Saturday, January 31, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - BBC '80

As the duel begins, Hamlet is all business, a rhetorical genius with a prepared speech for the benefit of the Court. His apology to Laertes has charm and grace, but no real emotion. It's meant as much for the public as it is for the younger man, and indeed, much of it is spoken to his mother. Somehow, and this is what keeps Laertes so "aloof", Hamlet paints himself as just another victim. he would have made an excellent lawyer, and we can see why he was so loved of the Danish populace. Wary Laertes' own speech feels practiced, but then, it's part of a murder plot, so it surely is. And where he might have gotten off the script, Claudius walks up and touches his shoulder, keeping him under control and on point. Since the beginning of the play, Claudius has shown a preference for Laertes anyway, and treats him more like a son than he ever did Hamlet, so this gesture does not seem out of place.

The Prince doesn't understand why Laertes' attitude is so venomous, and the lines are given deductive intentions. When he questions the foils' lengths, he seems to be wondering if this is where the trap he senses lies. As the fight begins, the first exchange is mostly played for comedy. Laertes is disarmed (of his rapier, not his dagger) right away, and reaching for it as if it were a simple bad start, is touched on the arm. But don't go thinking this television production skimps on the fight choreography. The second exchange is quite good. Fast, dangerous-looking, violent and as far as I could see, all done by the actors. At this point, Gertrude drinks and I am reminded of why I originally had little use for Patrick Stewart's Claudius. He just doesn't seem affected by Gertrude's doom. His aside is passionless, just a statement of the fact, and this is followed by anger at Laertes, a realization that he allied with someone who won't be able to get the job done. Through this series of articles, I have of course found many things to like about Stewart's 1980 performance, but my parting impression of his Claudius necessarily comes from this scene.

Laertes is a self-centered jerk as well, and to get shed the blood he needs to shed, he lets Hamlet hand him the poison rapier handle first, grabs it, and twists it into the Prince's hand. More fighting ensues, and he is wounded himself, but I don't get the impression he's really sorry once he knows he's dying. "Almost" against his conscience is the word to keep in mind. When he blames the King, it's not because he suddenly sides with Hamlet, it's just to take someone down with him. The King's to blame... for his own woes. Laertes remains unapologetic, at least until he panics about his place in Heaven. Claudius tries to embrace Hamlet, calm him down - and odd moment that doesn't play very well - and when stuck like a pig, tries to get help from the stunned courtiers. Alas.
Hamlet won't accept Horatio's embrace, and only seeks him out when he realizes he won't have time to explain the plot. By this point, Horatio is close to the camera, contemplating sympathetic suicide, his back to Hamlet. But when the Prince sees the cup, he pleads for his friend to stay in this world and continue suffering in his stead. It's an interesting notion: That Hamlet insists his overlong grief (from his first scene) continue even without him, though Horatio, through Shakespeare, through the 400+ years since the play was written.

Another interesting twist on the line about Fortinbras, "He has my dying voice". Literally, it means Hamlet names him as successor (or at least accepts this is the natural succession). The way it is presented here, and considering this world is a stage, it's like Fortinbras is stealing his spotlight and his "voice". During the death scene, cannons blare out and several Courtiers leave the room, more interested in the new arrival than Hamlet's departure. The cannons are what we might call today "stolen thunder". Fortinbras only enters when Hamlet's soul has left this world.

As Hamlet is carried out, we might recognize the shot and pose as the one Branagh used 16 years hence. And as the credits roll, we might also recognize the kind of shadow play funeral Olivier used 32 years before. These three actors have a connection that bears this out. Traditionally, when the premiere Hamlet of his generation sees a newer Hamlet that he considers to have bettered his own, he passes the baton officially (I think there's some gift involved, I can't remember, probably an antique copy of the play). Olivier passed the mantle to Jacobi this way, and Jacobi to Branagh (according to the documentary Discovering Hamlet).

Saturday, January 17, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Olivier '48

The duel Olivier offers us is framed in two traditions. The first is stagecraft, as these are extremely well choreographed set pieces of stage fighting, done in camera by the actors, fierce and dangerous-looking exchanges. The second is the Danish tradition of the world of the play, with highly ritualistic posing before the fight begins, the cannons sounding as Claudius beckons them to, and the courtiers repeating the King's lines during the toast. The weapons are, just as the text indicates, both rapier and dagger, and it's not until the camera zooms in on the sword points, one of them unbaited, that we truly leave the framework of what's expected to enter the more dangerous and unpredictable world of the fight. Almost certainly, if the courtiers could see what we see, they wouldn't be standing so close.

