Saturday, June 30, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - Hamlet 2000

In Hamlet 2000, we don't stay in the theater long. Horatio and Marcella noted Claudius' blenching at the movie screen (as did we), but seems more confused than certain. Still, in cases where the actor playing the King isn't ambiguous in his reaction, there's no real need to dwell on Horatio's. Hamlet races off into night as we hear the song's words in voice-over. It takes an entirely different bent spoken as internal monologue. In the play as written, the lines are a manifestation of Hamlet's exultant victory. Here, it becomes commentary on the evening's events. Some must watch, some must sleep and so it goes. He is saying that only a few, like him, are vigilant, and the world outside is still oblivious to Claudius' crimes. There is still much work to be done, and the melancholy of Hamlet's tone shows him weary still, despite his small victory.

He hails a cab and jumps in, and that's where Rosencrantz & Guildenstern catch up to him, box him in. As the cab drives off, we hear words on the radio, but not from the play, a commercial for buckling up about cats having nine lives. It informs the scene only in the smallest degree. It's about danger and safety, something all the participants are ignoring. They're all playing a dangerous game. The difference between R&G and Hamlet is that the twins don't know it. In fact, Hamlet will survive his deadly encounter with them (he's the cat) and they will not. But here, the Prince is caught and though he tries to remain aloof, he does wipe at his wet eyes from time to time. In the absence of recorders - this version frequently does away with lines about anachronistic props - their conversation ends at "my wit's diseased". He cannot give an answer and that is that. He's not playing coy as other Hamlets do, he's frankly telling they are unlikely to get anything from him.
When he gets off, part of the "witching hour" speech is done in voice-over. It's all about mood. Heavy metal leaks out of a revolving door (the Ghost's passageway to and from the undiscovered country?), steam blows out of sewer grates, and in a few moments, as we cut to Claudius heading out of Elsinore, he crosses paths with a child dressed as a ghost who boos at him.
It's Halloween in New York, apparently, and it's a nice ironic image that a dead child would haunt the King at this point, he who has killed his brother, someone he grew up with, was a child with. It comes after a mysterious scene in which Hamlet is seen bothering a limo driver, but as we'll see, it is merely set-up for the confessional scene.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - Kline '90

In a small ironic twist, Hamlet runs around with a dagger at the beginning of this sequence - false fire indeed! And euphoric, he lets himself fall into Horatio's arms from off the stage, a foreshadowing piece of staging, as well as a call back to his feeling faint after meeting the Ghost. This is the midpoint between getting the mission and seeing it done, the turning point, and each one a blind fall backwards. Does Horatio believe Claudius showed his hand? Or does he just play along with the Prince dangerously swinging that knife around? There's simply no room to play the ambiguity as Hamlet jumps right back onto the stage and starts playing the recorder.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern come running, and spin out their speeches while Hamlet pipes through them. The recorder is his weapon, used either to drown out their words, or swung as a dueling sword. Rosencrantz seems particularly earnest in trying to reason with him, honestly trying to save him from this reckless path he's set himself on. The old friendship appears more tangible in this adaptation. Consequently, Hamlet is less manic, though there are still moments of mad energy, such as on the "pickets and stealers" line, pulling handkerchiefs out their pockets like a stage magician. Regardless, Hamlet is more in control of his words. For example, "I lack advancement" is said with a smile, like he's pulling unconvincing reasons out of the air just to see how they'll respond.

A moment that made me stop and think is Guildenstern's contention that "if [his] duty be too bold, [his] love is too unmannerly" met with a real pause from Hamlet before answering that he doesn't understand that. He pauses, so we do as well. What surprises him in that line, or alternately, what makes him point out Guildenstern's delusion or hypocrisy? To paraphrase, Guildenstern's lack of manners are attributable to being oh so worried about Hamlet. Oh really! The Prince goes on to attack his credibility, so he clearly doesn't believe a word, that somehow these former friends care about him more than they do themselves. And he's very serious and calm throughout the sequence, adding to the earnestness. The scene is usually played with Hamlet being "idle", playing up his madness, and R&G as panicking hypocrites. In this adaptation, it is closer to an honest portrayal of a friendship breaking down. Or any relationship, in fact, because Hamlet is much the same with Polonius.
Of course, Hamlet's claims about imaginary clouds seems like madness no matter the tone. At least, Polonius thinks it so, looking sideways at R&G, trying to get a sign from them about the Prince's state of mind. He awkwardly agrees with everything, trying not to wake the beast, so to speak. Hamlet, too, is giving meaningful looks. Polonius IS the weasel that inspires the cloud simply for accepting the initial premise. A white lie, but one told by a liar nonetheless.

