Sunday, December 30, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - French Rock Opera

Johnny Hallyday's concept album includes two songs relevant to the Closet scene. "Ta mère est putain" (Your Mother Is a Whore) does not feature Hamlet's voice, but rather uses the chorus - either the voice of the Danish people or whatever devil is on his shoulder - and an up-tempo reprise of "The Old King Is Dead" motif that links many of the scenes. Here it is, followed by the French lyrics, and then my translation into doggerel:

Ta mère est putain
Le vieux roi est mort
Ta mère est putain
Te voilà d’un coup
Deux fois orphelin
Le vieux roi est mort
Mais pas encore froid
Qu’on change les draps
Pour un autre roi
C’est mal
C’est mal
C’est mal

You Mother Is a Whore
The old king is dead
Your mother is a whore
You, in a single stroke
Are twice orphaned
The old king is dead
But still isn't cold
That the sheets are changed
For another king
It's wrong
It's wrong
It's wrong

The short song is related to the Closet scene only insofar as it pushes Hamlet to visit his mother with violent intent. It's what he hears in his head as he goes up the steps. The second song, is "Pour l'amour" which actually has a double meaning. It can be translated as "For love" (which is what I've done in the translation), but it is also an expression that shortened "For the love of God", equivalent to "For God's sake" in English. Bear this in mind as you read the translation. Hamlet is at once saying "for love" and expressing his (untranslated) dismay. Once again, a video, the original French, and an English translation devoid or rhyme and meter.

Pour l'amour
Pour l’amour, vous n’avez plus l’âge
Votre sang est devenu sage
Votre chair est devenue molle
Et vos seins se rapprochent du sol

Pour l’amour, vous n’avez plus l’âge
Vous ne savez plus, plus faire naufrage
Vous n’avez plus l’eau à la bouche
Ni la tempête quand on vous touche

Arrêtez de tordre vos mains
Je ne crois pas à vos chagrins
Les crocodiles pleurent comme vous
Laissez-moi tordre votre cou

Pour l’amour vous n’avez plus l’âge
Votre corps est un marecage
Le moindre souffle y fait des plis
Il sent la vase et le moisi

Pour l’amour vous n’avez plus l’âge
Pourquoi bisser un mariage
Pourquoi vous maquiller d’ivresse
Vous étiez si belle en tendresse

Arrêtez de tordre vos mains
Je ne crois pas à vos chagrins
Les crocodiles pleurent comme vous
Laissez-moi tordre votre cou, etc.

For Love
For love, you no longer have the age
Your blood has become tame
Your flesh has become soft
And your breasts are closer to the ground

For love, you no longer have the age
You no longer know how, how to shipwreck
Your mouth no longer waters
Neither do you feel the storm when you are touched

Stop wringing of your hands
I don't believe in your chagrins
Crocodiles cry like you do
Let me wring your neck

For love, you no longer have the age
Your body is a swamp
The smallest breath makes it fold
It smells like mud and mold

For love, you no longer have the age
Why encore a marriage
Why make yourself up in drunkenness
You were so beautiful in tenderness

Stop wringing of your hands
I don't believe in your chagrins
Crocodiles cry like you do
Let me wring your neck, etc.

As you can see, Hallyday uses a lot of Shakespeare's original words, but is even more insulting regarding his mother's age, particularly in the first stanza (for rhyme, most likely). In the second, the shipwreck metaphor is a common poetic image of intercourse, the ship landing, spent, on the beach, and it prefigures Hamlet's disappearance at sea later in the play. While Hamlet attacks his mother on the grounds that she's entered into another marriage for lust, the comparison between the two husbands is merely suggested by the use of contrasting metaphors. The first stanza's images are all about earth, and the second about water. In the fourth, we see a merging of the two, as a swamp, which brings us back to the image of a decaying Denmark. How one husband has tainted the memory of the other.

The refrain also contains a shortcut to the rest of he scene. Instead of "let me wring your heart", Hamlet says "let me wring your neck", which introduces the violence of the scene. Gertrude's death is prefigured in the image of drunkenness (Claudius) vs. Hamlet Sr.'s tenderness, the poison cup of wine lyrically already at her lips. Polonius' murder, the Ghost's intervention, these are left as impressions and do not appear in the songs themselves. To a listener not familiar with the play, there are missing pieces of the puzzle. Gertrude is not brought into Hamlet's secret. The song ends with the prince still distrusting his mother.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Classics Illustrated

