Sunday, June 30, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Zeffirelli '90

As usual, Zeffirelli plays fast and loose with the sequence of lines, but to good effect. Helena Bonham-Carter's waifish Ophelia is first seen sneaking around outside the castle, wet and dirty, but seemingly free to roam like Hamlet was. As Gertrude watches from the window, the girl approaches a guard at attention, rubs his face, his chest, and quite suggestively, his belt (reminiscent of Greek comedies and their leather phalli), singing the more sexual songs from her repertoire. The uncomfortable guard plays the role of a substitute Hamlet, the "true love she cannot know from another one". These songs she will repeat to herself at the end of the scene, confirming the main reason of her madness, loss of love (the reverse of Hamlet's condition). Someone soon comes to get her, but inside, she starts calling for the beauteous majesty of Denmark, Ophelia's actual entrance in the play, something that fills Gertrude with deep fear. Why is this madness more disturbing to her than her own son's? The truth of it may be that it isn't their first such meeting.

Here they meet on the giant steps, where Ophelia's songs are more about her father's death. They come off as accusations and always end dissonantly, prettiness turning to hardness as she comes upon the Queen. A chase ensues as Gertrude tries to escape the girl, but Ophelia is quicker and manages to catch up to her, fingers the crucifix the Queen was piously fingering earlier. In fact, she chases the Queen right into Claudius' arms. The baker's daughter comment is clearly leveled at Gertrude, a warning to the King that his wife may not be what she seems. Is Ophelia then siding the the murderous King? Why wouldn't she? Her father was slain in the company of the Queen and Hamlet. She seems to suspect Gertrude had a hand in it. Strictly speaking, she's wrong about that, but the warning should not have fallen on such deaf ears regardless. Without knowing it, Ophelia has warned Claudius that Gertrude's allegiance is now with Hamlet, though that remains in dispute. Gertrude running for Claudius' protection in this scene would seem to say she's too weak a person to reject her King. She may well land wherever her position is strongest. We don't know what she may be either.

Believe it or not, these are her moments of lucidity. Ophelia's words are interrupted by painful memories that bring her to the ground. Horatio and some sad guardsman surround her, ready to take her into custody. The sudden realization that her brother will know of it makes her smile and grow manic. This is a departure from other performances of the role we've looked at, but completely justified. Though the occasion is tragic, Laertes is all she has left and his return is to be celebrated. She kisses the Queen's hands, offers the King her own to kiss, and off she goes through the castle. With the dilated timeline (rebels are not at the gates), Elsinore is still full of people, there to witness Ophelia's madness. The "sweet ladies" actually exist, and some nuns do run off after her to help, along with Horatio who finds her wailing and clutching at a wall, and who takes her up in his arms. Gertrude walks off sobbing, leaving Claudius to his thoughts.

Time lapses still, with cutaways to Hamlet at sea (we'll return to this in due course), before Laertes' arrival at some later point.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - BBC '80

In this version, Gertrude clearly feels helpless to help Ophelia, which makes the girl's angry defiance even more shocking. Lalla Ward's Ophelia is angry at the Queen, her songs are vicious attacks, her eyes drill right through Gertrude. It's an Ophelia in the Olivier mold, but more extreme. It would seem she blames the Queen in some way, speaks of HER as the "baker's daughter", not what she seems, and is sarcastic when she wishes God at her table. There are several ways to justify such a performance. First, there's the fact that Polonius died in the Queen's closet, making Gertrude partly responsible. The second transfers Hamlet's guilt to the mother that bore him. Without Gertrude, there is no Hamlet (doubly so, as without her sin, there is no mad Hamlet). The overall effect creates a strange mirror of Hamlet's early attitude towards his mother, but even more unreasonable.

Enter Claudius, and here Ophelia's attitude is much different, taking the Queen's role by caressing his beard, singing the Valentine's Day song seductively, and grinding the uncomfortable King. Again, there's emotional transference at work, with Claudius becoming Hamlet for those few seconds. A past Hamlet, when the lovers were together. A future Hamlet who would have become King. Ophelia is trapped in a jealous love triangle from a projected (and now aborted) future. The identities of Claudius as Hamlet, and the Queen as rival are delusions just like the invisible coach and ladies. When Ophelia breaks from this fantasy, it's to weep, or to rage. "My brother shall know of it" is particularly fierce and a violent announcement of what is to come.