It's unfortunate then that Olivier cuts out so much of Laertes' character, reducing Hamlet's opponent to a near non-entity. During Hamlet's just-as-ritualistic apology, the camera doesn't care to look at Laertes' reaction, nor does he have lines with which to respond. He and Osric look sinister as they shuffle the swords, but that is the whole of it. The speech does make his mother happy, but Claudius and Laertes are presumably so invested in their murder plot, they cannot have an honest reaction to it themselves. Fair enough. If we're talking cuts and changes, note the translation of "union" to "jewel", even though we see what Claudius drops into the cup.
Though each exchange is well done, the second fight is mostly played off camera. There is ANOTHER duel, you see, between Gertrude and Claudius, or perhaps inside Gertrude herself, between self-preservation and a mother's love. It's made clear that she figures out the cup is poisoned, her eyes (and the camera) keep going to the cup, and a sadness overwhelms her. A decision is made. She takes the cup herself, exchanging it for a handkerchief so Hamlet can wipe his brow, and drinks deep. When told not to, she smiles a fatalistic smile. The courtiers cluelessly laugh at her small act of disobedience. She has sacrificed herself for him quite consciously (small cuts allow this to happen more believably).

Before the last exchange, Laertes scratches Hamlet, which shocks everyone, and he immediately starts to back away, as if shocked himself. He is caught cheating, and judged by the assembly, and is suddenly afraid of Hamlet's reaction. Playing up the tension, Hamlet's slow dawning realization gives way to a quick disarming maneuver. No more games, no toying with the opponent, the show is over. The disarm means he can look at the tip of the sword and confirm Laertes' cheating, and when Osric calls out that the two duelists are incensed, it's all in their eyes because nothing has happened yet. The line is like a starter's pistol, and they go at it - again, a strong fight.
Laertes is defeated, the Queen dies and Claudius is revealed as the villain. At this point, the guard and Court, a fickle lot, rally behind Hamlet. Claudius has lost all power, a situation that has been growing since Hamlet went into exile, and is surrounded, trapped. Hamlet stabs him fiercely, and in his last moments, he reaches for the crown he lost in the scuffle, as if that badge of office could protect him. He dies, and the assembly is strangely frozen in space. The shock, but also a sort of fixed moment in time, speaking to the power of History, perhaps, or a skip of the clock as "time out of joint" resets to its proper rhythm. Hamlet uses that short time to sit on the throne, and the Court offers him the crown. He'll be king, finally, for all of three minutes.

His last speech is spoken from that throne, Horatio attending him. Like Laertes, the latter's part has also been shredded. This Horatio doesn't try to commit suicide and follow Hamlet. In fact, for a second, it looks like he won't even get to eulogize Hamlet properly. What actually happens is that he first gives Fortinbras' command to put the bodies on a stage, etc. - there is no Fortinbras in the film - and then comes his eulogy, and a kiss. The ever-mobile camera tracks into blackness, then follows the guards bringing Hamlet up to the top of Elsinore, lingering in each room as it does. Cannons fire, we see one or two smoking. The chapel. The Queen's closet. And finally, silhouettes going up the tower, Hamlet's final stage. Ending as it does outside Elsinore, we may understand the Ghost to be finally exorcised, if indeed it was the camera's point of view, as it often seemed.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Branagh '96

The duel is staged, as most things are in Branagh's version, in the great hall of mirrors. A long thin red carpet has been set up where the fencing action must occur. The color of blood, and the color of Hamlet's robe. Claudius usually wears red, but is here in green, as are all his attendants (not the fullest Court, but then, the country is in political upheaval), as a visual contrast. The most striking thing about the opening moments of this scene is that it is intercut with action outside Elsinore as Fortinbras' army sneaks into the palace and captures it. Poor Francisco is at the gate and is killed. Norway's army is coming. This is Branagh's device to justify Fortinbras' sudden and fortuitous arrival at the end of the play, and because it is the most ironic reading of the play (Claudius' diplomatic overtures to Norway failing and his never noticing), I've always accepted is as Shakespeare's intent, though it's not, I realize now, in the text per se.

But the way the editing underscores the invasion under Hamlet's lines of reconciliation with Laertes creates yet another irony - the arrow over his brother's house, and so on - to the point where one might get the feeling Hamlet made a deal with Fortinbras for the keys to the kingdom. Think about it. When we left him in exile, he was last seen in the company of Fortinbras' army. Fortinbras invades (why else send some war-like volleys at the English ambassador if he wasn't on a war footing), but is shocked and saddened by the royal massacre. He already knows his rights to Denmark, as does Hamlet because his final speech predicts his ascension to the throne. Did Hamlet, in fact, make Fortinbras his heir in exchange for liberating Denmark from Claudius the usurper? Is all the talk of inevitability more about Fortinbras' arrival than the English messenger's?

