Friday, March 27, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Classics Illustrated

The original
Obviously, "Hamlet's Own Boy Adventure" is going to give a sword battle its due. To keep it as concise as it needs to be, expository narration does a lot of the work, and the artist's limited expressions replace what would normally be an actor's nuanced portrayal with basic goodness or villainy. Case in point:
Couldn't this panel be right out of a dream sequence in an Archie comic? I'm actually surprised that there isn't MORE swordplay. We don't even see the "touch" of the second bout. The adaptation at least recognizes that the important part of that sub-sequence is the Queen drinking the poison cup. Here, while the King's expression is minimal, Gertrude's is that of an offended coquette.
In the previous panel, the comic sends us to a footnote to translate "fat and scant of breath" as "in poor condition", which put an interesting spotlight on the line. One never really thinks of Hamlet as "fat" or that he should be breathing hard at the end of these exchanges, but that's what the lines say (and from a character sympathetic to him, in response to the King's contention that he shall win). The Queen does NOT believe he'll win the wager, and carouses not to his skill, but to his FORTUNE.

Chaos ensues, and the artwork follows suit, with dueling in the foreground, and people milling about, queens dying, etc. in the background. Everyone is killed, with some small cuts here and there (the whole wager with the pearl is absent, so too is the King's double poisoning at the end, and Horatio's suicidal intentions), and the comic ends on Horatio's prayer, no Ambassadors or Norwegian Princes. The last panel has very strange perspectives, which puts us in mind of a Medieval painting.
For the uninitiated, before the "invention" of perspective, art would routinely give characters and objects the size they deserved, rather than their naturalistic size as perceived by the human eye. So Kings would be bigger than soldiers, and so on. The artist here may have accidentally or willingly created the same effect, hard to say, but note how small the King, Queen and Laertes look in the tableau, shrunken next to the now immortal Hamlet who resonates with power even in death.

The Berkley version
The Grant/Mandrake adaptation gives one more page to the sequence than the original did (5 instead of 4), and includes, as usual, much more of the Shakespeare's dialog. But it's also more violent, with swords piercing the flesh, and thin sprays of blood (nothing TOO gory, but standards have definitely changed between 1943 and 1990). Mandrake also uses speed lines in the background to give the action more energy.

Things get a little confused during the second bout. The "touch" Laertes confesses to looks like it goes through his shoulder, which makes the reader realize there's no question either of the swords are unbaited, no question this duel will end with the participants bleeding. The poison is the only treachery here, and Hamlet gets his hand on the poison blade by accident, not to give Laertes a taste of his own medicine. Likewise, the staging of the Queen's poisoning leaves something to be desired. She states her intent to "carouse" in one panel, then grabs the cup from the King in another, which is awkward and makes the King look like he's got a weak grip.

Much of the action that follows is bracketed by shocked expressions from onlookers, but the Queen's strange word-to-action pacing problem continues through to the end of the book. Hamlet will say "Venom, to thy work" in one panel where its meaning isn't clear, then in the next, scratch the King. Sometimes it even seems like panels are missing, though the disconnect between "Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?" and the panel in which it is featured, which just shows Hamlet impaling the King with his sword, does have a certain poetry to it. The "potion" is merely the poison, "drunk" from the blade, but it's still a little clunky.
Though the action settles down at the end, Mandrake still puts speed lines on one key panel, where the dying Hamlet hears cannon fire outside. This gives the moment the feel of someone getting shot, and sure enough, with Hamlet's death so too does his Denmark (his royal line) die. This is the shot we hear. As he dies, the colors darken, Fortinbras and the English Ambassador come in for their lines, and Hamlet is carried out by soldiers into the fog of Mandrake's watercolors...

Sunday, March 22, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - A Midwinter's Tale

The play as seen in montage in A Midwinter's Tale's climax only features two key moments, but they're edited in such a way, they speak to each other. The first is just a sword fight, with none of the poisoning machinations, just a violent enthusiastic duel. It goes all around the church that serves as a stage, while the patrons are, as if part of the story, on their feet cheering the duelists on. In an actual staging of the play, I suppose one could encourage the audience to take such an active part (that of the courtiers), but it's really a pure movie moment here.
From the loudness of the fight, we cut directly to Hamet's line, "The rest is silence". This is a great play on the editing, but also a fine end to a montage that's meant to give us a Hamlet in 2 minutes. Horatio and Fortinbras do get a line in each before the lights dim and the characters are once again lost in fog, but it does bear asking just what all the characters are talking for after Hamlet's final pronouncement. It's a great irony that after Hamlet comes, not silence, but a multitude of voices who need to analyze, dissect and discuss the play. The final word on Drama only spawns more and more words, only the tiniest fraction of which have been contributed by this series of articles. It's like we've all been trying to prove Hamlet wrong all this time, and indeed, his meditation on mortality has only made him, in the end, immortal.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Slings & Arrows

Though the sequence includes a brief shot of the fight, the montage focuses principally on Hamlet's death and Jack Crew's emotional release after getting through the entire play (he turns his head away from the audience in death, but faces us, the other audience, and smiles). If indeed Hamlet (like many, if not most of Shakespeare's plays) is about the Actor on Stage. Hamlet's sufferance is dramatized as an inability to leave the stage for extended periods of time; it's a marathon. So when he's allowed to rest, Hamlet's relief is the actor's.

