Friday, May 27, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Zeffirelli '90

Structurally, Zeffirelli's version continues to distance itself from other Hamlet. The Players are not, in this case, announced by Polonius. Pete Postlethwaite (First Player) arrives with his troupe, wagon and pack animals, interrupting Hamlet and R&G's gloomy picnic. They are dirty, "medieval peasants", and come with circling seagulls that evoke the stench of humanity and the garbage it leaves behind. Does this work against the play's intent? In a way it does, reducing the Player King's mirror nobility which one could argue should outshine Claudius'. It seems to comment negatively on the Players themselves. On the other hand, it draws parallels with the worm-eating beggar of Hamlet's parable, widens the divide between the pampered nobility of the court and the rotting Denmark "out there", supports Polonius' impression that they "deserve less", and, when the mirror is finally held up to the King, intensifies the irony.

In any case, Hamlet is ebulliant and calls them "masters". The scene then cuts to Hamlet entering Elsinore with the troupe, wearing a costume and playing music. He is part of this troupe, and their festive joy us contagious. Even the villains are smiling and laughing. This is how things could be between Claudius and Hamlet if not for the regicide that stands between them. Again, irony is intensified, and one could even imagine a reading of Hamlet in which Denmark is not rotting because its King is corrupt, but rather because it hangs on its true ruler (the Prince)'s every mood (as Gertrude does). Denmark is in a sorry state because Hamlet is depressed, and here the entire citizenry shares in his moment of joy. When Hamlet falls, so too does Denmark, at the hands of Fortinbras. It's Denmark-as-Hamlet by way of Gertrude-as-Denmark. We're told she lives and dies by his looks, and so too does the country. It's an interpretation that could be used to explain how she knows so much about Ophelia's suicide (she IS the river as much as the rest of the land), and turns the closet scene into a public accusation forcing an entire country to face the fact they happily let a pretender on the throne. And after all, if Claudius is not the rightful King, and perhaps the Prince is not ready, wouldn't the Queen actually be ruler?

That this scene evokes all this makes me forgive its savage cutting of the Player's speech, and indeed, Hamlet's own. We go from the Players' arrival directly to "Will you see them well-bestowed?" This massive cut, and Polonius' late entry means Hamlet need not be angry at the the councilor's comments. His retort ("who shall 'scape whipping?") is said with wit and a pleasant measure of sarcasm, but not anger. Polonius has not deserved any - he hasn't interrupted or criticized the Player's speech. Hamlet then announces they will hear a play tomorrow night, though the exchange between him and the Player is not shown. We might infer - knowing the play as we do - that Hamlet and the Player devised the "Mouse-Trap" on the way to the castle, but that will not be apparent to the uninitiated. It seems strange to us that Zeffirelli would try to hide 400-year-old plot points, but he is evidently crafting an accessible Hamlet for large movie audiences who might not know the story, playing out its twists and turns as surprises.
It is only after all this that he confides in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern that he is ony partly mad, moving the line from the end of the previous sequence to the end of this one. In its new position, and with the King and Queen now part of the sequence, the line acts as a loyalty test. Hamlet makes like he's leaving, but pops his head back out to watch R&G run to the King and tell him everything that's just gone between them and Hamlet. This confirms their treachery, and acts as a precursor to Hamlet's confirmation that Claudius is likewise a villain. So again, though Zeffirelli plays fast and loose with the text, he replaces it with visuals that, in their own visual way, informs. His version benefits from this closer reading.

Friday, May 20, 2011

II.ii. The Players - BBC '80

The BBC version provides us with a very different take on the First Player's speech, but before we get there, Polonius must announce the players' arrival. As he attempts to do so, Jacobi's Hamlet continues to mess with him. He puts on voices, reads along with the scroll in a show of boredom, throws himself to the ground in worship, imagining Polonius to be the revered figure of Jephtah, and waves his hand in the air with the meter of his quoted lines. This whirlwind of activity confounds Polonius, of course, but sets the tone for the players' arrival. Hamlet is a showman, like they are, and the sequence draws strong parallels between the prince and the people who may play at being princes.
As they enter, juggling torches and tumbling, Hamlet indulges in a bit of stage fighting using wooden swords, prefiguring the play's finale in which he also fights a friend. Hamlet is being bearded by the First Player, a man older than he is, played by Welsh actor Emrys James (the vampire Aukon to Doctor Who fans that same year). The "bearded" line usually indicates the actor being spoken to is younger or as old as Hamlet himself, someone who has grown a beard (i.e. gotten older, from boy to man) since Hamlet last saw him. Subverting the line at once confuses Hamlet's age further and makes us think of the line in more metaphorical terms. I become less interested in the fact the First Player is newly bearded, but more in Hamlet's assertion that the Player would "top" him in some way. He doesn't "beard" him by being more hirsute, but rather by being more emotionally available, and by doing more to reveal the King's treachery with a single scene than Hamlet has managed to do since the start of the play.