The soliloquy has a trigger: Midnight bells, rung at the "witching hour", giving the whole of the speech a funereal air, and giving the dagger, pulled back out, a fatal and dread resonance.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - Zeffirelli '90

An important difference with this adaptation is that the revels continue even after members of the Court scurry for the exits. It's an odd choice, one that devalues the King's power, though it does better match Hamlet's state of mind. His own song and dance is even more over the top than elsewhere, and he clearly sends such words as "wounded deer" in the King's direction so that it might be heard. This entire performance is witnessed by Gertrude who stands shocked and amazed before finally leaving. Hamlet doesn't have much of a conversation with Horatio before running off, so his friend's reaction remains ambiguous, though Claudius was pretty obvious in HIS reaction. And in the wake of all this, we keep finding fragments of the Nunnery scene - Hamlet tells Ophelia to leave one more time, kisses her, and gives a matter-of-fact farewell. You can practically see her mind breaking.

A change of venue, and we're on a parapet somewhere else, though not too long later since Hamlet has a drum around his neck and a recorder in his hand. He is accosted by Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, but he's obviously had time to settle down and is relatively serious and friendly with them. The better to take a darker turn in the middle of a line, specifically at "It is as easy as lying". Guildenstern is particularly sarcastic with his "I have not the skill", which sets Hamlet off to violence and to choking him with the pipe. The true irony is, in fact, that they really DON'T have the skill, neither in music, lying or getting information from Hamlet. One could probably write a dissertation on this idea. People in the play are consistently required to do things for which they "have not the skill", whether it's R&G's undercover work, Polonius' counsel, Claudius' confession, or indeed, Hamlet's bloody revenge. What is easy, on the surface, may not be so simple, and I am constantly reminded of "to thine own self be true" as the key to to the play. Polonius does not feature in this sequence, so no mysterious clouds, etc. Instead, R&G get some of his lines and are left to "easily" transmit the Prince's message. Of course, "easy" has so far been beyond their grasp.
Hamlet runs down the stairs, away from them, for his brief soliloquy, which is even briefer, ending the scene on "Now to my mother". In other words, he places no conditions on that visit, and after speaking of drinking hot blood and doing bitter business, the lack of such makes us believe he's off to murder Gertrude. It's an omission that creates tension, certainly, but thrown on top of the change of venue, it beggars the question of why Claudius is not more in his thoughts. The guilt of the King spreading to the Queen is a central ambiguity of the play (I could, in fact, have switched King and Queen and still been correct), but by forgetting the King entirely, that ambiguity is not well served. Once again, I find myself frowning at Zeffirelli's cuts.

Friday, June 8, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - BBC '80

Like Olivier's before him, Jacobi's Hamlet sings the opening lines of this sequence, and like Branagh's after him, he infuses the word "friends" with sarcasm and has similar, almost violent mannerisms (for example mock-punching Rosencrantz at "pickers and feelers", and almost jamming the recorder into Guildenstern's teeth). However, there's something very different being done with the staging, something that inspires a new reading of the text. There looks to be a very definite play, on Jacobi's part, on class/position. Hamlet starts out standing on a chair, then comes down eye level to R&G, falls on his knees before them, and finally kisses their feet. From prince to slave over the course of a conversation. This is intriguing because it's a conversation in which Hamlet also claims to lack advancement. He's being incredibly ironic, not only mocking the rise of R&G as sycophants seeking just such advancement, and warning them that the grass is indeed also growing for them. All gardening metaphors are suspect in the play ever since Hamlet called Denmark a rank and unweeded garden, and here, the grass proverb is "musty". Things grow in corrupted form in Hamlet's Denmark, and R&G are liable to choke on the weeds (and in a way, do).