In Claudius' ensuing speech, he explains why Gertrude should fear just as he does, a deft manipulation to make her hold on to him harder. We know not what she may be, this baker's daughter, true to her husband, or true to her son? Like Ophelia, her changeability is tied to the men who dominate her.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Olivier '48

The scene starts with foreshadowing of Ophelia's suicide as we see her reflection in the famous brook, taking a flower floating upon the water. As she plucks it, her image is naturally distorted, a metaphor for her broken mind. She screams, we see her on the river bank, her hair undone and tangled with bits and pieces of plants. She runs off, over a long that acts as a bridge over the brook, to and through the castle, only stopping after she crosses Horatio and the Queen, walking the halls.
There is something defiant about Jean Simmons' performance as Ophelia that gives a rebellious edge to some of her lines (she is, after all, a rebel's sister). Her back is turned when she asks where the "beauteous majesty of Denmark", but she's already seen the Queen. Is this mark of disrespect intentional? She is clearly not feigning madness, as Hamlet was, but that madness has dispelled her native inhibitions and given her permission to be insolent. The line could be read to mean she does not see the the Queen as "majesty", and indeed, her exit asking for her coach and giving her farewells to invisible attendants could be a fantasy in which SHE is Queen. Like Hamlet, her ambition has been aborted by the Royals' meddling and ultimately, Claudius' fratricide. Ophelia's ambitions are those of a child, aspiring to marriage in a naive way, but she still knows she's lost something, not just a father and a husband, but the future she believed was hers.

More insolence: She won't endure the Queen's consoling. Every time Gertrude attempts it, Ophelia starts on a song (and Simmons has a beautiful singing voice), even moves away. This is even more true once Claudius happens on the scene. She won't let him touch her. There's a sense that, consciously or not, she knows who's responsible for all their sorrows. She moves between smiles and tears, silliness and wisdom, girl and woman, and though the dirtiest song isn't used, there is a moment of sexuality as yet unseen in the character when she lets Horatio help her up. She notices him as a young woman would a handsome gallant, flushed by his touch.

Gertrude flees Claudius' touch too, mind. Hamlet's parting words have had an effect on her, though she hides it in distracted sadness. Claudius, sensing she's slipping out of his control, embraces her from behind and visibly frustrated, lays a manipulative speech on her. He talks about OUR son and threats to OUR own person, physically showing they are, as Hamlet had said, "one flesh". In other words, "we're in this together, baby". If his regime falls, she falls with it, and better behave like the Queen he needs her to be, obedient at his side. It's not often discussed, but one of the great evils perpetrated by this corrupt Denmark is how it uses women for its own ends. It has broken Ophelia and will undo Gertrude, the puppet queen as well.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Branagh '96

In one of Branagh's few changes to the text, he reorders Claudius' end speech (starting with "When sorrows come") in this sequence to serve as a recap of the action to date as we return from intermission. It's a clever change that, using voice-over and a montage of previously seen (and some repurposed) images, gives urgency to what would normally be repeated information. The voice-over starts on the gates of Elsinore, which foreshadows, along with the lines about single spies and battalions, Laertes' revolutionaries, Hamlet's skulking back into the country, and Fortinbras' invasion. The montage also reminds us of who Laertes is - we haven't seen him since the first Act - reveals how all of this is weighing on Claudius, here seen pacing in the chapel, and reveals slightly ahead of time that Ophelia has gone mad, reusing the shot of her screaming after her father's corpse.

The better to prepare us for the next shot: Ophelia in a padded cell, being observed through a grate from above, straight-jacketed and wearing a gray cap, a creature more like the Tempest's Caliban than the lovely girl we met earlier in the play. She's ramming into each wall like a trapped animal. Gertrude's attitude then isn't annoyance, but fear. Caught between Horatio and the doctor (a black, female doctor, in line with Branagh's other anachronistic casting choices) who share the unnamed Gentleman's lines, she eventually relents and agrees to see Ophelia. Cut to the shot above, Ophelia all trussed up on her stomach, an inch worm asking to see the Queen. It's at once funny and pathetic, but also harks back to Hamlet's worm metaphor and to the abuse historically suffered by the mentally ill. In other versions and other Shakespeare plays, mad characters seem to have free reign of the locations, enjoying a sort of immunity to reprisal, perhaps through the mystical notion that madmen speak poetic truth. Often, these characters are allowed to rant and speak to power with insolence, without interruption (the mad queen in Richard III is another example). Madness makes people uncomfortable, unsure of what to say. We should note how differently mad Ophelia is being treated compared to mad Hamlet. Is this the effect of class or gender? Probably both.