Hamlet next addresses the "lady" of the group, and in line with the production's Medievalism, "she" is played by a boy, a boy who proves his voice has not cracked by singing a clear "La". These fun bits are followed by Hamlet's attempt at a speech, which showcases the strong chemistry between him and the First Player. The Player goes beyond his lines by harrumphing here, nodding there, guiding Hamlet through the start of the monologue. He is Hamlet's guide, a telling fact. Jacobi makes less of a meal of it than Branagh does, but at the end of the speech still gets applause. He graciously accepts it, though he mockingly curtsies Polonius when the councilor offers appreciation. When Polonius later interrupts, he does so less brazenly than Briars does in the 1996 version, leaning in on the word "ear" and confiding his comment discreetly, but he draws no less anger from the explosive Hamlet.
As long as we're making comparisons, Heston's Player definitely has more gravitas, while James' emotions are more overt and desperate, bigger and thus more theatrical (as opposed to cinematic). The speech ends with the Player's hands on his face, but when Hamlet takes them off, he is all smiles. And yet, he sniffles through the rest of the scene. The faked "trappings" of grief still required a certain measure of truth. Where James shines as the Player, however, is in how he milks the awkwardness of Hamlet's outbursts against Polonius - slightly amused, but still respectful. He takes sides in the most subtle way possible, an example Polonius might have been smart to follow, but his love for his own wit prevents him from ever being like the Player. Polonius doesn't know his lines or his place, and he will suffer for it.

As the party disbands, Hamlet pulls a wooden sword on Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, providing them with one last scare. They hand him his book back, but he leaves them hanging, never taking it back. The staging here drips with sarcasm, as their "welcome to Elsinore" is anything but heartfelt.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Olivier '48

In Olivier's version, the players only appear after Hamlet has his arranged encounter with Ophelia and "To be or not to be". Though a different moment altogether, it is still a dark one for Hamlet who, in the normal sequence, is meditating on melancholy. Olivier's flights of expressionism thus cast Hamlet in a dark space. Symbolically, Polonius walks in with a torch that illuminates the Prince. And when the players come in (with many torches), the room, which might as well have been the dark of night, fills with light. Polonius' arrival and subsequent announcement of the players gives Hamlet the glimmer of an idea, and that arrival a new sense of purpose, all of it expressed with lighting as much as acting. Polonius reads from a parchment - Felix Aylmer is as amusing as usual - and doesn't know what to make of "He that plays the king shall be welcome."

In the absence of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, there is a certain irony to Polonius being the bearer of news that will undo him and his corrupt king.
From the Players' entrance, Hamlet enters a manic state, delivering lines at a furious pace, often preventing anyone from interjecting. This will be a much shorter scene, heavily cut and missing the Priam speech. "I am glad to see thee well" is spoken to a dog walking on its hind legs, eliciting some laughs. The "lady" is an historically accurate boy. The bearded player is First Player, which makes the character younger that he appears (a mirror of Hamlet's own, doubtful age?). Of course it could just mean he grew a beard, but the text does mean to refer to an actor getting older. Harcourt Williams who plays the First Player was already in his late 60s however. Olivier plays on expectations when choosing his lines' targets to amusing effect, but doesn't really squeeze extra meaning from the text.