But returning to the duel... In any production, but in film especially, it may be important to make each of the three exchanges look and feel different. In Branagh's case, the participants, getting hot and sweaty, remove more and more protection, going from full fencing armor, then losing the mask, then the breastplate. The danger is heightened each time, while also affording us a look at the actors' faces as things get out of control. The last exchange isn't just protectionless, but gets off the carpet and uses the entire room. But this is also a skirmish of words. Hamlet in public is cocky and always trying to get laughs, no doubt part of why he's also been so popular with the people. Single-minded Laertes finds none of it funny of course, and takes everything as mockery and personal insult. And because it's all too personal for him, he's more reckless and aggressive in the fight, less strategic, and gets hit twice, then indeed, three times, and fatally. Osric, the nominal judge, takes delight in his duty - he really is just a foolish pawn, because the fact Hamlet is winning doesn't diminish his excitement - and continues even once the sword play goes out of bounds, craning his neck to get the results out to the Court.

After the second exchange, the Queen drinks the poison cup, grabbing it from Claudius who tries to tell her not to drink it, but can't reveal his treachery. She can't intuit his deceit because she offers a drink to Hamlet. She'll go back to her seat unaware, if a bit woozy. Laertes and Claudius are shocked, almost to the point of abandoning their scheme. They now share in the doubt Hamlet's been broadcasting for most of the play. By now, the army is inside the Elsinore, and the alarm cannot be given. Both outside and inside the hall, there is a sense that all is lost, but the concerned parties just don't know it. From the chaos of the last exchange, more chaos erupts. Laertes falls from the second level, the Queen swoons on the other side. Both know they have been poisoned. As attendants scurry, Osric sees the wind's direction turn, tries to take a secret door out of the hall, and is stabbed by a Norwegian soldier. His last line, spoken only a short while later, uses Robin Williams' talent for pathos, as the ridiculous man shows the "war-like volley" as blood on his hand, he too a victim of the tragedy, if not one killed by Shakespeare's own pen.
The climax's swashbuckling action is a little over the top. Hamlet throws the poisoned foil at the King and pins him to his throne, drops down from a rope while a massive chandelier swings down and smashes into Claudius. Hamlet then force-feeds him the last of the poison wine. It is important to the Prince that Claudius be killed by both his treacheries, and poison was always going to be the best poetic justice for him. It's how he killed Hamlet's father.

The usual staging for Hamlet's own death is to have Horatio holding him in his arms. Branagh's staging is a departure from that tradition. Hamlet dies alone on the floor, while Horatio stands shocked at a short distance. He can't help his friend now, and he can't share his fate. Hamlet won't let him. Because Hamlet's death, while something he expected and embraces, cannot mean the voiding of his existence. One of the things that made him delay his revenge was that he relished in his own intellect too much to risk it. So he must die, but someone must relate his story, and Horatio has been groomed to be that person. All is almost lost when he talks to sharing Hamlet's fate, and he must be shocked into dropping the cup. Hamlet will survive as a story, and in that final moment when he speaks his last through a strangled, cramped voice, it's Horatio who is the touching one, no small thanks to Nicholas Farrell's sympathetic performance.

Suddenly, Norway's soldiers crash through the glass on the second level and have the room surrounded. A cold, disaffected Fortinbras walks in, a strange performance from Rufus Sewell, rather ambiguous and unemotional. We saw him like this before, hugging his uncle Norway in a flash-sideways, where we just knew he wouldn't let Denmark go, no matter what he said. So are his words here simply platitudes, things he is expected to say in such circumstances? The English Ambassador, a cameo by Richard Attenborrough, may seem like a bit of over-casting, but the great actor lends the role weight and pathos. He seems genuinely sad that the King isn't alive to hear his macabre news. As Fortinbras takes the throne, England skulks away, lest he become the tragedy's next victim.
In the end, who rules in Denmark isn't really important. The "natural" order has already been upended (as perhaps heralded by the rise of the peasantry behind Laertes), and the last "unnatural act" of the play, as Horatio would put it, is Horatio himself taking center stage, essentially telling the new King what to do. And Fortinbras lets him command such attention. Horatio, the reluctant star, is pushed on stage by the promise he made to his friend, and that friend is carried out in a Messianic, crossed position, evoking his ascension to literary immortality.

In the film's final moments, Hamlet is given a state funeral - there was talk of also burying Gertrude and Claudius here, but the actors weren't available for it, so we get a celebrated Hamlet whose version of the story reigns victorious over the calumniated King and Queen instead - exposed and holding a sword, the action hero he never truly was. The statue of old Hamlet is taken down, shades of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, to be replaced either by Fortinbras, or by Hamlet himself, Denmark's new fallen hero. The ghost is symbolically destroyed without having to reappear to look on his works.

The credits roll under Placido Domingo singing from the Book of Proverbs, lines about the righteous man lying in peace, funereal but hopeful. This Hamlet will not walk the earth as a disturbed spirit.