The original
While the original adaptation cuts a lot of the play down to the bare essentials, it gives this scene seven pages, including a two-page splash. It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, since these comics had a Boy's Own Adventure style, and the scene features both a sword killing and the Ghost. There are still a lot of cuts, mind you. The extra space is given over to action, not words.
As you can imagine, though this Gertrude looks young and sexy, the comic removes Hamlet's rage his mother's sexuality. Classics Illustrated was hardly an innovative enterprise, but we do get a very comic book moment in the showing of the counterfeit presentment of the two brothers, with their pictures inset in the corner, facing each other.
Something else comics do differently than plays and films is the use of captions that interpret the action in third person omniscient. The adaptation does so to cover cuts or clarify actions that would not be clear to its likely pre-teen audience. Some of those interpretations are a little dubious. As Hamlet attacks his mother in the panel following the one above, we learn that he "continues as though the queen had not spoken", suggesting the author believes her expressed regret was contrition enough. Captions are also quick to clarify that she can't see the Ghost.
Above is the two-page splash designed to entrance young readers. While lines are cut like so much fat, a lot of space is devoted to keeping this audience interested. Is that so different from how it's done in the theater? Speaking of cuts, the scene soon wraps up with massive ones made to Hamlet's final conversation with his mother. After "Thou has cleft my heart in twain", she doesn't speak again. Hamlet simply tells her to throw away the worst part and that he's off to England. Even the "grave" pun is omitted in the rush to drag Polonius' body out of the Queen's closet and move on.

Footnotes - Words kids are not expected to know: Glass (mirror); adders (very poisonous snakes).

The Berkley version
In contrast, the Steven Grant/Tom Mandrake adaptation keeps the scene down to three pages, but manages to keep more of the text intact. As usual, Mandrake's art expresses a dark and foreboding mood. Coming into the room, Hamlet already has his sword out and the Queen is already running from it, which changes the tenor of her lines, and Hamlet's too. "Would it were not so, you are my mother" has a murderous edge with a sword in frame, as if the prince is ready to end that state, just as his "father" became a "ghost". When there are cuts, they're unusual and striking. Polonius doesn't cry for help, nor does Hamlet look for a "rat". Either he noticed someone behind the arras beforehand, or he heart a shuffling there, but he just stabs the arras out of the blue, as panel borders get drenched with blood.
Mandrake raises the level of intensity in Hamlet's tirade, closing in with each successive panel on Hamlet's eye and his mother's tear, a skull appearing in the prince's pupil (a Mandrake trademark).
There is no actual movement, no throwing on the bed, no counterfeit presentment, just the sense that Hamlet is dominating his mother, his image impossibly close to hers in that last panel, even as his voice goes down to a whisper. A threat has never been so well implied with so little.

The Ghost breaks the spell and creates another. Unusually, it stays in the picture after Hamlet says it steals away (crucially, "out of the portal" is omitted). So it is present when the prince gives his mother instructions to stop sleeping with Claudius. As with the previous adaptation, this end sequence is heavily cut, though it retains such lines as "I must be cruel only to be kind". Still, Gertrude stops speaking even earlier, at "yet all there is I see". In other words, she does not actually repent. Hamlet only takes it for granted that she does. In this version, it's the Ghost that makes Hamlet realize he should endeavor to save his mother, and her own reactions have nothing to do with his volte-face.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - A Midwinter's Tale

The rush of the montage, doing the entire play in only a few onscreen minutes and providing moments of humor throughout, gives us another dynamically staged excerpt from Branagh's comedy. Hamlet pushes his mother across the stage until she backs to the draped doors where Polonius is hidden, and as if part of the same movement that would have seen his mother harmed, the prince kills the "rat" whose shadow is revealed there. Blood is splashed on the curtains in a horror movie kind of way and as a means to intercut with a shocked audience for comic effect, but the underlying point remains: The answer to "thou wilt not murder me?" might well have been yes without Polonius' fortuitous interruption. And indeed, his entry into the after-life could be what signaled the Ghost that something was amiss. Without Polonius there, behind the arras, things might have turned out very differently. The old man did something right after all, in the end.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Slings & Arrows

Playing it on the floor, Slings & Arrows offers a simple, paired down staging that really speaks to the power of the scene. We don't get enough of it to discuss any particulars, but the fact that such a brief excerpt still manages to move this viewer speaks volumes. The scene is, of course, helped by a shot of the audience, enraptured, but that's one of the things the Canadian series does very well - show the power theater AS theater (as opposed to the adaptations in other media this blog is forced to use). Due to my location, I have never had the pleasure of seeing Hamlet on stage, but I can only imagine. What must it be like to actually be PRESENT as actors/characters experience Shakespeare's poetically-heightened emotions.

Why haven't you watched Slings & Arrows yet? It's just three 6-episode seasons, and I'll guarantee you'll love it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene - Tennant (2009)

Penny Downie's Gertrude starts the Closet Scene by taking off her Queen's reinments. This is to be an intimate scene, without benefit of make-up or hair piece, played in simple gray silk pajamas. When Polonius comes in, she's smoking a cigarette, drinking scotch whiskey and generally angry at both her son and this little man who imposes his presence on the moment. He hides behind a mirrored closer door, which will become an important symbol, as she downs her liquid courage. Hamlet can be heard coming from deep inside Elsinore, shouting and ranting, cawing "Mother" as if a crow. When he enters, he's still wearing his player's crown, which takes off his head impatiently. For all her outrage and bluster, she misses the point that this is exactly what she did to him by marrying his uncle, interrupting the normal succession. She took a crown from him. But Gertrude, though sharp-witted, has a particular blind spot when it comes to her family relationships and for example, did not catch the suggestion that Claudius killed her first husband from the details of Hamlet's play. The trouble they have communicating, likely a recent development, is what makes them act so impatiently towards one another. She almost slaps him, but turns into a kinder tap on the chest. Emotional blackmail rather than punitive violence, but Hamlet, at this point, will have none of it and responds with violence.