Since there is no recital, Hamlet quickly asks them to follow Polonius, and as they go, so does the light. However, Hamlet is now facing front, a reversal of his initial position. He is ready to take a step forward (the play within a play), moving away from the introspection and back-and-forth that has been the crux of the play since his silent visit of Ophelia. In his reconfigured sequence, Olivier loads Hamlet's inaction in the front end of the play, rather than allow ambivalence between thinking up and enacting his guilt-revealing scheme.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Branagh '96

Branagh finds a number of ways to make sure his audience doesn't grow bored during this sequence. There's a long, single taker (or "oner") that follows Hamlet for what is probably an entire roll of film. Because modern audiences are not likely to know the Iliad of Aeneid, the Player's speech is illustrated with silent scenes. And as with many of the smaller roles, he makes use of stunt casting. We'll get to all that in a moment, but let's start at the top of the sequence as Polonius arrives to announce the players' arrival.
This announcement is, of course, redundant, because Rosencrantz & Guildenstern have already done so. Polonius can never be anything but tedious, relating information Hamlet already has. This is also underscored by Polonius reading from the troupe's artistic statement, going through ever redundant genres. Hamlet tries to walk away, and takes an actorly voice to mock him when he can't escape. He recites from the biblical story of Jephtah, he puts on voices, he acts out his madness for Polonius. At the same time, he's letting R&G in on the joke, making them complicit in his disrespect of a lord that while below Hamlet's position, is well above theirs. He certainly has reason to believe Polonius will tattle to the King and Queen, so he sows mistrust between the conspirators. Throughout this scene, R&G look like they don't quite know what's happening, or if this will wind up costing them their heads. When they next interact with Claudius, we'll see characters desperate to make their case and a king who doesn't care to listen. They probably think they've been compromised by their "friendship" with Hamlet. It is doubtful Claudius even registers their presence by that point. As for Polonius, he is visibly irritated by Hamlet's performance, and distracted by it. He fails to recognize what lies under the Jephtah allusion, though this might also be a way to further elevate the puritan Hamlet from the corrupt court. Polonius doesn't know his Bible.

The players then come in, and to respect the time period, the girl who should watch her voice lest it crack is played by a little girl, not a boy. Hamlet is teasing her, and we do get the sense that the entire family is on tour. It immediately makes us compare this family with Hamlet's, and indeed the Player will be King on stage, the lady Queen and another actor the assassin. They seem happier of course and only "play" at tragedy. The point of the sequence is to show actors having more sincere feelings than real people do, so there's that mirror there as well. Later, Hamlet will ask his mother where her blush is. Claudius will pray and not mean it. Hamlet swears revenge, but can't follow through. Here, we have an actor who shows great passion in a speech about fictional characters. If Shakespeare teaches us anything, it is to feel. His characters do and through the poetry, they describe those feelings and make them real. And so in the play, it is the actors who similarly teach Hamlet how to feel.

Hamlet himself is an actor - he plays the role of the madman - and this becomes more literal in this sequence as he starts reciting the speech he asks from the First Player. If the speech was never acted, or only once, as Hamlet claims, he certainly has a strong memory of it. We're reminded that we're in the presence of a great mind. Branagh has fun with it though, with even the kids knowing some of the punchlines (like "gules"). He is finally taken out of his performance by the sight of his own hand holding an imaginary dagger, an invisible reminder of the task ahead.

The First Player is played by Charlton Heston, a choice Branagh says he made to properly show that the Player is a legend of the theater. And indeed, Heston has that (screen) presence. And it's probably his best performance ever. It blew me away and is one of my favorite things about the film. If his casting evokes a legend of the acting world, his speech is also about legendary characters, and these are played by true legends of the stage in the live action "illustrations". Priam is played by John Gielgud:
And Hecuba by Judi Dench:
Could it get any better? Their small roles are still a challenge, as they must show a great deal of emotion in a completely silent performance. Though they are not strictly seen by the other characters in the play, they make the same point the Player does: Actors showing a great depth of emotion (again in an idealized King/Queen configuration).

The Player's speech is interrupted by Polonius, and comically, the music also stops and starts with in between his interventions. Tension mounts between Hamlet and the old counselor until he gets his wrists slapped at the end. It's what he gets for showing evident dislike and disrespect to the players. As the party breaks up, Hamlet sends R&G away, and for some reason, Horatio is now included (having come in with the players). He has no lines, but Hamlet gives him a secret signal to go with them and keep a close eye on them. Perhaps it was felt Horatio had not appeared in too long. Other directors have placed him as a silent witness to all of R&G's scenes, so his presence isn't unwanted.