Saturday, June 26, 2010

Other Hamlets: Theatre of War by Justin Richards

It occurs to me that I should find a place for versions of Hamlet that appear in media other than the ones I've chosen to dissect. So from this point on, there is a good chance of my doing just that in between Scenes. Having just run through a number of scenes of David Tennant's turn in the role, I thought it might be appropriate to look at a Doctor Who (currently Tennant's most famous role) novel that makes strong use of Hamlet.

Theatre of War by Justin Richards doesn't feature Tennant's Doctor, of course, but rather Sylvester McCoy's, as part of the New Adventures, a range of books that continued the Doctor's story after the show's cancellation in 1989. The novel presents a future society obsessed with theater and a team of archaeologists who find an ancient theater-projecting machine that creates a virtual Hamlet as well as other plays. Richards has fun with Shakespeare throughout, giving voice to drama critics of the future in various text pieces, or turning some of the text into doggerel written by a fictitious future dramatist called Osterling. (The latter is by all accounts a rather poor writer, but brought people back to the theatre by embracing the technology of his time, more or less creating live action films... not too far from where theater seems to be going.)

For purposes of these articles, the plot of the novel isn't particularly relevant, but I did note down a few passages that are. On page 211, the Doctor makes the following observation about the Hamlet theatre projector: "There's a whole universe captured in there. People who think they're real but who are actually just fiction are running about saying pre-written lines about self-will and never even realizing it." Hamlet is one of several Shakespeare plays that make implicit references to the world being a play, and all of us players, and yet I hadn't really connected with that central irony until I read that sentence. The postmodern answer to Hamlet's inaction is simply that he was written that way. "Fortune", in a very real sense, is dramatic necessity, incarnated as Shakespeare himself. It's not TOO useful to go too far in that direction, but it is a legitimate take on theatre (or fiction in general; but more pronounced when that fiction is meant to be repeated).

Page 270 presents a fictitious critical essay that makes an interesting point about Shakespeare. In contrast to the fictitious Osterling, who wrote detailed stage directions because he did not work with the actors or theatre, Shakespeare's are incredibly sparse, exactly because he DID work with the actors in staging the play. This is an interesting notion, and perhaps how and why directors are now able to stage his plays in such a variety of ways. Today, the plays and their characters seem widely open to interpretation, but originally, they had Shakespeare on hand to direct them, much as Hamlet does with the Players of "The Mousetrap". What was the original intent? We will never know, and that mystery is part of the plays' longevity. The "essay" does mention how Shakespeare actually embeds stage directions in the text, offering the example of the Ghost leaving in Act I Scene 1: "See how it skulks away!". This tells the actor what he must do, and perhaps was a useful cue for actors who had to learn and stage the plays in a matter of days. Since the audience sees the Ghost skulking away, it need not be said, but one must understand how Elizabethan theatre functioned to see its necessity. It perhaps also helped members of the audience who were sitting in unadvantageous seats.

Theatre of War doesn't use Hamlet is a revolutionary way, and is not a proper critical work, but Richards does use it to make some interesting points in a format that suits him. If anything, the scenes with the Hamlet characters reminds one of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in the way other characters are swept into the action of the play, a stronger current that the actual unfolding fiction. Tom Stoppard's play is one we'll have to get to at some point.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - French Rock Opera

Johnny Hallyday's rock anthem for this Scene leaves the Ghost for later and concentrates on the King's rouse, turning it into a full-blown orgy. You can hear the song HERE, but the words follow, and then my attempt at an English translation. Excuse the doggerel. As usual, I've not tried to reproduce the meter or turn into a good song.