Slings & Arrows also plays on a behind-the-scenes irony: The sequence is intercut with shots of the audience, and among them (just off-stage), Mark McKinney's character, the theater manager Richard Smith-Jones, was, through the whole of Series 1, trying to undermine the Festival's Shakespearean mission, and push a Broadway Musical agenda. By turns the equivalent of Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius, in the end he is a Fortinbras figure, there to supplant the "Danish" regime, and yet, like Fortinbras, reluctant in the end to do so. It illuminates a character we don't see a lot of in the play. Norway's prince may have conquered Denmark, but so potent is the play and its central character, that he is filled with regret and elevates his defeated foe to a higher stage, somehow becoming a kind of Hamlet, one that can carry on.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Tennant (2009)

In the final sequence, the film keeps its hyper-surveillance conceit up, pulling away from the action to a security camera from time to time, even though there are no characters left whose POV this could accurately reflect. But in the for a penny...

And that's my segue to say Penny Downie as Gertrude is really the one to watch during this scene. She's always active, looking to one character or another, trying to understand what's going on, where the dangers lie, what's real and what isn't. After all, Laertes has just attacked Claudius and then Hamlet, but they're all smiling at each other and playing a "game" now. And knowing what she does of Hamlet's fragility, and his allegations about her husband, which she probably believes, something HAS to be up. And so on her face, often in the background, there are reactions that are crucial to understanding her character. She's surprised and perhaps relieved that Hamlet can throw off the shackles of madness. She tries to decipher whether Laertes means it when he accepts Hamlet's apology. And what of Claudius, all smiles and out of breath? She's in evident pain as she tries to pierce the web of lies around her. In that context, it makes perfect sense that when she realize the cup is poison (the staging is impeccable too, as Claudius, out of focus in the background, turns his head at the tray behind him and realizes which cup she's holding). She drinks deep, as if to save her son from this trap, but then offers him that cup, a suicide pact so that she, Hamlet, his father and Ophelia can all be reunited in the afterlife. At the moment of her death, still holding the cup, she pushes it once more towards Hamlet. A dark interpretation nonetheless consistent with Tragedy.

The duel presents three bouts that are more or less the same - we're not dealing with a big budget production here - but longer and more aggressive each time. Paranoid Laertes lets himself be riled by Hamlet's quips, or rather more by the assembly' laughter, and realizing he will lose, starts to cheat. He thrusts at Hamlet before the judge (Osric) allows it, so Hamlet fights without headgear, and still not scoring, slices the back of Hamlet's back when his back is turned. Hamlet drops his sword and jumps him, and once subdued, takes the poison sword, and in anger over its unblunted end, inflicts the same wound on his opponent. With the Queen dead and both duelists poisoned, Hamlet cries treachery and Claudius is still in a position to get away with it. But afraid Laertes will tell on him, he points to guards to get his co-conspirator out of the room, which is when Laertes decides to point fingers. The last of his family, Laertes doesn't care to die a traitor and stain his name, possibly. After all, would it be so hard for Claudius to brand him such posthumously? A man who just recently incited revolt and tried to kill him?
Claudius' death is amazing. Instead of the usual force-feeding of the poison cup, Claudius is handed the cup and ASKED to drink it. In the play, this a redundant (if poetically just) action anyway, since Hamlet has already stabbed him with the poison sword. In this version, Claudius grabs the sword around the tip to stop Hamlet from stabbing him, but the Prince twists it out of his hand, scratching his palm ("I am but hurt"). So he's doomed anyway, and Patrick Stewart conveys this in great way, that's also darkly comical. He raises his shoulders in defeat, silent asking "meh, why not?", and drinks deeply. This is a stronger Claudius that at least makes a show of dying by his own hand, even though the poison was already in his system. In the end, he still tries to reach for Gertrude.
Handed back to him, Hamlet still holds the cup when he falls over, and he must struggle to keep it out of Horatio's hands. I just struck me that Hamlet's last act was to save a life, and there's hope in that, even if the more cynical among us could see this as a selfish act - Horatio must live to keep HAMLET alive as a story. In his last moment, Hamlet looks off-stage in a mix of awe and fear, as if seeing his ghostly father one more time, or that undiscovered country which can sometimes act as a metaphor for a New Denmark. And yet, once his noble heart has cracked and Horatio cries over him, the credits roll. There is no Fortinbras to herald that New Denmark, no funeral, no questions or revelations from England's ambassador. Director Gregory Doran attributes its importance in the play to an Elizabethan obsession with succession (who would replace the aging Virgin Queen?), and while filmed, seemed an easy cut to make given modern audiences can be satisfied without the coda.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Fodor (2007)