The cell, you'll notice, is right adjacent to the throne room. As it's unlikely this is a normal feature of Elsinore, we might see it as a sign of changing times. Used to be the King and Queen were constantly attended, the Hall of Mirrors full of courtiers, but with Hamlet in exile, rumors abound and revolution brews. Claudius' Elsinore, like his Denmark, is changing. It's probably not safe to let the Prime Minister's mad daughter leave the castle, or even let it be known she's gone insane (it's a surprise to Laertes later). So a makeshift padded cell has been built into one of the secret compartments so she can be treated at home. This is an isolated Elsinore where visitors are no longer welcome. Halls made to look big and empty in wide shots. The Royals are small and vulnerable in their marble cocoon.

Before Ophelia can rant, she must be free, and Gertrude does her this kindness, untying her sleeves in an effort to comfort her. The rant takes the form of songs (many of them ribald), but that's probably the only things she knows. A young girl in a royal court wouldn't be trained in any useful skill. Her life would be songs and the meaning of flowers, skills to charm and impress a father and husband. That's all she has to try and express the inexpressible. Claudius comes in during one of the songs and tries to help her up, and the dynamic changes. Not that Ophelia can tell he's responsible (though she does throw the owl line at him), but he's a man, and men have been her undoing. At the mention of her father, she screams and stumbles off, and even the camera is kept at bay, suddenly uncertain and shaky. From Ophelia's point of view too, other characters seem far away. A distance in understanding. When she approaches them again, it's to rudely bump Claudius on the word "cock", and to disturbingly reenact her "tumbling" on the floor (with unnecessary but pointed flashbacks of Hamlet in bed with her).

In the middle of this, a moment of lucidity (from "I hope all will be well") and a realization that her brother will be coming. This moment is covered in a close-up of Ophelia, for the moment coming into focus, her cheeks and eyes ruined by too many tears. Her mind is broken, but she's still in there, and through those lines that are not "nonsense songs", we discover a certain self-awareness, one that she's trying to escape from. The metaphor echoes into reality as she struggles not to be tied up again, refusing Claudius' touch, avoiding him as she defiantly calls for her coach and runs off with Horatio and the doctor after her.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Slings & Arrows

Allow me to upend the usual order by starting with Slings & Arrows, but while the scene is part of the onscreen performance (above), the show also features, in the season's penultimate episode, one of my favorite moments of dramatic criticism, and it relates to that scene and to this entire endeavor.

One of the subplots of the show around the play focuses on the character of Claire (Sabrina Grdevich), a talentless brown-noser the play's director, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), has inherited. In rehearsals, she's going on sense memory to simulate Ophelia's madness, reenacting what it's like to be stoned because she surmises that it's the same thing. So it's a whole lot of staggering about, mouth open, twirling... After all, there's nothing Claire can take from the text. Ophelia is just singing nonsense songs.
Geoffrey's intense piece of advice to Claire is wasted on her (hilariously, she's back to twirling in the background of the next scene), but I can't watch it without tearing up. Let me just reproduce it here in toto:

"Ophelia is a child. She has been dominated by powerful men all of her life and suddenly they all disappear. Her brother goes to France. Her father is murdered by her boyfriend. And he is shipped off to England. She is alone for the first time, grieving and heartbroken and guilty because, as far as she's concerned, it's all her fault. She ignored her brother's advice and fell in love with Hamlet and now, her father is dead, all because of her. And the pain, and the loss, and the shame, and the guilt, all of this is gnawing away inside that little child's mind, and it comes out as little... songs. 'And will he not come again? And will he not come again? No, no, he is dead.' My father is dead and I killed him."

This is dead on, and hearing the quote he uses spoken by a man, reveals how the songs also relate to Hamlet's own situation. He too has gone mad from losing a father (or three, if we count surrogate Yorrick and stay-at-home uncle who betrayed his trust Claudius), and Geoffrey makes us feel that loss and how guilt played a part in his own bout of madness. We almost intuit what his own legendary Hamlet was like.

Thankfully, something happens to Claire and understudy Kate (Rachel McAdams) must take over for her. Her performance as Ophelia, make-up dripping, voice shaking and breaking, even gets to Claire, who bitterly wipes a tear away in the audience. Ellen (Martha Burns) playing Gertrude is also visibly affected, another case of seeing the actress behind the role, not expecting that level of emotion. It makes me realize how important Gertrude's reaction to Ophelia is in this scene. In the text, she isn't particularly kind to her. She doesn't even want to deal with her at the moment. But if she lets herself be touched by this moment, or if she visibly doesn't, it changes how we might understand Gertrude's later narration of Ophelia's final moments. On one end of the scale, deep empathy, on the other, the sense she might have played a sinister. part in those events.