Allumer les lanternes rouges
Le palais se transforme en bouge
La viande est rouge, le vin est rouge
Le sang est rouge, les sexes bougent

Le vin couve et l’orgie s’attise
Les rires deviennent gras comme des porcs
Les voiles de deuil font du striptease
Le noir devient multicolore

Du beau, du bon, du grand roi
Voyez mon beau père le crapaud
Du beau, du bon, du grand roi
Grossir et devenir pourceau

Les doigts gras tachent les corsages
Ils glissent de seins jusqu’en croupes
Les mains préparent le voyage
Les peaux s’appellent, les corps se groupent

D’après les mains il sont bien douze
A s’emmêler en sarabande
Ces apôtres de la partouze
Si pleins, si saouls, qu’aucun ne bande


Ce chien de roi, ce roi des chiens
La queue en baguette de tambour
Qui en rotant du vin du Rhin
Prend la reine et lui fait l’amour


The Orgy
Light all the red lanterns
The palace becomes a dive
The meat is red, the wine is red
The blood is red, sexes move

The wine smoulders and the flames of the orgy are fanned
The laughs becomes as coarse as hogs
The veils of mourning do a striptease
Black turns to many colors

The handsome, the good, the great king
See my stepfather the toad
The handsome, the good, the great king
Fatten and become a swine

Greasy fingers stain corsages
Slip from breasts to rump
Hands prepare their voyage
Skins call each other, bodies get together

From the hands, they must be a dozen
Mixing together in a racket
These apostles of the party
So full, so drunk, that none can get an erection


This dog of a king, this king of dogs
His tail like a drumstick
That, belching the wine of the Rhine,
Takes the queen and makes love to her


Hallyday creates strong, almost surreal images that may well be in Hamlet's mind. Lanterns cast a red light that makes the scene hellish in its carnality, at once about lust and gluttony. He also brings back the irony of the funereal wedding, with black veils coming off in a most lascivious way. Animal imagery is equally dominant, in line with Hamlet later calling Claudius a beast.

Hallyday/Hamlet sings all the words except "The handsome, the good, the great king", which the chorus sings. They may be the participants of the orgy in this case. Though the line is entirely ironic, Hamlet himself cannot bring himself to say them. The rouse is much more extreme than in staged productions, but with only songs to recreate the feeling of the play, it is fitting that Hallyday has gone for the operatic.

Act I Scene 4 - Classics Illustrated

The Original
The "series for boys" continues to put heavy emphasis on the Ghost as a supernatural element, opening the scene with a splash page. Of course, it's been distilled to thing single speech, cutting almost all interaction with Horatio and Marcellus, including the notion of the King's rouse (which is not particularly age-appropriate for the original Classics Illustrated). When Hamlet decides to follow the Ghost, note how he does not draw his sword or threaten his allies in any way.
The Ghost's gesture is slightly disturbing however. As usual, Classics Illustrated reduces the play to its plot points and most famous speeches (and yet, no "rotten in the state of Denmark").

The Berkley version
Mandrake likewise doesn't take up page real estate with the King's rouse, but as his strength is in setting a mood, he does start the scene where it should. The three friends are sitting around a fire in the cold and misty wastes of his Denmark, and Hamlet looks bored. An interesting idea... has he given up hope that this Ghost is real? It would help sell the surprise of the Ghost's appearance, except that in comics, all panels exist simultaneously on the page, and readers would have seen it coming.
Though Horatio's warnings are cut from the book, Mandrake gives us a visual sense of the danger. The Ghost walks through the stream (which resonates with Ophelia's death), forcing Hamlet to take the bridge, and they are soon climbing a precarious exterior staircase. The cliff, the flood... their essence is here even if they are not mentioned. As with the classic version, Mandrake's Hamlet doesn't draw his sword in this scene.
It strikes me that this makes all the characters dramatically weaker, either ineffectual and unable to impact the story (Horatio and Marcellus), or toothless and far less dangerous (Hamlet). This is a legitimate interpretation (if rather boring). The characters ARE ineffectual. Beyond Hamlet's delay of his revenge, Horatio and Marcellus cannot resolve the Ghost's dilemma by themselves, cannot prevent Hamlet from following it (despite being two men, one of which is an armed soldier) and in Marcellus' case, dropping out of the play once he swears an oath to say nothing (indeed, a character without lines isn't really in the play). Horatio may be the play's great survivor, but one of his last moments is a failed suicide.

