Saturday, October 30, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Kline '90


It starts with very odd staging, with Polonius basically standing around in the dark and Ophelia coming across him in her pink dress as she runs through the palace. Josef Sommer gives was approaches an anti-performance, standing aloof from her and basically cuing her lines. He's neither cold nor emotional, just expressionless. He seems detached from the scene completely - and I mean the actor, not the character. I can't explain the choice and can't reconcile it with any interesting reading of the play. It's just bizarre, and Ophelia's all-too-old casting doesn't help any. Diane Venora plays it competently, but still seems miscast, and her lack of chemistry with her father here - which isn't her fault - plays against her.

In the end, he listens to her go, prompts her from time to time, never makes accusations (that piece of dialog is cut), and takes off to bring her before the king, never even touching her. It's perfunctory in a way that seems to indicate the director wanted to get through the scene as quickly as possible, seeing it as a simple plot point.

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Zeffirelli '90

Not surprisingly, Zeffirelli chooses to show the scene rather than hear talk about it. Though the director often butchers the original text, I do admire how efficient he is with the source material. Here, the scene starts with Ophelia sowing in her closet, singing the valentine song pulled from her madness scene. In one fell swoop, Zeffirelli sets up this character trait so that it makes complete sense when it manifests itself during her madness, and evokes a romantic mood for her and the audience that is ironic in a different way than it is in its proper location.

This Ophelia is a naive slip of a girl who smiles when she sees Hamlet in her chambers, but at the same time, backs away, awkward and perhaps a little afraid. It's obvious from this that she hasn't really been in a room with a man before. This is an as-yet chaste relationship. In Act I Scene 3, we saw how Polonius and Laertes put the idea of her and Hamlet in her head. Bonham-Carter played the moment as if she hadn't even considered it before. Is this the maidenhead-stealing moment they warned her about? And does a part of her want to defy that warning? Of course, it's NOT that moment. Scene 3 is echoed here by having Polonius spy on them, just as Hamlet spied on Scene 3.
On a purely structural level, doing this means we don't have to then have a scene where Ophelia tells her father everything. Redundancy aside, it may also mean that Ophelia would never have told her father (the letters given her in secrecy now take the bent of having been taken without her consent). Zeffirelli's Ophelia is essentially a powerless creature who never becomes an agent of her own destiny, even fleetingly as she usually does in Act II Scene 1. She makes no choice here.

But what of Hamlet? Does he know in this moment that Polonius is listening? Is he therefore putting on a show? It doesn't look like it, though the interpretation is not impossible. He comes near her, he grabs her arm, which is shocking to her. We fear violence. He smells her, like an animal would. Clearly, Hamlet has lost his grip and we can assume he's not being cruel on purpose, knowing he's being seen. But is he symbolically smelling her father's manipulations on her? Like an animal, his instinct tells him it's not safe here and he finds he cannot speak any words, lest he be compromised. He wants to tell her everything, but can't bear to let his secret out to someone who may spill the beans. It's a very effective performance from Gibson. He lets out the piteous sigh, and we see it as cold breath. And then he goes hard, having let out his emotion, and walks out staring at her, but colder, breaking that bond in his mind.

Poor Ophelia is left standing there unconsoled, as Polonius runs off to tell the king. Though we're missing the first part of Scene 1, Polonius' darkness is established another way. We can question his priorities and his status as a seemingly kindly old man.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - BBC '80

Sadly, the BBC television production's version of this story shows off both the actress and the format's flaws. While from the distance afforded by the stage, Lalla Ward's performance would be acceptable, even the medium shot shows her tears to be absent in all but her voice. We're too close for such a performance. We could hear believe that Ophelia is faking it just as Hamlet is, except that Jacobi's Hamlet is well and truly mad (as he'll realize himself later), and Ophelia is meant to be sincerly distraught. But as I say, from a distance, Ward's performance is adequate. There's a fun moment when she is surprised by Reynaldo's exit and catches herself in time to cursorily curtsy. Polonius is kind to her, even when he makes the accusation, his fatherly love evident.
Even when the staging doesn't inspire much, I do try and pick up on a line I haven't examined before, and in this case, and perhaps because Ophelia herself has a fantastic hat, that line is "no hat upon his head". I just now realized that most, if not all, Hamlets I've seen feature a hatless Hamlet from start to finish. Could we infer that Shakespeare staged it differently? Hamlet might have started with a hat - like other courtly characters have - and signified his madness by taking it off and letting his hair flow wildly. Food for a future director's staging.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Olivier '48