Much more from Laertes' point of view than other adaptations, the sequence starts with him painting his blade with poison and tying a red ribbon - belonging to his dead sister Polonia - to the hilt. There is an odd smelling-of-the-ribbon moment that's in line with the incestuous vibe of the family and Laertes will be haunted by red-filtered memories of his dead sisters over the course of the next minutes. Though we can sympathize with his loss, we mustn't forget this version of Laertes is a psychopath. And yet, does his resolve flag after Hamlet's sincere apology? The way he grits his teeth having to say he would not wrong Hamlet's love makes us think perhaps it does, he does not wish to wrong it but knows he must.

Fodor's limited means to stage the duel sets it in an unimpressive white room (like much of the film), too small for an audience (or a camera, the excitement of the fight is sustained by POV shots and editing). Claudius, Gertrude and others - including Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, very much alive - thus stand behind the two-way mirror, observing. One observer that stands in the room itself is the Ghost, sarcastically looking on, and sometimes visible to the participants, especially when they're about to die. The duelists' attendants are sometimes present, sometimes not, initially seen in perfectly composed shots just behind their friend - creepy Osric for Laertes, and loyal Horatio for Hamlet. The latter obeys her feelings more readily than Hamlet does and has a sense of what's about to unfold, staring at Laertes' blade most intently. But the purplish color of the metal isn't necessarily proof of foul play. Also in the room with them, so to speak, is Polonia. Not physically (or in ghost form), but as that red ribbon, showing even when the swords themselves don't, as the white blows them out of sight. Unfortunate that the sound of the room is so hollow, speaking to the film's cheapness more than the visuals do. If the dialog isn't recorded properly at times, at least Fodor uses sound design to enhance the scene, with cheering crowds and driving techno.

As the fight progresses, Claudius seems to lose faith in his plan. "Our son shall win" isn't the insincere enthusiasm that's often depicted, but something he fears is happening, or is even resigned to at that point. After Gertrude drinks from the unattended cup, sad Claudius stops looking at the fight and only looks at her. The Ghost smiles sarcastically at the situation. Meanwhile, Hamlet gets his hands sliced open, at which point he and Laertes go at it with fists, and in the struggle, the Prince gets his hands on the ribboned foil and skewers Laertes (which is potentially a fatal wound, poison or no). The music cuts out, everyone just stands there not knowing what to do, and then Gertrude starts to convulse and dies. In a small trade of lines, it's Horatio who deduces and reveals the cup was poisoned, not Laertes, making her a stronger character in the end. That hard bastard confesses and dies, but does not point fingers or ask for forgiveness.
The culprit is clear and Hamlet's call to seek out treachery is pointed firmly at Claudius who then gets stabbed repeatedly. The POV shot (above) is violent but not gory, and the scene shifts to a blue filter as Claudius enters the Ghost's world (we don't see it per se, but this is the implication). Horatio is shocked, the Ghost's face does not change, presumably the courtiers (including R&G) have run off, there will be no Fortinbras in this version. Dissolves during the stabbing makes it seem like it lasted a long time too.
Hamlet's final scene is his farewell to Horatio (and it's his strongest scene in the film), a two-shot that gives them equal importance, perhaps to highlight the passing of the story from one teller to the other. The sound of the ocean outside can be heard, death coming in like a tide. Her offer of a suicide pact is rejected, but as the cup isn't in her hands, Hamlet's "let go" takes on another meaning: "Let [me] go". Here, Horatio's gender swap allows for a tenderness that's been politicized by modern day audiences when both are male, and yet, they don't hold each other with their arms, only their eyes. Hamlet kisses her tears away, and then her, full on the lips. He dies loving his best friend as Marillion's "She'll Never Know" plays. A more positive ending than one might have expected from his "horror" adaptation. The sexual tension between these characters ends with Hamlet's death (the literary connection between sex and death need not be expounded on here). As he dies, the room gets darker. The Ghost finally approaches and Horatio sees him, an angel of death (though should we be thinking her doom will yet come?). A crashing sound like a gun shot, cut to black and credits. That's almost a reference to Fortinbras' war-like volley, isn't it?