Saturday, October 29, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Classics Illustrated

The originalClassics Illustrated stages the speech on a single splash page, with all the important elements in frame, reminding one of Medieval engravings. Hamlet is center stage, coming up behind Ophelia holding her book, and in the background, the two spies drawing back a curtain. The entire speech fills a single speech bubble, a steady stream of consciousness that lacks any kind of nuance (through pauses, for example). Four words are identified as difficult and given footnote translations. Oddly, "conscience" is one of these (given as "self-examination"). Seemed pretty straightforward to me. But the narrator is also quite obvious, telling us upfront that the speech is about contemplating suicide. You know, lest we miss the point. The target audience may well have, but it's still an awkward Cliffs note.

Still, it's one of the better pages in the comic, with a composition stronger than most. Hamlet creeping up behind Ophelia is more sinister and menacing than the eventual outcome of their meeting, and there's something intriguing about having all the characters in the line of sight, as if Ophelia was bait on a hook, the spies as fishermen about to reel in the prince. But these seem more accidental than planned. They suggest some interesting staging ideas for the play, but are flawed in the context of the book itself.

The Berkley version
Tom Mandrake's adaptation also stages the speech on a single page, but paces it through the use of multiple speech bubbles. The pauses created are pretty standard, but Mandrake seems to have thought about them. For example, there's an early pause after "outrageous fortune", indicating that perhaps "taking arms" is an option he had not directly considered before. He's been suffering all this time and "acting" has not truly been considered until this point. Though the speech often seems like Hamlet is regressing after the promise of the Mouse Trap, it can also be seen as a driving force for the second half of the play. Hamlet convinces himself that not acting is the wrong way to go.

Unlike the original Classics Illustrated, Hamlet is shown walking alone. He is not being overheard, nor is Ophelia in sight. She turns up out of nowhere in the next page, surprising both the reader and Hamlet. The single panel here is placed inside the greater layout of the page which shows sea-tossed Elsinore. The decaying building with the sea of troubles at its gates is an image of Hamlet himself. He contemplates his own mortality, even as Denmark - something much more permanent - is described as rotting around him. If a castle or a country are mortal, what chance does a man have?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Slings & Arrows

"To be or not to be" is a pivotal moment in Slings & Arrows (Season 1, episode 5), as movie star Jack Crew is taken aside by director Geoffrey Tennant and asked to finally do a scene with the text. Up to that point, Jack has been paraphrasing, frustrating his cast mates and preventing the director from "seeing the play". Jack's problem is every actor's. How do you make these words - this speech especially - sound fresh? How do you escape from the shadow of all the great actors who have gone before? On a meta-textual level, the speech IS about to be Hamlet or not to be Hamlet. To make something of oneself, or to fail. In the text, though Hamlet is nominally talking about actual, lethal suicide, on another level he's talking about professional suicide. Hamlet is a role filled with risk. It is fearsome. The fear of "dying" on stage may keep you from ever attempting the role, but if it does, you deny yourself the possibility of an enterprise of great pith and moment. That's what's at stake for the actor as much as it is for Hamlet, himself an improvized actor and playwright.

Geoffrey also asks him to make an important choice: Does Hamlet know he is being overheard or not? Jack doesn't have to reveal his choice so long as he makes it. Ambiguity lingers. Jack sits his back to the spies, but also smirks at the end of it. That smirk may be directed at the appearance of Ophelia to stage right though. So did Hamlet just perform for Claudius and Polonius and smiles to himself, a job well done? Or is he darkly amused at remembering his sins thanks to Ophelia's appearance? Or while unaware of the spies' presence, does he nevertheless see through the transparent ploy of his ex-girlfriend being "loosed" upon him? In any case, while Jack's delivery is solid, if without much nuance, his body language makes good use of the actor's own discomfort and shame. Jack is visibly contemptuous of his ability to portray Hamlet, and that makes his Hamlet contemptuous of his own ability to trap Claudius and avenge his father.

As Jack utters the speech, Geoffrey starts to see the play take shape (with the usual musical cue the show uses to render the theater as a magical place), and he and the ghostly Oliver walk through the fantasy. Geoffrey's image of scene has the spies behind a red curtain, steeped in blood as they are, and Hamlet surrounded by candles, a symbol of spiritual illumination, or perhaps an image of mortal life's brevity and snuffability. As the sequence ends, we return to reality and Hamlet stands up to face his Ophelia, a look of marked disappointment in himself on his face. The regret is palpable.
During the play in episode 6, we briefly alight on the sequence again. Budget cuts have made the fantasy version of the play impossible, but the show must go on. Jack's new Hamlet costume is a simple hoodie out of his own wardrobe. The jewelry, including the appropriate skull ring, is also his, part of the osmosis between role and actor that is part and parcel of Slings & Arrows.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Tennant (2009)

One thing the restructured Hamlets make clear is that putting "To be or not to be" before the Players arrive, rather than after, works better if Hamlet is not spied upon or at least doesn't know he's being spied upon. A Hamlet so structured has yet to see a glimmer of hope and may thus be more sincere in his mediation on self-oblivion. And so it is here, and though spies lie in wait, the moment is so intimate, and actually outside the room, so we may infer that the spies do not hear him. The speech is played around the corner of a wall, in near-darkness, with Hamlet progressively revealed. The way he is initially framed and backlit makes him skeletal (something supported by his t-shirt print), an image of mortality and vulnerability, and of revealing something to the audience that is under the surface.

