Friday, September 24, 2010

II.i. Reynaldo - Branagh '96

In Branagh's Hamlet, the small roles are played by major stars, and in this case, Polonius' spy Reynaldo is played by Gérard Depardieu. Unlike Jack Lemon's casting as Marcellus, Depardieu does he have anything resembling a substantial speech, but also unlike Lemon, he doesn't seem an ill fit for his character. Reynaldo is very much a "yes man" who smiles along at Polonius' instructions and is never seen beyond this one scene. Stunt casting like this serves a purpose, and that purpose is to give the part a lot more weight, by extension doing the same for the scene. Giving the role to such an iconic actor lends Reynaldo a richness he would not have had if played by an unknown. With Depardieu in charge of Polonius' mission, we might more easily imagine the Adventures of Reynaldo in Debauched France. There's also an implication here that he's the one who brought the whore in Polonius' bed with him, though only Depardieu's "importance" truly makes this inference possible. He's an important actor, so his character must be an important man. And how does that increase Polonius' own power that he is ordering Reynaldo around? Using a French actor here also adds something, since Laertes is in France. Polonius seems to have access to an international ring of spies, again, increasing his character's power.
We're so used to seeing Richard Briers play kindly old men that Polonius' sinister turn is shocking. We saw a dark side to him when he got angry at Ophelia, but there's a big difference between anger and the deliberate machiavellianism of this scene. Even his eyebrows are shaped for evil. Polonius is in his element here, so confident he barely comes across as tedious. He's proud of himself and is definitely testing Reynaldo when he appears to have lost his train of thought. There's no pause there to indicate a real loss of focus, and Reynaldo is mystified at the question. Polonius is sure his little trap is clever, but it just seems off to Reynaldo. Reynaldo feigns amusement at the older man's wit, but shows his true attitude - a sort of impatient weariness at Polonius' condescending instructions - when Polonius can't see him. Polonius remains a powerful and/or rich man it is worth making smiles at. Depardieu's performance truly infuses Reynaldo with a character that really doesn't appear on the page.
And what of the whore in Polonius' bed? From the look on her face, Polonius may be more dangerous than he seems. There is a huge contrast here between his (unseen but inferred) treatment of the prostitute and his fatherly kindness towards his daughter in the next sequence. But inferences aside, this addition to the scene shows Polonius to be a hypocrite. The text already tells us this (he takes a long time to tell us he'll be brief, for example), but it's easy to interpret such words not as hypocrisy, but as a lack of self-awareness. In painting Polonius as a villain perhaps worthy of his fate, Branagh goes farther. There's a nice visual punch when Polonius mentions drabbing (i.e. visiting brothels) as one of the "sullies" Reynaldo may lay on his son, and he sends the prostitute away through one of his room's secret doors (Ophelia will come in from another, completing the mirror image). He doesn't want his son to partake in various forms of vice, but here he is drabbing, smoking and drinking. Polonius doesn't listen to his own advice, nor does he hold himself to the same standard expected of his children, and this is a conscious thing in Branagh's Hamlet.

A fascinating scene between two great actors. I miss it every time it's cut and I know it's because of this version's power.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

II.i. Reynaldo

After more than a year of Hyperioneering, we finally slice into Act II. I never claimed this was going to be a short ride, did I? Act II's first scene I will divide in two parts. The first is Polonius' talk with his spy Reynaldo, a sequence that is often cut from dramatic presentations, and the second is Ophelia's description of Hamlet's mad visitation, which DOES generally make the cut. Why is Reynaldo so often left out? Well, for one thing, the play is excessively long and most directors want to pair it down. Reynaldo is a minor character who does not reappear in the play later, and his scene is basically there to show what Polonius is capable of (spying on his own son and even maligning him) and to increase the sense of paranoia in Elsinore.

Essentially, adaptations that feature this sequence create a more sinister Polonius than those that do not. That sinister Polonius is a better rounded character, a better match for Hamlet, and understandably in league with Claudius. The actor playing Polonius puts his own spin on it of course, and we'll see how the text lends itself to variable interpretations in the next few articles. Is his rambling calculated to test Reynaldo, or is he actually distracted? It varies. Let's have a look at the text itself (in italics):

SCENE I. A room in POLONIUS' house.