Tennant's acting strategy is to discover the text as he says it, which creates an impressive freshness to words more than 400 years old. For example, he plays with "your husband's brother's wife" as if comically working out its complexities. Later he'll find epithets like "fanged" only after a pause, considering the word "adders" less than sufficient to describe the treacherous Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. And so it is with the violence and intensity of the scene. He throws Gertrude on the bed, pulls her face towards newspapers with photos of the two kings, jumps on the bed, and makes it all seem unchoreographed and dangerous. He also discovers Gertrude's text. When she asks if he would murder her, it makes him take pause, disturbs him, shocked that he might have done it in a fit of rage. She starts to crawl towards her nightstand, in fear for her life, and in the drawer is a gun, but she doesn't draw it. That's when she starts to shout for help, making it very clear that she's asking for Polonius specifically, her eyes darting to the closet. Typically, he's slow on the uptake. Hamlet grabs the gun and shoots him, shattering the mirror (a device also used on a large mirrored wall in the stage play). Polonius stumbles out and collapses behind more mirrors, and it's only when Hamlet illuminates his form with a match that he realizes it wasn't the King. As the match burns out, Polonius' life on stage is extinguished forever.
The fractured mirror is an important element in the staging of this adaptation. Hamlet looks at himself in it, an image of his fractured mind (even if we accept he is not mad, he is still split between competing motivations, as is the Queen by the end of this scene). The shattered mirror occurs when Polonius is killed, representing the fracturing of Danish society. Remember that Laertes will return to avenge his father, revolt in his voice, and rebels at his heels. And it's also a play on the idea that Claudius and the Ghost are played by the same actor, the latter character walking "out of the portal" i.e. that shattered mirror. The presentment of two brothers, nearly identical, takes the bent of irony, but as we accept them as two different men, we'll note that Gertrude looks long and hard at her first husband in the newspaper, still apparently grieving. She knows what she's lost and that her second love doesn't invalidate her first. In fact, she turns to Hamlet and recognizes his father's bearing in him. The love she bears for her son informed by Hamlet being all that's left of Hamlet Sr.
We were warned about the witching hour, and it arrives with a gently chiming clock on the dresser. It's midnight and the Ghost makes its appearance, a gray figure, pointing at its son, angry. When it notices Gertrude, it grows kinder, and director Gregory Doran's contribution to the scene is to place them in the same shot, close together, an image of a family reunited. The Ghost even touches her hair, which she slips back into place without noticing. It's an image that will make Hamlet accept he must work with his mother rather than against him, but it's also an ironic image. For all his allusions to Claudius being death itself, a somehow revolting rotting thing, here his mother is sitting on the bed with an actual dead man. This is the state Hamlet would have preferred for his mother, a widow sleeping with the ghost of her husband forever more. Gertrude's subtle reaction to his saying her blood is tame says it all. Children seldom want to recognize their parents' sexuality, even though they obviously sprang from it.

Because she can't see this apparition, her fears that Hamlet is truly mad are confirmed, and his attempts to reel her back into his plan very nearly fall on deaf ears. What she responds to is the childish part of him, which comes and goes. They are trying to reconnect, but though he can plead with her "don't tell [step]dad" and hug her waist, and she can play a game of secrets with him, fingers on lips, and shush him while he cries, it's not long before he must become an adult again, one that talks of killing. They don't need to find the old connection, they need to forge a new one, and it's what they do as uneasy co-conspirators. Gertrude's reactions in this last sequence are incredible. When Hamlet asks her to throw away the worse part of her cleft heart, she laughs in his face with an expression that says "easier said than done" (because it's not a woman's place to refuse her husband's advances? Or because she can't deny someone she loves or, perhaps, someone who could kill her?). It's why he keeps giving her advice in that sense, showing her how she might stay on the wagon, as it were. Penny Downie's performance is incredibly naturalistic as Gertrude's own mind is in danger of snapping under the emotional strain.

Before Hamlet leaves, a final cruelty. Though he repents what he's done to Polonius, he can't help but pronounce a disdainful eulogy for the man. He gives his mother a quick and surprising kiss on the lips, and knavishly intones his good nights. The absurdity of it all makes her break out laughing, a laugh that immediately turns into a tear-stained grimace. This adaptation of the play continues to enchant and surprise.