Olivier removes Polonius from this scene entirely, and turns Ophelia's words into a soliloquy and flashback. Unlike most other directors, he chooses to show what Ophelia is describing. There is still a certain amount of subjectivity because the image are clearly coming from her mind (thanks to Olivier's often interesting camera and lighting tricks), but still seems to bleed some of the ambiguity out of it. Olivier's melancholy performance follows the text beat for beat, but by accentuating gestures over words, he brings some of the oddness to light. In particular, the shaking of Ophelia's arm and of his own head make you believe in his madness, rather than any planned cruelty. (Hamlet is such an ambiguous text, however, that we might still infer that causing Ophelia harm on purpose causes those physical symptoms. Perhaps Hamlet goes mad because he is forced to act against those he loves - lover and mother - and so feigned madness becomes real.)
As for Ophelia, she's far from frightened by these events. Instead of the rush to see her father, we have a quiet internal monologue. After Hamlet does a number on her, she simply sits down and resumes her sewing. Obviously, she'll go to her father later, because he talks to the King and Queen about it in the next scene, and the implication may be that the voice-over we hear is taken from that unseen meeting. As we don't hear Polonius' reactions, we cannot confirm that. She may have downplayed some elements or emphasized others. In any case, Polonius has been removed from Scene 1, eliminating much from his character.

All this is not to say Jean Simmons doesn't give an intriguing performance here. Her Ophelia is, as we've mentioned before, a child-like dreamer. Instead of panic, she instead gives us bemused reflection as she attempts to make sense of what has just happened. She peruses her own face, reenacting Hamlet's touch and smiling wistfully. The smile drops, perhaps an inner realization that her father must know of it - a natural assumption as we cut to the next scene at that point.

On a personal note, I can't say I'm a fan of Olivier's melancholy Hamlet, but I am a fan of Simmons' naive Ophelia. She brings something entirely different to the role.

Friday, October 22, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted - Branagh '96

Reynaldo's exit is Ophelia's entrance, out of breath and teary. Kate Winslet gives an intensely emotional performance that prefigures her later madness. One thing Branagh does not do here as director is show us flashbacks of Hamlet's visit. He leaves it to Winslet to mime Hamlet's actions. This is a notable choice in a film that makes wide use of flashbacks to generate interest in scenes described but impossible to stage in the theater. The scene not pictured thus continues to be something of a mystery. We only have Ophelia's highly emotional point of view and cannot know what Hamlet's true intentions were.
One line did resonate with me on this viewing: "He falls to such perusal of my face / As he would draw it." It's a line that harks back to Hamlet's oath to wipe away "all fond records" and erase the book of his memory. Hamlet isn't drawing, he's erasing. In the unseen scene, he almost draws her back into his "book", but as he's sworn to only his father's revenge written there, he cannot. Shakespeare chooses his words well. It's as if he would draw it, but "would" is not the same as actually doing it. Also note the ironic use of he word "fall" in the same line.

Watch Ophelia as Polonius starts responding to the story. When he mentions the ecstasy of love, she looks up, hopeful. Does Hamlet love her? She would rather it be that than some malady out of her control. Polonius then asks "What, have you given him any hard words of late?" as if it's all her fault. It's not fair to say Polonius refuses to take responsibility, because he does in his last few lines, but rather that he can't at first see that it's his own fault. Even when he does take responsibility here, Branagh has him say the lines in an aside, not directly at the sobbing Ophelia. She is left believing it was in a sense her fault, or at least that everyone else thinks it is.
Ophelia crawls into her father's bed, which some will want to label as Freudian, but I don't read any incest into it. Rather, it's more mirroring of characters (this is the Hamlet with the Hall of Mirrors, after all). Just as Ophelia was mirroring Hamlet's gestures earlier, here she takes the place of her father's whore in his bed. This merely emphasizes the old man's hypocrisy and corruption. A few moments ago, he had a girl the same age in his bed, and this staging reminds us of that. At the same time, we have Ophelia in bed with her father instead of Hamlet. She's lost one and now has only the other (which she is also destined to lose), and both men are mirrored through the scene. Both are manipulators, of each other ideally, but of Ophelia specifically.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted

On the heels of Reynaldo's departure comes Ophelia in the second half of Scene 1 (if, indeed, Reynaldo makes an appearance at all in any given version) with a story about Hamlet visiting her closet. Why is this scene told but not shown? Seeing as the actor playing Hamlet is about to come onstage for the longest continuous appearances in all of Shakespeare, was it done for practical reasons? More likely, but just as "practical", the picture painted by Shakespeare would have been considered scandalous on the Elizabethan stage, his pants around his ankles, as it were. In a scene that is already about the trustworthiness of any given point of view, we get a second hand account (a naive spy report from Ophelia) that propels the play exactly where Hamlet means to propel it. It is this account that involves Polonius, and Polonius who involves the King and Queen.