Not to say this is all contained in these few panels, but looking ahead to the rest of the play, these choices make some sense.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Act I Scene 4 - Tennant (2009)

Scene 4 begins with only Marcellus and Horatio in view and Hamlet popping out from behind them. The theme of the scene is surprises, and you could say every character enters from out of nowhere, especially if you're a member of the Hamlet family. The King's cannon shots, for example, actually make you jump. Not so say Claudius physically appears, but he's noisy enough to be heard in a scene in which he doesn't feature. That actually says something about the disrupting nature of the character (at least to the more quiet and contemplative Hamlet, whose father figure is, in this scene, completely silent). The staging adds fireworks to this cannon shot (in keeping with its modernism) and seems to enjoy them in spite of Hamlet's disapproval. Hamlet's speech about Danish reputation is cut, the loss of which I've decried before, but it does allow the friendship to breathe here. Horatio is not truly chided for enjoying the light show.

This is all Shakespeare's cover for the entrance of the Ghost, of course. A distraction until the next scare. The Ghost comes from behind the camera, so out of the fourth wall if you will, and very early separates Hamlet from his friends. This allows Hamlet's speech to be much more intimate as he is cornered by the corpse of his father. Usually shouting at the Ghost from a distance, the staging here creates entirely new opportunities. Hamlet actually takes on a somewhat childish voice, returned to childhood by his father's appearance. Perhaps can we see something of their relationship in this, as it is legitimate to see Hamlet Sr., as written, as a rather sinister parent.
The Ghost walks right out of Hell and into "cold" Denmark, represented by his steaming cloak. A great effect that was apparently created in the stage version as well, with Patrick Stewart being fitted with a smoke machine. The Ghost eventually points to a direction and walks towards it, with Hamlet following. The stage version scored each of the Ghost's gestures with a tolling bell, very ominous, but this is not used in the film's soundtrack.

When his friends try to stop him, he manages to draw Marcellus' dress sword out of its scabbard and threatens them with it.
A clever way to follow the stage direction despite the modern dress. They also make more of a meal out of his threatening gestures, almost stabbing Horatio, who falls to the ground to avoid the blow. It better motivates his fear in the last part of the scene. He's not just afraid of the Ghost (which he has faced twice now, after all), but of Hamlet himself. His final "Heaven will direct it" here becomes a question. He's perhaps hoping that Marcellus will let things go, but knows he'll probably follow. This makes Horatio less eager to leave his friend to his fate.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Tennant (2009)

Scene 3 of Gregory Doran's Hamlet is a domestic, practically normal scene that counterpoints well the drama that is to come. Though played on a bare stage, of course, the location is well used to give us a corner where Laertes and Ophelia no doubt spent their childhood hiding from their tedious father. The normalcy, especially compared to the more stylized black floor scenes, heightens this family's tragedy. This is the last time they will all be together.

Laertes starts the scene looking around, feeding the sense of paranoia inherent in the staging, despite the warmer surroundings. Ophelia helps him with last minute packing, adding a shirt to his luggage, and mostly smiling through his whole speech, perhaps not daring to believe he's right about Hamlet. He's being condescending and she lets him dig his own grave. Though I am on record saying Mariah Gale is lackluster in the role, I must confess to finding her rather engaging in this, her first scene. Ophelia, like Gertrude, is an underwritten role that requires the actress to play it all in her reactions. She certainly does that, though I still find her a little "plain" for a prince to have fallen for her. Of course, that is possibly due to the absence of any other girls his age in Elsinore. If the make-up does nothing for her, costume does. The flowery blouse ties in with Ophelia's scripted flower motif.
Edward Bennett's Laertes offers some illuminating line readings, including particular stress on the word "unvalued". The play has Laertes somewhere in the line of succession, and Getrude belatedly admits that Ophelia could have made a good wife for Hamlet. The Polonius family, whatever their nobility, are not "unvalued persons", but Laertes believes they are. Or perhaps he should have said "undervalued". It's his own hang-up, having grown up in the shadow of the prince, or if only because his father has not properly nurtured him. Certainly, Polonius' parenting style leaves something to be desired. Laertes is patronizing to his sister, because his father is patronizing to them both. That has been his model. Polonius has fed his insecurities and probably driven him away to France. Laertes thus has reason to think his sister is not "good enough" for Hamlet, which means Hamlet is not "good enough" for her (showing two different kinds of importance).

