Saturday, May 31, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Tennant (2009)

The Doran/Tennant adaptation goes outside for the first time for this scene, set in a corner off a church-like building. The gravediggers are dressed, absurdly, in suits and ties, despite the fact they are surrounded by heaps of mud. The First Clown is in the grave eating a sandwich and drinking his tea, while the Second stands off to the side with a yellow security vest and a clipboard. On the one hand, it presents these characters as middle class tradesmen; on the other, their choice of attire seems foolish, bordering on work-safe parody. Though we don't get the gallows joke, the discussion on the sinfulness of suicide is retained, and the Gravedigger uses his food to demonstrate his ideas (man as sandwich, water as tea). In that sense, the overly formal attire makes him look like he could be a country lawyer. Having lost the argument, the Second Clown trudges off with a final rude gesture that makes the First laugh.

Laughing is very much his thing, and it's obvious that as fools go, he's a voluntary one. No dimwit here, he knows his dumb answers are jokes and that he's playing with Hamlet. In most stagings of the play, the Prince stops at the grave, curious to see who is to be buried in it, and stays because of the fool's wit. In this case, Hamlet might have gone right past and it's the skulls thrown in his way that make him stop. Or as one might see it, the inevitability of death. Yorick's skull is never thrown, but has been set aside reverently on the edge of the grave since the very beginning. The Gravedigger has a history with its owner, and that fondness seems to extend to his remains. Of course, there's also a real world reason for it: This is Tchaikovsky's skull, bequeathed to the Royal Shakespeare Company after the great composer's death, so rather precious. Whether the audience registers it or not, for the actors, there's a difference. Not only is it a real human skull, but one that used to be a great man's, lending weight to the lines about Caesar and Alexander.
Hamlet remembers who this object used to be, and is aghast, unable to reconcile the one with other. The way he balances it in his hands, makes it almost dance, it's like he's trying to inject Yorick's life and jolliness into it. Alas, it is a dead thing, and completes its metaphysical arc when he mimes using it to stop up a hole. Hamlet's relationship to these human remains evolves through the scene, from a slightly revolted nudge with his foot to holding Yorick's head in front of him, to eventually running off with it when the funeral procession arrives. It stays with him. Again, in the real world, it's so it doesn't get chucked away like the others, but in the world of the play, Hamlet's simply unable to let go, just as perhaps he isn't able to let go of his biological father (Yorick, a surrogate), and also a mirror of Laertes leaping into his sister's grave, another unbreakable bond between the living and the dead.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Fodor (2007)

Fodor's version of this scene still features black comedy, but the scene is heavily re-engineered. The jokes are different as are some of the participants. It begins with Hamlet and Bernardo (not Horatio) jogging down a forest path. Because Hamlet's exile was omitted from the film, it's not clear whether he left at all, though he would know of Ophelia's death if he was at Elsinore. Perhaps he's staying at a friend's house - Bernardo's - in the same area. They hear a tussle, noise that leads them to the priest hitting the Gravedigger. Fodor himself plays the priest, a character that steals lines from the First Clown (the Gravedigger in this scene is the dense Second Clown), and from Horatio/Bernardo, acting as bouncing board and exposition.

If he's hitting the 2nd Clown in the beginning, it's for not having found the answer to his riddle. But that's not really where the black comedy comes from because these lines are mostly cut. Instead, there's the matter of the grave being dug in a minefield - surely a comment on a rotting Denmark and the wars Hamlet's father fought - with the addle-brained Clown fiddling around with a found mine (a pun on whose grave it is? "Mine, sir"?), and having both feet in his grave, exploding. The other men are pelted with dirt, the Priest picks up his arm and delivers his original joke's punchline "the gallows may do well to thee". The adaptation has a nasty, horror vibe, but this scene is nasty in another way, and doesn't quite fit. It gets worse.
William Bedchambers is not the most solid of Hamlets at the best of times, but this scene sees him at his worst. Bad line readings that emphasize the wrong words and multiple fluffs as he struggles to get his lines out, an indie budget possibly keeping the production from doing them again. The hesitations give the scene a less rehearsed quality, which could be a positive, but practically shrugging at the fact he knew Yorick as if it were an off-hand remark drains the life out of the moment.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Hamlet 2000