All part of Hamlet's plan? One question directors and actors must ask themselves is whether Ophelia's account is true. It's certainly true for her (though imagine a Hamlet where Ophelia is a willing accomplice, at least, until her father's death), but was Hamlet faking? Did he sacrifice Ophelia's love for his new cause? Is he using her, or was this a heartfelt goodbye? Or both? The text follows in italics, interspersed with my comments.


LORD POLONIUS: How now, Ophelia! what's the matter?
OPHELIA: O, my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!
LORD POLONIUS: With what, i' the name of God?
OPHELIA: My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me.

Here is the portrait I was referring to. Hamlet is a man who very recently has been loosed out of hell, or from the nether realm in which the Ghost exists, placing this scene very soon after Act I. In fact, it is a reaction to Act I's revelations. There, we had Hamlet vow to erase the slate of his memory and here, his clothes and hair are undone, a graphic representation of an unmade man.

LORD POLONIUS: Mad for thy love?

Polonius immediately jumps to this conclusion. It is his first thought on the matter, and it remains the one he supports until his demise. We've already discussed how Polonius is the man who consistently gets it wrong, and here we see how. Rather than looking at all the evidence, he sticks with his first notion and keeps building upon it even when others suggest alternatives. Why IS it his first thought? Guilt about having given his daughter the interdiction may already have been on his mind.

OPHELIA: My lord, I do not know;
But truly, I do fear it.
LORD POLONIUS: What said he?
OPHELIA: He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,

The use of "thus" encourages the actress playing Ophelia to mime Hamlet's actions, in effect merging with him now that he is ironically out of her grasp. It's a mirror between the two lovers, if you will. Both will suffer from madness, both will have their father slain, etc. This early mimic sets up that mirror.

He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being: that done, he lets me go:

These lines, more than any others, point to Hamlet making his goodbyes and in effect putting to rest his old life. A more ruthless Hamlet could still fake this great sigh, of course, but the audience wants to believe Ophelia here, as she has a privileged relationship with Hamlet.

And, with his head over his shoulder turn'd,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
For out o' doors he went without their helps,
And, to the last, bended their light on me.
LORD POLONIUS: Come, go with me: I will go seek the king.
This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures. I am sorry.
What, have you given him any hard words of late?
OPHELIA: No, my good lord, but, as you did command,
I did repel his fetters and denied
His access to me.
LORD POLONIUS: That hath made him mad.

Polonius comes to that conclusion a second time.

I am sorry that with better heed and judgment
I had not quoted him: I fear'd he did but trifle,
And meant to wreck thee; but, beshrew my jealousy!
By heaven, it is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion. Come, go we to the king:

Polonius accuses himself of wrong-doing, but at the same time justifies those actions. He meddles, but his children lack discretion. It evens out. He must still do what he does. In fact, he'll next go to the King and Queen and meddle some more. The dramatic irony of Polonius is that while other characters in Shakespeare can overhear themselves speaking, he cannot. Other characters can realize things about themselves and adapt, he learns nothing of the truths he speaks.

This must be known; which, being kept close, might move
More grief to hide than hate to utter love.

Wrong again, Polonius.


Visual media can of course show us what here is merely told, through Ophelia's lens or a more objective third person point of view. We'll look at how that choice, among others, affects the various versions of the play under examination through the next few articles.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

II.i. Reynaldo - Tennant (2009)

The 2009 Hamlet features an outwardly patient Reynaldo in the service of an aging and dottering Polonius. He smiles at jokes he doesn't really get and tries to walk away before the rather lengthy conversation starts again (the comedy exit is brilliant). This is a fair way to play since Polonius' long-windedness is Shakespeare's big joke. Just as he ironically has Polonius later go on and on about being brief, and in a later moment pointing out that a speech is too long, here he basically talks to himself, as the other character in the scene barely gets a word in edge-wise. It strikes me now that Polonius asks the questions he immediately answers ("Wherefore should you do this?").