He doesn't make much of a dent in Ophelia's affections for Hamlet. She outright bursts out laughing when he awkwardly mentions her virginity, and exasperated, asks her to at least be wary. In that moment, he knows she won't shut herself off from Hamlet, so he hopes she'll at least go in with open eyes. She's of course not as naive as he thinks she is, as she proves when she takes his condoms out of his luggage and accuses him of being a reckless libertine.
A funny moment made possible by the modern dress, and speaking to a certain hypocrisy in Laertes.

Enter Polonius
Laertes quickly hides the condoms and covers his embarrassment with his "second leave" line (a refreshing break from its usual sarcasm), and soon the two children are rolling their eyes at their father's advice. At one point, he prompts them to finish his sentences (another excellent use of "passing off a line" in this adaptation). They've learned these proverbs by rote. On "rich, not gaudy", Polonius takes Laertes' colorful handkerchief from his breast pocket and throws it at Ophelia, which tells us the advice is specifically aimed at Laertes. It is so often played as a series of platitudes, it's easy to miss that Polonius might have chosen his words carefully. The condoms already showed he was sexually reckless and a hypocrite, and the handkerchief that he expresses himself in fancy. Can we thus infer that Polonius painted a portrait of him in his advice? Laertes thus: Gives his thoughts tongue and unproportioned thoughts an act; can be vulgar; dulls his palm with entertainment of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade; isn't very good in a quarrel, though tends to enter into them; gives few his ear, but too many his voice; takes few men's censure, but doesn't reserve his judgment; is a borrower and a lender. This reversal of Polonius' speech could be used as a template for a character that doesn't have very much stage time.

Another modernism: The second blessing is made in cash. We see more of Polonius' wrong-headed parenting here, as he replaces love with money, and then is aloof to Laertes' attempt to hug him goodbye.

In the Ophelia-Polonius exchange, Ophelia continues her smiling games, indicating that she doesn't take her father very seriously, and he's rather kind and benevolent to her, which makes it strange that she would really obey his wishes. Perhaps one must decide whether she is lying either here, when she proclaims chastity, or later, when she says she limited Hamlet's access to her. It allows Ophelia to say the words, but not mean them, and that's a legitimate (if difficult to show) way of staging it, especially for less innocent Ophelias.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I.ii. Ghost Stories - Tennant (2009)

Hamlet hears steps behind him, quickly wipes a tear and walks off camera as Horatio and the soldiers walk in. As soon as he sees who it is, we get an excited embrace. The soldiers remain at attention in the background. The staging contrasts an intimate friendship and the more hierarchical relationship between prince and soldiers and so gives us a Horatio that is closer to Hamlet than in some versions. I've spoken before of the divide that exists between the two friends, but here we get the feeling Hamlet sees Horatio as an equal.

The soldiers may well fear that admitting to seeing a ghost could lead to reprisals, which is a reasonable motivation for them to go to Horatio first. In this scene, they let him take the lead and tell THEIR story. Marcellus only jumps in when Horatio hesitates (showing he doesn't know Elsinore very well, he needs prompting as to what the location is called).
Without Horatio finding the right details to convince Hamlet, would the prince have believed this story? It's all about trust. Horatio, after all, is an educated man like he is, one not prone to superstition. Horatio has trouble bringing himself to tell the story, because it doesn't fit his/their world view. This version plays it very much like Horatio at first chickens out. "I saw him... once." He has to steel himself to finally say he saw him yesternight.