LORD POLONIUS: Give him this money and these notes, Reynaldo.
REYNALDO: I will, my lord.
LORD POLONIUS: You shall do marvellous wisely, good Reynaldo,
Before you visit him, to make inquire
Of his behavior.
REYNALDO: My lord, I did intend it.
LORD POLONIUS: Marry, well said; very well said. Look you, sir,
Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris;
And how, and who, what means, and where they keep,
What company, at what expense; and finding
By this encompassment and drift of question
That they do know my son, come you more nearer
Than your particular demands will touch it:
Take you, as 'twere, some distant knowledge of him;
As thus, 'I know his father and his friends,
And in part him: ' do you mark this, Reynaldo?

Though Reynaldo's actions in France will all occur off-stage and not be referenced again, we can compare the methods Polonius teaches here with his own in the case of Hamlet. Polonius is not direct. He attempts to get information by subterfuge, in a roundabout manner. In the same way that he has Reynaldo make inquiries for him, asking not pointed questions, but obfuscating ones, so will he try to find out the cause of Hamlet's madness with honey traps and interrogation masked in conversation. One should wonder if Hamlet would have been more forward with information is asked directly.

REYNALDO: Ay, very well, my lord.
LORD POLONIUS : 'And in part him; but' you may say 'not well:
But, if't be he I mean, he's very wild;
Addicted so and so:' and there put on him
What forgeries you please; marry, none so rank
As may dishonour him; take heed of that;
But, sir, such wanton, wild and usual slips
As are companions noted and most known
To youth and liberty.
REYNALDO: As gaming, my lord.
LORD POLONIUS: Ay, or drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling,
Drabbing: you may go so far.
REYNALDO: My lord, that would dishonour him.
LORD POLONIUS: 'Faith, no; as you may season it in the charge
You must not put another scandal on him,
That he is open to incontinency;
That's not my meaning: but breathe his faults so quaintly
That they may seem the taints of liberty,
The flash and outbreak of a fiery mind,
A savageness in unreclaimed blood,
Of general assault.
REYNALDO: But, my good lord,--
LORD POLONIUS: Wherefore should you do this?
REYNALDO: Ay, my lord,
I would know that.
LORD POLONIUS: Marry, sir, here's my drift;
And I believe, it is a fetch of wit:
You laying these slight sullies on my son,
As 'twere a thing a little soil'd i' the working, Mark you,

Something I've noticed throughout this speech is the frequent use of ellipses, as if Polonius talks so much that he must fit more words in the pentameter line. I wouldn't be surprised if it was done on purpose.

Your party in converse, him you would sound,
Having ever seen in the prenominate crimes
The youth you breathe of guilty, be assured
He closes with you in this consequence;
'Good sir,' or so, or 'friend,' or 'gentleman,'
According to the phrase or the addition
Of man and country.
REYNALDO: Very good, my lord.
LORD POLONIUS: And then, sir, does he this--he does--what was I
about to say? By the mass, I was about to say
something: where did I leave?

Here is a good example of giving the actors a choice as to interpretation. The exchange could read as Reynaldo being condescending to Polonius (in retaliation for that same treatment) and Polonius testing to see if he was really listening. Or it could be that Reynaldo is attentive and it's Polonius who gets distracted. The line between sinister and foolish can be drawn in different places depending on those choices.

REYNALDO: At 'closes in the consequence,' at 'friend or so,'
and 'gentleman.'
LORD POLONIUS: At 'closes in the consequence,' ay, marry;
He closes thus: 'I know the gentleman;
I saw him yesterday, or t' other day,
Or then, or then; with such, or such; and, as you say,
There was a' gaming; there o'ertook in's rouse;
There falling out at tennis:' or perchance,
'I saw him enter such a house of sale,'
Videlicet, a brothel, or so forth.

Whether a rambler or in love with his own voice, one thing we can say for Polonius is that he is tedious. The entire scene is replete with multiple examples to support each idea.

See you now;
Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:

An interesting metaphor to resonates with that of the "worm that ate of a king" and Polonius later becoming worm food. If he becomes a worm eating at a king (similar to the sponge of another line, but better suited to a decaying realm), he can be thought of as this "bait of falsehood", a liar trying to catch the "carp of truth", which is Hamlet's true self. That truth will prove too elusive for him.

And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out:
So by my former lecture and advice,
Shall you my son. You have me, have you not?
REYNALDO: My lord, I have.
LORD POLONIUS: God be wi' you; fare you well.
REYNALDO: Good my lord!
LORD POLONIUS: Observe his inclination in yourself.
REYNALDO: I shall, my lord.
LORD POLONIUS: And let him ply his music.
REYNALDO: Well, my lord.


