange armor he wears, using modern materials but respecting the descriptions of it in the text, is an example of how this version exists in a non-temporal Shakespearean reality.

The Stage Play
The stage play of course did not have a CCTV element, but it used lighting and set dressing to achieve similar effects. The stage featured not only a large mirrored background, but a mirrored floor as well, all part of the aforementioned concept of mirroring. Though that idea does not truly put across the idea of hyper surveillance, it does create an unsettling space where actors can be seen from multiple angles at the same time. In that way, the audience sees more than it should, which is a shadow of the same idea. As in this filmed version, the soldiers used flashlights (I'm sorry, I should say "torches") to create the lighting themselves. Reflected in the mirrors, it proved at efficient way to create the chaos of the Ghost's appearances, hiding as much as it revealed.

The mirrored floor is also featured in the telefilm, as we'll see in Scene 2.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Addition: Tennant's Hamlet (2009)

This week, I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company's production Hamlet directed by Gregory Doran and starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart (that sound you hear is a geekgasm). The telefilm is different from the stage performance, but its essence has been preserved, and the director's very interesting commentary indicates how and why changes were made. The opportunity here, then, is to discuss both. The production is modern dress, but it doesn't attempt to set it in a truly modern world (à la Hamlet 2000). I'm happy to add it to the roster of Hamlets featured on this blog, and will run through all these scenes up to Scene 4 in the next few installments, catching it up with the others. There are plenty of excellent performances and intriguing staging ideas, and only rarely do we get the feeling that they were working on a television budget.

If I attempt a brief overall review here, I'll have to admit that this version has entered my top three favorites (along with Branagh's and Jacobi's). Tennant brings a physicality to the role and only once or twice does he become Doctorish (but then, Doctor Who is a Hamlet-like character touched by the same kind of madness, perhaps it was inevitable). Stewart redeems himself completely in the dual role of Claudius and the Ghost. I wasn't keen on his performance in the BBC's 1980 version, but he makes completely different choices here and is wonderful. In Penny Downie, we have one of the best Gertrudes I've ever seen. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are given a new lease on life. And Oliver Ford Davies' Polonius is a new and wonderful take on the character. Only Ophelia proves a deception, but that's often the case.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - Fodor (2007)

There's not much left of Scene 4 in Fodor's Hamlet either. As the trio waits for the witching hour, there is no cause to speak of any kind of "king's rouse". This is a particularly decadent Elsinore, and it is doubtful this Hamlet would retain his puritanical values. The three characters do not, in fact, go much beyond discussing the weather and what time it is. Horatio and Marcellus remain intriguing in their very modern aloofness, but their parts are soon over. Instead of the usual appearance of the Ghost, fearful prayers and Hamlet's headlong jump into the dark, the film goes for a more supernatural sequence. Time stands still. Hamlet notices his friends are frozen in the moment. He then has a vision of himself as a young boy, prancing through Elsinore House in the harsh white sunlight this film associates with the ghost world.
Then he is there too. Flash cuts move him from room to room, have him confront his younger self, until he is alone. And then he gets hit across the face by an invisible hand a few times before the Ghost physically appears.
This is a much more malevolent Ghost than the one we're used to, which may put even more doubt on his tale. If the Ghost is evil, did he perhaps not deserve the death he got even if he's telling the truth? Could Fodor's Hamlet delay his action for more nihilist reasons? Does it matter if his father is avenged? Is he worth avenging only in that Claudius is just as deserving of death? Does Hamlet care either way? By corrupting "Denmark" so entirely, Fodor levels the playing field between good and evil. There is, in effect, no good. If all deaths are deserved, is this still a tragedy?

And yet, there are those shots of Hamlet as a child, speaking to a happy childhood. Are we then to understand that Hamlet Sr.'s time in hell is the reason behind his present corruption? Scene 5 will have him say "I am thy father's spirit", not "thy father". What is the distinction? How far removed from the man's life is his traumatized soul? We'll try to answer these questions when we look more closely at Scene 5 itself and actually hear the Ghost speak.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - Hamlet 2000

Act 4 is pretty much excised from Hamlet 2000, using instead wordless sequences to tell the story. The first sequence has Claudius and Gertrude getting frisky in their limo while Hamlet watches them from the facing seat.This, along with the red carpet/press walk that follows acts as the equivalent of the "King's rouse". There's clearly a party atmosphere in which Hamlet does not share, and if there's a "tradition" here, it's that of enjoying the public eye. Hamlet, when confronted with journalists, says nothing. He is completely disconnected from the way things are done. His parents, in this instance, prove to be extremely selfish beings, which is in tune with the modern view this film takes of the play's characters. There is a strong Gen X vs. Baby Boomer vibe here, where the GenXer, Hamlet, won't buy into the system promoted by his more materialistic Boomer parents. Obviously, this has nothing to do with Shakespeare's intent, nevertheless, it's an interesting filter to see the play through if one accepts it as "universal". Different impulses may have driven the generation gap in Shakespeare's day, and yet a gap did exist. Applying a modern day motivation to that gap is one way of updating the play for each successive audience.