As for Hamlet, Tennant continues to play the grief as waves of sadness that sometimes assail the character, his voice breaking in points, but on an even keel otherwise. In my experience, that's exactly what grief is like. His body language changes with the talk of the ghost. He crosses his arms, a barrier of doubt between himself and the other characters. Though he tests them at first, especially the soldiers' loyalty (perhaps thinking Horatio is their dupe), he soon believes.

There are a number of small cuts in this scene, a line here and there. One's line's absence in particular revealed something about the text. "Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven / Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!" is cut. Usually, it comes just before "My father!--methinks I see my father". There is a dramatic irony here, as Hamlet mentions in succession heaven and his father. One line may inspire the other, but Hamlet is about to find out that his father is actually in hell. Later, he'll be unable to kill the praying Claudius from fear he would send him to heaven, which indeed would have sent his dearest foe there. Heaven and hell, another mirrored reflection in the play, and the two brothers each on the wrong side.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Tennant (2009)

In the exchange with Laertes, there is an interesting cut to Hamlet during this exchange has him look down at "You cannot speak of reason to the Dane", in what could be shame. He repeats the gesture after each of his more bitter lines as well. Tennant's Hamlet, at this early juncture (he holds back here, and waits to be alone to show his true self), seems ready to fully acknowledge that his feelings are not being reasonable and yet he has them. No, it's not reasonable to stubbornly hold on to his grief, but perhaps they shouldn't be. He's at once ashamed of his feelings, and unrepentant for them.

Claudius finally turns to Hamlet, joining Gertrude who has been looking at her son for a longer time. Hamlet is rather angry at his mother. Implying she is "common" is customary, but the rest of his speech is just as bitter, shocking her. That's when Claudius jumps in and at once chides him and embraces him. A lovely moment comes when he "forgets his line" and Gertrude as to fill in "Wittenberg" for him. Claudius doesn't even know where Hamlet is studying, which puts the lie to him being "most immediate". (We do have to wonder if Hamlet Sr. would have known as much, as an absentee father - part of what Stewart's dual role makes you think about.)
Penny Downie's Gertrude (I think the best I've seen) is deeply embarrassed by this, as she's subtly been trying to pull strings for Hamlet since the beginning of the scene. She's stared at Hamlet, trying to give Claudius a direction to go to. She whispers something in his ear during the Laertes exchange, perhaps "don't forget to do Hamlet next". She puts emphasis on Claudius' kinder words with her eyes. Everything she does works to get her son to stay home and accept the new status quo. And she's quick to accept Hamlet's acquiescence too.

One line that resonated with me, either because of the way Stewart isolates it or perhaps because of Hamlet's mildly nauseated reaction, is "Be as ourself in Denmark". For Hamlet, this is insulting since he sees nothing positive about his uncle. For the audience, however, there's more to that line. If Claudius has murdered a member of his own family, he is in effect asking Hamlet to do the same. Be a killer, like I am. Dramatic irony at its most delicious.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
As the wedding party leaves, we realize that this room in under CCTV surveillance, although again, we're never really told who's watching. It also means the coming soliloquy is seen (if not heard?) by someone, somewhere. From his work on Doctor Who, we already know Tennant is very physical actor. He proves it here once again.
He begins in his back to the audience, and quickly collapses into a fetal position, clearly struggling to get the words out. This is possibly the most grief-stricken we've seen Hamlet in these articles. Tennant has "melted" his Hamlet into the floor, in which he sees himself reflected. On exclamations of "God!", his hand on the floor seems to reach for another, accidentally aping Michelangelo. Hamlet is, in fact, he own "God". A character so deep and alive on the page, and so in control of his destiny (delaying it as he does), that he he takes on the role of the Divine in the play.