Hamlet walks out of an airport terminal in a hoodie, catches a motorcycle helmet, and embraces Horatio. The two of them drive out and stop in a cemetery. There are kids in costumes running around. It seems it's still Halloween. Either it's been a year since Hamlet left, or it's part of the "time out of joint" motif. Why are they there? Does Horatio know about the funeral? Has Hamlet already been briefed? Is this why he's back? By cutting the entire sequence's dialog, these become a possibility. We hear singing, but it's not Shakespeare's verse. A gravedigger "with no feeling of his business" sings Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower. Though the lines we hear clearly have little bearing on the scene, the song does link to Hamlet, and Hamlet 2000 particularly, in several ways (see below). The nobles do not engage the man. It's a visual reference to the play without having to actually play the scene.

And yes, that means we don't get any interpretation of "Alas, poor Yorick", a brave thing when it's likely the most iconic image of the play. The modern trappings killed it. It would have been difficult to explain why a modern-day Gravedigger would have been throwing skulls out of a mass grave, or whether "king's jester" has enough of an equivalent to make any measure of sense in the context of the year 2000. We simply move directly to Ophelia's funeral and Hamlet's confrontation with Laertes.

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Only the first couple lines are heard, but the next has a reference to digging the earth, and to the businessmen who stand in as the play's nobility in the film. The verse is an equalizer, just like Hamlet's description of death, with neither businessmen (later, princes) nor plowmen knowing what's going on. Life treated as a joke is Hamlet's thing, so he can be the joker, or this may be a reference to Yorick. And by the end, we have two riders, Hamlet and Horatio, approaching and heralding something furious, a wildcat or howling wind. Though the song isn't about Hamlet, its lyrics do seem to fit a lot of the play's (and film's) details, and makes an interesting choice, even if it isn't featured in the movie enough to make those who don't already know it (and who recognize it from what little we hear) see how its words resonate with Shakespeare's.

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Kline '90

Another adaptation that cuts the 2nd Clown and a few lines besides, the sequence begins with the Gravedigger singing for quite a long time as Hamlet and Horatio approach. Kline's Hamlet is filled with foreboding, as if returning to Denmark to find his grave there, which is in fact what IS happening. There is an interesting hesitation when he inquires if it is a woman's grave, fearing it might be his mother's or Ophelia's, though his worries are dispelled by the clown's amusing rhetoric. MacIntyre Dixon really plays the character as a classic fool, drinking, giggling and taking his time, he is somewhat dense and generally tedious, but can tell what any fool can. The joke goes on a bit too long for Hamlet.
Kline's interaction with Yorick's skull is far more sober than most, keeping it at a certain distance and only the very end smiling wistfully. He doesn't seem transported to a happier time, but rather forces himself to look at the thing Yorick has become, resentful and almost angry that life is rendered into dust in the end. When this Hamlet asks Yorick where his flashes of merriment have gone, their loss is keenly felt, and questions about the undiscovered country are once again raised.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - Zeffirelli '90

