Sunday, April 28, 2013

Act IV, Scene 4 - Hamlet 2000

You'd think this modern adaptation, with countries represented as corporations, would cut Fortinbras' "powers" and this scene altogether. You'd be wrong. Instead of a snowy plain, we're on an airplane. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are sniggering, reading Wired and eating peanuts in the aisle opposite Hamlet who is watching in-flight television and looking at postcards that symbolically represent his exile. A plane taking off, a nude painting, a stone mask. We're heading back in time, to parts unknown, to Hamlet's reptile brain, and away from the civilization and intellectualism that has plagued him to date. On the television is Fortinbras, or so a flight attendant says when Hamlet asks. At least, he looks like a flight attendant, until he puts the drink he's holding to his mouth. Is he then just an officer of some kind? In the play, it's Fortinbras' captain, but here, is he the plane's captain? If so, he shouldn't drinking or walking around the craft. It's an odd moment. If I were to give it purpose, I'd say it's a representation of Norway usurping Hamlet's Danish power. A steward approaches with a drink, but then doesn't give it to the passenger and drinks it himself. It foreshadows' Fortinbras' corporate takeover. Not that this is is any way clear.

One thing that is missing from the exchange is the idea that soldiers are about to die for a useless cause in Poland. Because we know the play, we might infer it ourselves. Fortinbras dismantles a Polish company for no other reason "than the name", costing untold numbers their jobs. But there's no way to show this with Shakespeare's text, so Hamlet's exhorting examples don't have anything to do with Fortinbras' war. This Hamlet lives in the modern world and is surrounded by "examples gross in nature", many of which he's used in his art films. We accept his growing determination without it needing a trigger. The staging is crucial. Hamlet heads for the bathroom at the other end of the plane, speaking his soliloquy as he walks down the aisle, an echo of "To be or not to be" in Blockbuster's aisles. This forces him to walk through economy class - largely empty, a sign of severe class divide? - and sees a woman holding a baby. The examples before him, though different than in the play, may still cause his personal call to arms. Seeing other children and other parents only reinforces the unnaturalness his own family relationships.
The plane seems incredibly long, and the dramatic vanishing point behind Hamlet makes him akin to a bullet in a cannon, about to be fired. In the bathroom, he speaks to himself in the mirror, gives himself a mission. Has he become the Ghost himself? He dares himself to act, nose to nose with his reflection, and he will take that dare.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Act IV, Scene 4 - Kline '90

Three things distinguish Kevin Kline's staging/acting of the scene from the other performances studied at Hyperion to a Satyr. First, proximity. This sticking quite close to the way they did it on stage, Hamlet is only a few few away from a young, dashing Fortinbras who has just walked off-screen/stage after giving his orders. Norway's army might be only 40 feet before Hamlet, and the drumbeat to which it walks is heard through the entire scene, practical music that spurs Hamlet on. In a sense, he becomes the army, though his cause is his alone.

The second difference is the sense of suspicion surrounding Hamlet. The Captain makes a face when Hamlet asks him about the army, as if deciding what exactly he will tell him. Is this a sign that the entire Polish campaign is a lie? Doubtful, as he gives too many details. Or perhaps it's all part of a cover story, since obviously, people (including Claudius) might question why Norway attacks this useless piece of land. And the Captain isn't just an officer, he's an ambassador, trusted to deliver a message to the Danish King. He could be skilled in the art of diplomatic deception. If Hamlet is lied to, it creates a layer of irony. Fortinbras, doubling back to attack Elsinore, is at once on the same mission he is - dethroning/killing Claudius - and mimicking Claudius' own actions - usurping Hamlet's rightful place on the throne. Claudius is the alternative to Hamlet Sr., and Fortinbras the alternative for Hamlet Jr. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern also treat Hamlet with suspicion, taking a long time to go "a little before", as if fearing Hamlet might escape their custody. This possibility is made entirely more possible by the army's proximity. He might easily lose himself in the crowd. But as usual, they get it wrong.