He collapses even more, practically digging into his "unweeded garden" (all images created by the actor's physicality), and only turns to us at the "two months dead" mark. From there, though he sometimes gets overwhelmed and hides his face, he speaks directly into the camera. In a kind of parallel to the whole of the play, Hamlet starts out ineffectual, hidden, despondent and isolated, but eventually reaches the point where he is capable of action and confrontation. Through the soliloquy, he goes from depressed and unapproachable to angry and confrontational. When he says "It is not nor it cannot come to good", it sounds like a threat. "I won't let it come to good - these parental types are gonna pay!"

The Stage Play
In the theater, the soliloquy was spoken upstage, back (or side) to the audience, and Hamlet never turned towards it. Of course, the back wall was a big mirror, so audience members could still see his face, depending on their seating. Still, the effect would have been similar. An unapproachable Hamlet that we are only voyeurs of, but not truly privy to.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Tennant (2009)

Importing the mirrored floor from the stage version to the film location, it finds its way here, in a room that will serve many purposes throughout the adaptation. Here it is the banquet hall, but it'll soon be where Hamlet talks to the Ghost, the throne room and other, redressed spaces. Again, the mirroring in the play is highlighted by this design choice, and is also found in the casting. Though in theater, we're used to actors doubling up on small roles, the film version retains that casting. The Players, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, Osric, etc. all have dual roles, even if you don't necessarily notice. Much more noticeable, and an example of true mirroring, is Patrick Stewart playing both the Ghost and Claudius. Two brothers more alike than Hamlet would have us believe, and yet, different in personality.
Stewart's second crack at the role (the BBC's 1980 version being the other) is a much more interesting and mature take on the character. In fact, the first disappointed me, and this one is among my favorite interpretations. As he begins his coronation/wedding speech, he hypocritically chokes back a tear, his voice cracking as he talks about his brother. Soon enough, however, he's making jokes. In this performance, Claudius is well aware of the ironies of his lines ("mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage", etc.) and uses them to make his audience chuckle. Yes, it's a crazy old world, isn't it? Stewart exudes charm, though to Hamlet, it must register as callousness. We see the young prince much earlier than we sometimes do, reacting to the whole situation, glumly, eyes in his champagne glass. Gertrude is sometimes distracted by his attitude, but mostly hangs on Claudius' words.

Though Fortinbras won't appear at the end of this version, he is still a talking point. Claudius gives Cornelia (a harmless transgendering of the character) and Voltimand are present and being sent to Norway to broker a peace. Something mentioned by the director in the DVD extras, but that I don't think I have, is that Claudius' first act as King is one of diplomacy. Hamlet Sr., we'll remember from the previous scene, was a warrior. Though we cannot endure fratricide, we can still ask the question: Was Claudius' coup, motivated by lust and power though it was, a necessary evil for the kingdom of Denmark? Did he, in fact, depose a warmonger? And is he not advocating a gentler, more positive role for Denmark in the world? We can ask, but Shakespeare's answer is to have Denmark invaded by Fortinbras at the end of the play. Diplomacy does not work in this world and war is the proper way to go. Then again, it may be a question of the ends not justifying the means. Claudius' sin cannot bring about a positive change. He can only harvest corrupted fruit from the "unweeded garden".

After dealing with affairs of state, he turns to Hamlet "And now..." but turns on his heels "...Laertes!" Stewart pulled a similar trick in 1980, but here makes it an even more shocking slight.
Laertes (played by Edward Bennett, who was also Tennant's understudy and had to take on the role on stage for a number of weeks when Tennant hurt his back) is intimidated despite the King's jollity. More than taken unawares, it seems like he was thinking of not asking at all. Oliver Ford Davies' wonderful Polonius mouths the words with him.
It's all been practiced, and we definitely get the sense of Polonius' children being sheltered. Polonius takes care of every facet of their lives, and one might imagine a different Claudius acting surprised that his adviser would let his son out of his sight when he asks "Have you your father's leave? What says Polonius?"