There's irony in the language as well. Polonius uses words like "drift" more than once, as well as "slips". His own slip is an amusing, but disturbing one. Polonius loses the thread of his speech and, far from the 1996 version's test, appears to be losing his mind, and even realizing he's doing so.
It's an episode of Alzheimer's or dementia which puts in question Polonius' entire agenda. Why IS he sending a spy to follow his son? The genial Polonius in this version doesn't usually seem sinister. It's like the evil he does is almost accidental, casual and without reflection. It's just what he does because he's always done it. Does he even know there's been a change of kings? His mental competence is certainly in question. If he's obsessed with what the director calls hyper-surveillance, then what should we make of the shot of the conversation from the security camera?
Even as Polonius instructs his spy, he's the victim of surveillance. From whom? Claudius? Some unknown agency? The audience? Basically, he's under surveillance by dramatic irony. The shot is there to show us a man who has lost control of his own tools (whether that be spycraft or words). In general, whatever Polonius says in the play, the opposite has a better claim to the truth. He will be brief only by being long-winded. He will spy only by being spied upon. And he will never be right about anything - not Hamlet's madness, not his designs on his daughter, and not where to hide in Gertrude's closet. Everything he says is thus suspect, including his suspicions about Laertes' behavior, later to be refuted in everyone's dialogue (calling him a valiant youth, etc.).

In other words, Polonius' untrustworthiness gives Laertes' actor license to play him as the opposite of his descriptions.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

II.i. Reynaldo - Fodor (2007)

Or I should say Reynalda. Fodor's more experimental, horror-driven version has already transgendered Polonius and Horatio, and now does the same with Polonia's agent. Now it should be said that this scene doesn't follow from the end of Act I anymore. Or rather does, but other things have been dropped before it, including a musical montage in which we see Hamlet and Ophelia's encounter (which we'll discuss in the next sequence) and the To Be Or Not To Be speech (again, a matter for another day).

The Polonia-Reynalda scene is played as a seduction, with a definite sexual undertone throughout ("under"tone may be underselling it). Polonia feeds her agent black cherries and wine, while dressed in red silk evening wear. The Ghost bears silent witness to her decadence, and the occasional graininess of the film gives the impression that a third party is watching (perhaps it's the audience). At one point, the sound drops out and we hear a ghostly whisper, after which Polonia forgets her place. Polonia isn't old enough to be senile, but she could have played the line as sinister. Instead, we have a third option. She appears confused by the loss of her train of thought (or even memory?). Is she being haunted by the Ghost, who would then be acting supernaturally on characters other than Hamlet? Or is this part of Polonia's sadistic madness?
What she does next is deranged at best. She slips her belt out of her evening gown, and having entranced Reynalda into closing her eyes in anticipation for some pleasure, is about to strangle her with it. Only Ophelia's entrance breaks the spell and prevents her from doing so. There is ambiguity here. It could be a sex game involving suffocation, or it could really be a "spell", putting Polonia under the Ghost's control. If it isn't, what are we to believe about someone who kills her own agent just after giving her orders?
Again, the answer doesn't come easily. An unhinged and volatile Polonia could be mercurial enough to kill her own agent, forgetting the mission in that moment of passion. The mission itself could be a pretext for getting Reynalda into her quarters and/or make her disappear smoothly in the wake of the pleasure-driven murder. One clue: As Polonia discusses her brother Laertes - "He's very wild, addicted..." - we see a flash of him striking a woman. There's no need to sully his name when the character has already been shown to be all those things, which Polonia well knows. So is Reynalda's mission a fake from the start? Just a game she plays with her mistress?

As usual, Fodor likes to keep us guessing.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

II.i. Reynaldo - BBC '80

This version of the scene makes me realize how much it hinges on Reynaldo's performance. In the Branagh adaptation, Reynaldo is a sinister figure, and thus the scene is played in a more sinister vein by Polonius. Here, he is a comedic sycophant, and it's hard to think of Polonius as much of a villain. Reynaldo is visibly shocked by Polonius' suggestion that he sully his son's name, but Polonius comes across as being naive and misguided, not sinister and manipulative. These are just very bad ideas he think are the right thing to do. The implication is that the King's chief counselor has no moral compass. He isn't choosing wrong like Claudius did; he is just unable to tell right from wrong.

The way Reynaldo is played as a smiling yes man mirrors Osric's role in Elsinore later, and even that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Polonius seems to surround himself with aides who are excellent at singing praises, but not much else. There is no one in the Court who can tell truth to power, which will prove to be why Hamlet is so disruptive. Polonius is a fool who surrounds himself with clowns, and who is played with a distractedness bordering on senility. He really loses his place and seems confused even after Reynaldo's prompting in this scene.

I should also mention some fun bits of comic business in the scene. Reynaldo tries repeatedly to take the notes he's meant to deliver from Polonius' hands, but can never get at them through the older man's animated speaking. He also grabs the coins himself and doesn't wait for Polonius to remember to pay him. Though played for comic effect to keep the audience interested, this again goes to Polonius' failing faculties.