In any case, cutting all the dialog referring to the rouse and its effect on the Danish reputation was almost necessary since it doesn't quite make sense in the world of New York's Elsinore.

Horatio and the soldiers aren't waiting with Hamlet in this version. Instead, he's crashed in his apartment, and they wake him at the appointed hour from the "platform" (or security station).
Since there is no need to explain the rouse to them, they would have little to talk about anyway. The biggest change is that they're not present to try and stop Hamlet from following his father's Ghost. Sure, it avoids mention of cliffs and other terrain not present in New York, but it also makes the entire group far less afraid of the Ghost. Once they've accepted its existence, they don't really fear it. These are characters who might have grown up on horror movies, after all. They might have been willing to be with Hamlet at the appropriate moment, but he is more remote than most other Hamlets. He has cut himself off from them in advance, and so when the Ghost shows up, they haven't yet gone up to the apartment.
Hamlet sees the Ghost on his balcony and lets out the first few lines of the "Angels and ministers of grace" prayer. There's a neat match between the word "hell" and a fiery explosion on the television. These fires continue in a loop (they're part of Hamlet's stock footage collection) through the next scene, creating a hellish, in between the moments, space for Scene 5 to take place in.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - Kline '90

The more I move forward with this project, the less worthy Kevin Kline's performance as Hamlet becomes. I never really liked his take on it, but in comparison to the others, it's pretty ghastly. When I'm more interested in every other character, something is wrong. Worse still, I actively disagree with the director's decisions (which is also Kline). The trend continues in Scene 4, which has a major cut, taking out the speech that comes after "more in the breach than the observance". The scene loses a lot in the process. Hamlet now only tepidly disagrees with the Danish tradition and doesn't lay very much of it at Claudius' feet. Obviously, it cuts out any deeper meaning to the rouse, since Hamlet doesn't expound on it.

Horatio has an interesting line reading in this section, responding to Hamlet's claims that "The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold." with the usual "It is a nipping and an eager air." But he makes it sound like he's disagreeing with Hamlet. Not aggressively, but in a "really? you think? maybe you could say that" kind of way. Hamlet's air bites, but Horatio's only nips. "Eager air" is likewise a much more positive outlook on the situation. Two points of view are presented, one much more negative than the other. I hadn't noticed it before.

It's in this scene that the Ghost appears for the first time in this version.
He comes out of the shadows/mists and waves Hamlet forward. Not much to it. Kline's Hamlet behaves strangely however. He seems enraptured, smiling throughout the sequence. He has no fear, no apprehension (despite his lines underscoring the risk of a hellish Ghost), and doesn't hear his friends' warnings. And when he breaks away from them, he has no weapon, so "I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!" is a threat he cannot make good on. And yet they let him go. This is another of those staging problems I have with this version.

Kline's Hamlet, in my mind, is an ineffectual one. He doesn't retard the action because he overthinks, or can't decide, or is in love with his own character, but because resolving the action is beyond his abilities. This is a lame duck Hamlet. Look at this scene again through that filter. This Hamlet doesn't convince us that Claudius is corrupt based on the rouse. Horatio questions the simplest claim that it is bitterly cold outside. He lets down his guard completely when faced with the Ghost. He has no means to carry out his threat to turn Horatio and the soldiers into ghosts. And they let him go, as if he can't do any harm anyway. Everything is played to weaken Hamlet, a terrible idea, but still a legitimate one. If done on purpose, of course.

The trade-off
I find that when the performances aren't really there, I tend to listen to the text more, and for the first time, I hear clever little things Shakespeare's done. For example, in "Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd", the Bard plays on the how "health" and "hell" sound the same. Hamlet calls the Ghost a "questionable shape", and follows the specter to question it. There are puns upon puns in Shakespeare's work. At least Kline allows me to discover them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - Zeffirelli '90