Right to the end of the exchange, Polonius must have the last word. Though the play survives without this sequence in it, I find its revelations about Polonius extremely interesting. His hubris is palpable ("we of wisdom") and he suddenly seems like a threat to Hamlet. My first movie Hamlet was Zeffirelli's, where this sequence does not appear, and Ian Holm, for all his prowess, seems to me wasted in the two-dimensional role of the old fool. Had this been in the film, it would have changed his whole character and been much more fascinating.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Other Hamlets: Gilligan's Island

Left without comment

Because really, what can you say to this?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

I.v. Swearing Oaths - French Rock Opera

At around this point in the Hallyday's double album, the timeline gets a little tenuous. Songs are, by their nature, not as linearly narrative as drama is, and are closer cousins to the soliloquy. Interior voices, heightened reality. In Hallyday's Hamlet, where does the first Act end and the second begin? I believe the shift from one to the other is represented by the next two songs, Je suis fou (I Am Mad) and On a peur pour lui (We're Afraid for Him). The first is Hamlet's self-acknowledged switch from sanity to madness, the other the reaction his friends have to his change in behavior. As usual, expect a certain amount of doggerel in the translations:

Je suis fou
Je suis fou comm’une tomate
Je ne tiens plus sur mes pattes
Je marche et vais de travers
Je vois rouge et je suis vert

Pardonne-moi, fou du roi
Si je suis plus fou que toi

Je suis fou comme une ficelle
Je me déroule, je m’emmêle
Je me détache, je m’accroche
Je m’use et je m’affiloche

Je suis fou comm’un navire
Et je vogue sur le délire
Plus d’étoiles, une nuit d’encre
Je ne sais où jeter l’ancre

Je suis fou comm’un soleil
Que se soit par la bouteille
Que ce soit par Ophelie
Je couche avec la folie

I Am Mad
I am mad like a tomato
I can't stand on my own paws
I walk and go astray
I see red and I am green

Forgive me, king's jester
If I'm madder than you

I an mad like a string
I unfurl, I get tangled
I detach, I get snagged
I get used and I get frayed

I am mad like a ship
And I float on delirium
No more stars, an inky night
I don't know where to drop anchor

I am mad like a sun
Whether through the bottle
Whether through Ophelia
I sleep with madness

This lament pretty definitely tells us that Hallyday considers Hamlet's madness to be real. This is Hamlet's voice and he doesn't leave any room for ambiguity. He expresses sadness at what he has become, and in the closing parts of the song, starts laughing maniacally as the chorus throws high-pitched "He is mad!" at him and he repeats key lines from the song. Many of the similes used will seem strange in English, but that's because they were chosen for their rhyme schemes in French (a mad tomato?). On the other hand, those nonsense words invoke Hamlet's madness. The mention of madness in a bottle may, in fact, be more about Hallyday's own experiences with the rockstar lifestyle than Hamlet's, given his railing against the king's rouse.

Also note the foreshadowing of Ophelia's madness and Hamlet's relationship with poor Yorick. The latter creates an early link between Hamlet's madness and the king's jester who in part helped raise him. We'll have more cause to talk about Yorick as another father figure in Hamlet's life down the road.

That was Hamlet's interior monologue. Now comes the reaction.

On a peur pour lui
J'ai peur pour son coeur
J'ai peur pour sa tête
Et ses maux de coeur [not sure]
Il se monte la tête [not sure]

J'ai peur pour sa tête
J'ai peur pour son coeur
On a peur pour lui
On a peur de lui
On a peur pour lui
On a peur de lui
On a peur pour lui
On a peur de lui

We're Afraid for Him
I'm afraid for his heart
I'm afraid for his head
And his heartaches [not sure]
Something gets to his head [not sure]

I'm afraid for his head
I'm afraid for his heart
We're afraid for him
We're afraid of him
We're afraid for him
We're afraid of him
We're afraid for him
We're afraid of him

Half this track, about a minute, is just eerie driving music. If the Rock Opera were actually to be staged, we could well imagine some sort of action occurring here. It's noteworthy that while Hamlet's descent into madness is a relatively straightforward lament, Horatio's perception of the same even is creepy and strange. After that minute, the chorus shows up with an altogether too happy sing-along with a couple of undecipherable lines (I've been looking at various sources, but they either don't give lyrics for this track or else don't make any grammatical sense). The mix of concern and fear inspired by Hamlet's behavior takes us into the second Act, from Horatio and Marcellus to the whole of the Court.