Hamlet and Horatio on horseback, coming down a winding road. They come upon the graveyard, where singing can be heard, and Hamlet stops to ask whose grave they're digging. "They" because the second gravedigger is present, even though his exchange with the first is cut from the film. It seems he wasn't even ask to fetch some liquor, and just stands witness to the Prince's conversation with his elder. Horatio has the same role to play - all his lines are cut - though we at least cut to his reactions. Horatio perhaps enjoys himself more than Hamlet does in this sequence. While both men get a kick out of the Gravedigger's wit, possibly the reason they dismount and talk to him a while longer, Hamlet eventually stops smiling, faced as he is with an open grave which might as well be his own.
Hamlet's reaction to Yorick's skill is really quite sweet, a good take for Gibson's rawer emotional Hamlet. Though he manages to show some repulsion, he seems transported to the past, to the laughs and the better times. There's affection, tenderness and melancholy in his eyes and speech as he shares his memories of the court jester. In the staging of it, Hamlet uncharacteristically sets the skull on a mound where he would usually hold it in one hand. That may be to give Yorick more autonomy as a character, make him "come alive" if you will, or more likely allows for a steadier close-up on Hamlet's face. Regardless, because the sequence ends with this instead of Hamlet's meditation on History's dead emperors, Yorick necessarily becomes our link to Hamlet's mortality and doom.

And that's an interesting image to focus on. Though Hamlet's death is presaged in that of Caesar and Alexander - great men returning to the earth - our "identification figure" in the realm of the rotting dead is Yorick, a simple clown unceremoniously buried in a common grave. The mirroring between First Clown (gravedigger) and Yorick, and between Yorick and Hamlet (who has taken the mantle of the fool) is unavoidable. Hamlet is looking at himself in the past (in happier times, but also in his guise as a madman) and the future (dust to dust), and this is more relevant than the more grandiose comparisons to powerful men in History, something Hamlet might have aspired to, but which was always denied him.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

V.i. The Gravedigger Scene - BBC '80

Tim Wylton is a more overtly clownish Gravedigger, but one with no less personality. He is a self-important sort, whose jokes are geared to exalting his profession above that of others, and proving his superiority to his associate and to the two noblemen who stop by his grave. He is also a common sort, crass and gross, sleeping on a mound of freshly excavated earth and human remains, eating and drinking there as if unaware of how macabre it is. Because it isn't for him, and in the decaying Denmark metaphor, there is nowhere one can eat and rest that isn't a grave. Interesting staging on the suicide discussion: The Gravedigger uses a pail and a thigh bone to represent water and man. Even more interesting reading: The way he pronounces "will he, nill he", with the proper emphasis on the "h" sounds where many modern readings use "willy-nilly", recalls the original meaning of the expression - whether one wants to or not, as opposed to today's in haphazard fashion - but it also a sort of pun. The suicide wills their own annihilation; Ophelia "nilled" herself.

When Hamlet approaches, he seems tired and bitter. In the skulls flying from the grave, he sees a truth: That everyone, himself included, returns to that state. Everyone is the same in the end, even the noblest is on even terms with the lowest in society. And the Gravedigger represents this. He acts like he's the master of his realm, though others might consider him the lowest of the low, the unclean who touches the dead. Sleeping and eating at the grave, and later kissing Yorick's skull, his world is death and decay, and this is normal. Death and life are equated further in the way he tells Hamlet water is a "sore decayer of your whoreson dead body" as if it were a threat. It evokes the idea of Hamlet thinking of himself as a "whore's son", and that in dramatic (tragical) terms, he is already dead. And hasn't he just been to sea? Water is also associated with Ophelia and her death, which makes the comment even more twisted.
For Jacobi's Hamlet, Yorick's skull is truly repulsive and he does gag at it. He can't even bring himself to stroke it directly, but keeps his fingers at a short distance. His realization that we all return to dust goes from a tired melancholy, to anxious disgust, finally to accepting mockery. His thoughts on Alexander and Caesar see the black humor in it. When he smells his fingers at the very end, is it Yorick's deathly stench that stings his nostrils, or his own?

Through all this, Horatio seems sad and a little spooked by the scene. There certainly isn't the sense of camaraderie evident in Branagh's Hamlet, where the two fellow students team up to chuckle at the Clown. It feels like Horatio can sense what is about to happen and where the Prince's fatalistic dialog will take him. Everything he hears confirms this and he dare not give Hamlet his blessing. Not the most exciting performance, but the minimalism isn't out of character.