In the text, there is also a play on class in regards to Horatio, but those few lines are some of the rare cuts in this adaptation ("You might have rhymed" and so on). This Horatio is less brazen than other interpretations of the character, and less able to speak truth to power. There is obvious fear of Hamlet in his performance, and a sense that when he says "I did very well note him", he rather means "I did very well note YOU". In this version, remember, Claudius did not really give himself away. There was a stand-off, but the slick politician seems to have come out of it unblemished, while Hamlet appeared completely out of his mind. As usual, Hamlet will dismiss those he doesn't agree with before he hears what he doesn't want to hear.
When Polonius comes in, Hamlet seems to notice the camel-shaped cloud for the first time, and appears genuinely distracted, but the bitterness that ensues reveals it's probably an act. The cloud exists in this version, on a fresco that acts as backdrop to the play-within-the-play. Not that any of its clouds look like particular animals. It's against this background of gods in the heavens that Hamlet's hellish soliloquy is ironically spoken, his hands full of weapons, yet promising not to use them on his mother. As the staging piles on the ironies, so too does the text's ironies become more noticeable. Think of it: Hamlet has just (in his mind) exposed the King's guilt, and is ready to finally do violence, and yet it's to his mother's closet he now goes. Upon her invitation, of course, but if he is so ready to act, why not go directly to the King and murder him? It's because he finds her guilty as well, and indeed makes her the priority over the King. This inner battle has been going on since the start of the play when, in fact, the Queen started out guiltier than the King. Before the revelation of a murder, there was only the betrayal of a husband. It's a fact that continues to blunt Hamlet's purpose.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - Olivier '48

As the Court leaves the "theater", Hamlet sings his lines, throwing his torch in the air jubilantly. He becomes so manic, in fact, that Horatio can hardly keep up and isn't given enough time to confirm or deny the King's reaction (although it was pretty dramatic and clear). Olivier compressed a lot of the action, so there are a number of cuts, including (sadly) the pipe metaphor. This is, after all, a version of the play without Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. A few of their lines are given to Polonius instead, which tends to make him less scatterbrained for the start of the sequence and then seems to make him press the issue as he repeats the summons in his own voice.

Instead of focusing on Hamlet's madness in this moment, Olivier makes lines like "My wit's diseased" as level-headed as any. There's a solid confidence in his treatment of Polonius, and when he points to clouds out in a dark corner of the castle, never even looking in that direction, he is serious and cruel. He's not acting crazy, not seeing things, or even feigning hallucinations. He is testing how far Polonius' sycophancy goes. He never takes his eyes off the old man, implicitly telling him that he owns him: "I am the master here and you'd do well to know your place, you who would command me to go to my mother's closet." A brilliant representation of what is going on under the surface of the cloud exchange.

"By and by is easily said" isn't spoken to Polonius, but as a thoughtful aside. Olivier takes a verbal dagger and points it at Hamlet himself. "By and by" means "in a moment", and implies a delay, so of course we're reminded of his forever-delayed revenge. Easily sworn, but the deadline is something that lacks definition, and the doing is much more difficult. It is somewhat moving that the camera lingers on Horatio after he is dismissed. He wasn't really consulted and sees that he cannot truly help his friend, especially since he strikes me as someone who would never counsel going through with a murder.
The following soliloquy starts with Hamlet his back to us, so that you can't initially tell if he's speaking the words or using voice-over. He is facing utter darkness. When he turns, we see he was indeed speaking the lines, but the original confusion has put you in the right frame of mind - we are hearing a man's inner thoughts. He then starts to go up some stairs towards his mother's closet, looking up at a god-like beam of light. Olivier has crafted an image here that shows Hamlet going from dark to light, from doubt to decision, and at the same time, relates to the King's own dilemma, as in the next scene we will see his words going up, but his thoughts remaining below. Hamlet's own pledge here will be as empty as the King's own prayers.