The third major difference in the performance is that tears stream down Hamlet's face during his speech. Kline's Hamlet is a rather weepy one, but why here? The scene is done mostly in tight close-up with a bitter Hamlet, getting louder only later as his anger and determination grow. But is he crying for the men who will lose their lives, for the Ghost of his father still trapped in limbo, or because he's disappointed in himself?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Act IV, Scene 4 - BBC '80

Though the studio-bound production is spare in its scope - the white plain a set, and Fortinbras' army a small collection of extras, reproducing the feel of a staged play - the scene is still well set, with flags and sound effects that evoke an army on a war-footing. A fairly soft war-footing, as it turns out. As part of the staging, Fortinbras' last line, "Go softly on", isn't spoken to the Captain, but to another soldier staying with the main of the army as if to evoke a sense of stealthy movement to Fortinbras' troops. They're asking for permission, but perhaps Claudius doesn't know exactly where the army is going, or how many men it represents. Fortinbras is hiding something.

The conversation between Hamlet and the Captain features some of the rare cuts in this adaptation of the play. The Danish Prince doesn't ask as many questions and doesn't react out loud to the futility of this war. Sending Rosencrantz & Guildenstern ahead, he turns to the camera/audience, as usual, to speak his soliloquy in quiet and intimate terms. The contrast with Branagh's bombastic call to arms is striking. Jacobi's Hamlet is bitter and rueful, at once angry and sad that he hasn't yet been able to take revenge and lay his father's ghost to rest. Where Branagh motivated his army of one, Jacobi explains and reasons, until only one conclusion can be drawn from it. His thoughts are now "bloody" as he looks over to R&G, an implied threat, and one the camera lingers on. We are slow to exit the scene and are meant to understand that these two men, Hamlet's untrustworthy escort, are to become his first victims. And there's a certain sadness in Hamlet that it must be so.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Act IV, Scene 4 - Branagh '96

The frozen lake near Elsinore dissolves into a frozen waste between Denmark's mountains, where figures on horseback appear from out of the mist. This is Fortinbras, followed by his Captain, on their way to Poland. Fortinbras, the so-called "tender and delicate prince" seems more like a jaded sociopath, with his cold, insincere eyes, and his Captain is so curt in his line deliveries, we might well believe he does not like his Prince, just as he does not like his plans. If Fortinbras notices, he does not care. Wide shots reveal a large marching army, and it's from a certain vantage point that Hamlet will meet the Captain and be able to survey the military force walking through his country. The way these shots are designed already evoke Hamlet's exile, small figures in panoramic, white landscapes, and the image will be taken to its extreme in the end.

Hamlet isn't grilling the Captain in this version, rather more puzzled than irate (except with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, flies buzzing at his ears), and he introspectively realizes that wealth and peace breed war by making men like Fortinbras restless to the point of launching capricious forays into other nations in search of glory. When we compare the two princes, we might see Hamlet as a man so preoccupied that he cannot choose the right course of action, whereas Fortinbras lacks any kind of preoccupation, and so must spring into action, ANY action, to chase the doldrums away.
In a presentational twist, Hamlet speaks softly with the Captain, but as the music swells behind him and the camera tracks back and back and back, he operatically shouts his soliloquy as if delivering it to an army. And he is, an army of one. Himself. He is, at this moment, convincing himself to finally commit to action. There's an interesting discussion between Branagh and his producer in the director's commentary about why so many adaptations cut this speech, that many directors see it as redundant. Branagh makes the case that unlike Hamlet's other calls to action, this one is a cooler, more intellectual, assessment of why he must do what he must do, and that as such, it is a more auto-convincing argument. It's one thing to feel something, but another to understand the logic of it.

And of course, the dramatic presentation of the speech makes for a better act break - leading to an intermission/disc change in bloody red letters - than a more intimate moment might otherwise have been. The music is big, the words are large, but the man himself is rendered small in the shot, a single individual defiant before his destiny, affairs of state, and a hostile world, the backdrop against which this drama is played. It is Hamlet in scale with the universe of the play, so to speak, and in being smaller becomes bigger.