The King's rouse is played rather differently in Zeffirelli's heavily cut adaptation in that it acts as the wedding banquet (Claudius even lets out the "cannon to the heavens" line). As such, it makes it all the harder to understand what Hamlet's problem is with this tradition. One even has to wonder why one of the guards is given Horatio's line asking about the custom. It looks like any banquet, and even Ophelia attends. Zeffirelli, ever efficient, uses the scene to give several characters meaningful glances at each other - the royal couple is happy, Polonius makes ingratiating smiles at them, and Ophelia timidly responds to Gertrude's toast. While we shouldn't be surprised at Hamlet's refusal to attend (he's against the marriage itself), it is odd that these simple revels would turn the Danish nation into a laughing stock.
Most of the lines from this section are cut, but he notably ends the speech as a soliloquy. All his companions ever hear is the idea that Danes are clepped drunkards based on the custom. Everything else (cut down to its essentials, of course) is said in a private moment as Hamlet watches the party from a grate. Where other Hamlets perhaps give sermons, this one has a personal realization about the nature of a man's flaws. It plays not unlike Jacobi's, but doesn't include any others. Horatio continues to be sidelined in this version, as Hamlet doesn't let him into his innermost thoughts.
Finally, the Ghost appears. First as a face in the dark, then from afar. The viewer may not at first spot him. Though there is no doubt Horatio and the guards see something, the murky lighting and Hamlet's constant shifting between manic elation and fear support the idea of an imaginary Ghost, one that lives only in Hamlet's mind. In this version, we have no proof that Horatio and the others ever saw it. No scene presents it. And yet, this thought is not pursued by the director. Horatio remains in the background, and the Ghost's reality is not questioned.

Another change is that the Ghost is not wearing armor (and all descriptions of such have been cut). This Hamlet Sr. is not a warrior and there are no Pollack Wars mentioned as a context. He seems old and dressed as a monk. Instead of an absent but glorified father, we have a man who might not have been able to properly service his too-young wife, and whose piety and morals are espoused by his son. It changes the whole dynamic of the Hamlet family. As written, Hamlet cannot really know how good his father was, making the Ghost's ambiguity Hamlet Sr.'s as well. Hamlet becomes a scholar and doesn't follow in his father's footsteps. There is a rebellion there that is continued in the mistrust he shows the Ghost, and that may have generated guilt that informs his grief. Claudius would have swooped in while his brother was away. Here, there is no real sense that Senior was absent (the Gravedigger's mention of the wars has no lasting resonance) from his son's life, only his wife's (sexually, whether because of age or morality). Hamlet is using his father as more of a moral compass, explaining his own prudish ideas, but also making the Ghost more sympathetic (as we'll see in the next scene), a victim to be pitied. Claudius and Gertrude are more brazen in their affair.

The scene ends with Hamlet breathlessly following the Ghost through the bowels of the castle, his sword always in front of him as the others lose sight of both.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - BBC '80

Despite being studio-bound, the BBC/Jacobi version does a good job of making Denmark look freezing. By keeping the actors in a single position (instead of the walk-and-talk or pacing stagings previously seen), we get a better sense of them waiting for the Ghost to arrive. In a more dynamic staging, the Ghost seems to appear as soon as the players are in all in place, or at worse, done with their rants about the Danish reputation. Here, Horatio loses track of time because he doesn't know how long they've been there, and all three men are paranoid, turning around at every little noise, hoping or fearing that the Ghost has come. In that context, Hamlet's speech about his uncle's debauchery is just a way of filling up the time. And in that context, the lines do take on added meaning.

I am especially interested in Hamlet's thoughts on the nature of guilt. He says "As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty, Since nature cannot choose his origin--". If Hamlet indeed believes that a person cannot be truly guilty of his crimes because he was born to commit them, it helps explain his ambivalent relationship towards his revenge. The true fault lies with nature or fortune (with God?), not with Man. Compare with his apology to Laertes in which he blames his madness and not himself. Later in the scene, his "fate cries out", again giving fortune the largest responsibility for events. There is a contradiction at play here: If no one is truly guilty, then how can he blame the King's behavior for the bad reputation laid at Danish feet? How is responsibility handed out in this world? Above all, perhaps, Hamlet is a play about a man talking things through, thinking out loud, and debating himself. He forms opinions right in front of the viewer/reader. he may well contradict himself, but by play's end, we hope to find the more complete individual (and we do).

There is a telling moment in Jacobi's performance when they all stop for a noise, determine it is a false alarm, and he just continues on with his speech. On the surface, he appears to be keeping a brave face, but is this really his own nature-given defect? Intellectualizing, talking rather than acting, etc.? In this speech about corruption of character, he is showing us his own flaw.
Then, the Ghost arrives. An interesting gesture from Horatio here, with the hands clasped in prayer. A real change from the unbeliever of Scene 1, chuckling at these stories of ghosts. Of course, one of the few cuts from this version included Horatio's allusions to pagan Rome, so he more clearly painted as a Christian.
As for Hamlet, there is an interesting line reading in "I'll call thee Hamlet, King, father" at the end of which Jacobi adds a question mark. "I'll call thee Hamlet, King, father?" Who IS this Ghost? If he is "Hamlet", it plays on the idea of being his own madness and thus himself. If "King", then he will rule over Hamlet, regardless of whether is the Ghost of Hamlet Sr. returned or a goblin damned. If "Father", then as true Ghost. Jacobi does well to play on this ambiguity, also giving fodder for those who would call into question Hamlet's true genetic origins. (For the truly tragic ending has Hamlet kill his true father.)