Tennant has a fresh approach to almost every line in the speech, something that's very much not obvious with "To be or not to be". He uses long, pregnant pauses to make us feel like he's thinking those words up for the first time. One of Tennant's best qualities in the role is that he doesn't seem to know what he'll say next, even though he's speaking some of the best known words in all of English literature. The best example of this "freshness" is that though "To be or not to be" is the question, he asks another, putting a question mark on the end of "by opposing, end them?" Hamlet is filled with anguish, which slowly builds towards bitterness. His eyes are closed in pain until he finally looks at us on "there's the rub". At "must give us pause", he swallows hard. Just as his "gorge rises at it" in the graveyard scene later, Hamlet is here physically repulsed by what lies waiting in the afterlife, by extension, his own father's ghost. Bringing a measure of fear to this speech makes perfect sense in the context of having met an undead parent earlier. The physical signs of that repulsion continue through to "sicklied o'er", manifesting what is in the text merely a mental image. It continues the image of sickliness that is background for most of the play, one that covers the whole of Denmark, and is caused by the depraved behavior of its King, and possibly the madness of its Prince as well.

"Soft you now" comes hard and fast on the heels of "lose the name of action", springing TO action even as one gives up hope that any action can occur. Ophelia's appearance thus surprises Hamlet and his audience, taking us out of the meditation and back to more earthly matters.

Friday, October 14, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Fodor (2007)

Fodor's Hamlet places the speech very early in the story, as Hamlet sits at his reel-to-reel and speaks into a microphone just after a musical montage representing his first encounter with Ophelia (unseen but described in the play). It is then followed by Polonia's scene with her spy Reynaldo (or here, Reynalda). In effect, the speech is now part of Hamlet's initial set of reactions to meeting his father's ghost. At that point in his emotional journey, Hamlet is actively thinking about revenge, cutting off ties to loved ones, setting up his cover as a madman, and in this repurposed sequence, leaving a record of his thoughts for posterity. It's a suicide note on audio, except he doesn't go through with it. Hamlet's pace suggests he's been composing it in his head. He rattles off the speech rather quickly, especially the list of ills we must bear here on Earth.
The speech intercuts between the first frame shown and the one above, Hamlet's half-face (an image of ambivalence?). The camera in that shot gets ever closer to him as we delve deeper into his consciousness. These shots are further intercut with Hamlet Sr.'s funeral, as various characters kiss his dead mouth goodbye. We see Polonia in particular, intimating a relationship between her and the former King and a possible role in his betrayal. At "To die, to sleep, perchance to dream", those flashbacks begin, with a frame of various characters all fated to die, lined up in a row. At the very end, as Hamlet himself kisses his father's cadaver, we hear the sounds of bells and sea birds, disturbing elements taking us further into the memory. Those flashbacks are blown out even more than the present day's film treatment, adding a greenish tinge to the proceedings that evoke both a sickliness and perhaps the "pale cast of thought" itself.

A notable cut: The speech is largely intact but omits "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come". Why? I am unable to come up with an answer. Perhaps Fodor felt it was too pretty and precious a line for his horror story. Perhaps the actor skipped over it. Theories?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Hamlet 2000

Hamlet 2000 has a unique placement for the speech: Just after the spies make their plans, and before Hamlet meets up with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. It's a scene completely divorced from the rest of the characters. No one sees or hears Hamlet (who goes in and out of voice-over anyway), nor does the Nunnery scene (still to come) weigh on him. The staging is, I must admit, a little precious for my tastes.

The scene takes place in a Blockbuster, specifically its Action section (to go with "lose the name of action"). Hamlet is a film buff and amateur filmmaker, which makes the setting fairly natural for him. The screens behind him show fiery explosions of the same kind seen during Hamlet's meeting with the Ghost, where they evoked the hell the latter had escaped from. Here, it is the "undiscovered country" Hamlet fears. Though chronologically before Hamlet's meditation on the Player in the film, we at Hyperion to a Satyr can remember that scene's use of James Dean as the nominal actor. When we discover at the end of the "To be or not to be" speech that the explosive film behind Hamlet is The Crow, a link is made between Dean and The Crow's star, Brandon Lee (who gives a kind of salute to camera). Hamlet seems to be fascinated by actors who tragically died young, his own death prefigured in those of his idols.

As for the performance, Ethan Hawke makes his walk as nonchalant as possible, whispering the words when they aren't coming from voice-over, running through.lines at a quick, pause-free pace. This is a jaded Hamlet, one who is either verbalizing things he's already thought about, or repeating words he's written for one of his short films. It takes away from the power of the speech, but is legitimate in the context of the film.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Kline '90

Kline's Hamlet comes into the room and stays at the doorway. We, the camera's point of view, close in slowly until we'll be on his face. There is no indication here that Hamlet knows he's being spied upon, but the staging infers that the speech isn't overheard. Hamlet has yet to step into the trap, his moment of hesitation at the door stopping the action figuratively as well as literally.

Kline's delivery is what you'd expect from his Hamlet, all sighs and tears, but it does get more interesting at the end when he weeps and laughs at the same time, finding it laughable that people bear the burden of all those evils.Hamlet's native irony is revealed much as it was in "What a piece of work is a man", and he mocks humanity (himself included) for being the butt of a cosmic joke, and existential cowards to boot. The tail end of the speech becomes an attack on conscience itself, the immutable thing that is preventing him from acting. A flash of anger at the word "thought" confirms this. He is angry at the morality that is delaying his revenge, in effect cursing God himself. The speech is in fact quite religious without ever mentioning faith. Hamlet's morality is highly Christian (Puritanical compared to the people around him), and those teachings and the fear of the afterlife reserved for suicides in that cosmogony are what stay his hand against his will.

He hears Ophelia coming, with a half-smile imbued with gentleness, but also dread. He has avoided this meeting, just like he has avoided doing anything with meaning. The play tips on the edge of that knife's point.