Thursday, October 11, 2007

18 Orson Welles

Hamlet played by Orson Welles.
Directed by Orson Welles.

Orson Welles was one of the great Shakespeareans of the 20th Century. His book Everybody’s Shakespeare examined the potential the bard had to reach the popular audience and he strove for much of his life to produce some great interpretations of the canon and sometimes succeeded. In the end, only his Macbeth would have a relatively unhindered passage to the screen but even that was compromised because it was produced for a tin-pan alley studio more used to producing westerns and unable to provide the budget his vision required.

He would go on to complete just two other screen adaptations -- Othello and Chimes At Midnight (a conflagration of Falstaff’s story from Henry IV parts one & two and sections of Merry Wives of Windsor) -- but on both occasions production spanned years, with shooting occurring only when financing was available from Welles own pocket as he provided voiceovers and performances in films he cared little for. Both of those films are messy curiosities, snatches of brilliance mixed with failure, but nevertheless inventive even as he had to recast parts in mid-flow. Desdemona is obviously portrayed by at least three actresses, two of which were overdubbed in the final mix.

On stage he found rather more success and his voodoo Macbeth at the Federal Theatre was considered a triumph and it was with some amazement I discovered that he did indeed also play Hamlet albeit in production of an hour’s duration for the Columbia Broadcasting Company’s Columbia Workshop, a series of experimental radio dramas broadcast in 1936 just two years before his own Mercury Theatre would receive a regular spot on the same network ( which is when the War of the World incident occurred). The production, such as it is was broadcast in two parts, firstly on September 19, 1936 and then after what must be the longest interval in theatrical history the second part appeared on November 14, 1936, two months later. Judging by the introduction to the first broadcast, the second was by no means certain:

“In deciding to present an abbreviated version of Hamlet the Columbia workshop found itself facing a considerable dilemma. Would it be feasible we wondered to give merely the plot in our short space of time, or should we concentrate on certain well-known passages, and let the story proceed confusingly. Our final decision was this: to present the first two acts of the play, presenting whenever possible, the most notable scenes in their entirety. And giving you, we hope a clear dramatic statement of the causes of Hamlet’s tragedy.”

The method utilised by Welles in his production is to have actors speak with rapidity and concentrate solely on those scenes featuring Hamlet, his adaptation being a psychological study in revenge. After presenting much of the opening scene on the battlements, the focus shifts almost totally the prince; once Hamlet agrees not to go to Wittenberg, Horatio is quick to advise him of the ghost who quickly appears minutes later to be followed by the fishmonger and the players closing with a delicious cliffhanger -- ‘The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.’ The only interruption is the introduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, presumably because as I gather these plays where presented live it would have given Welles, who has the dramatic weight a moment to mop his brow and take a drink of water.

Brilliantly, Welles cuts Ophelia and Laertes altogether. For all we know, Polonius has no children and is merely Claudius’s adviser. This allows us to concentrate on Hamlet’s emotional state and Welles’s performance is a tour de force, despite being pretty much alike with every other performance Welles has given. It’s difficult throughout not to think of Charles Foster Kane or Harry Lime, but this isn’t because he lacks range -- he does generality and darkness particularly well, and indeed it’s amazing hear that five years before Kane brought him to a (slightly) wider audience his acting persona was already so clearly defined. The only disappointment is that without Ophelia there isn’t the nunnery scene and without the nunnery we do not get to here Welles’s version of ‘To Be Or Not To Be’; but these are supposed to be ‘experimental’ productions and cutting the play’s most famous speech is certainly that.

Then two months later, in the second half, and I can’t believe I’m criticising Orson Welles, it all goes horribly wrong. The pace is markedly even faster in the second segment and subtlety goes out of the window. Unlike the first broadcast, if you weren't already familiar with the plot, despite the more detailed expository voiceover you've little clue of how the narrative pieces fit together; it ultimately descends into a melodramatic soup and if I was someone who’d never heard Shakespeare’s work before I’d probably be of the opinion that this is exactly how I feared it would be like. It is perhaps unfair to criticize the second half as being part of the same production because Welles no doubt thought these broadcasts would have the same ephemeral quality as auditorium theatre living only in the memory of the listener and certainly wouldn’t have expected them to be unified one after the other. He might not even have been expecting that he would have to fit the last three acts when much of the meat of the play occurs into another half an hour.

But even considered on its own as a separate entity it fails, firstly by falling into the trap of doing exactly what was threatened in the introduction to the first part of giving ‘merely the plot in our short space of time’ and secondly because the sometimes subtle performance Welles gave in the opening segment which drew the audiences in gives way to pure ham as he desperately tries to give the character some psychological depth in such a short space of time. As adapter too he spends far too much time over The Mousetrap, perhaps because of its theatrical resonance which leads to the likes of the scenes in the bed chamber being skipped over lightly, the climax with the exception of ‘The readiness is all’ and Hamlet’s death speech being a generally incoherent mess.

The other problem is the sudden appearance of Ophelia and Laertes, unconvincingly knitted back into the story. The genius of losing them from the opening two acts creates a problem because they are so critical to the climax (Hamlet can hardly have duel with himself, although as the Coranado film demonstrates that is sometimes worth a try). Ophelia first drops in during a quick exchange before The Mousetrap and Laertes even later in the narration upon his return to Denmark looking for his father. There’s no emotional connection Polonius or Hamlet though and so when the prince desperately says that he loved Ophelia it comes out of the blue, in a way that’s not unlike soap opera. When Ophelia goes mad we haven’t enough time to grieve.

Such criticism should be taken lightly though when faced with the fact that this was Welles trying to frame Shakespeare’s tragedy for an undoubtedly intelligent audience that might never have heard Shakespeare before. As with all of the other attempts to produce a version of the play with at least three hours of the action missing there are bound to be compromises and the first half really is excellent. In addition, how marvelous to be able to listen to Welles’s adaptation seventy years after its broadcast; the version I listened to was obviously recorded onto LP during the original radio broadcast and so as well as the interference from what sounded like a shaky AM reception there’s also the pops and scratches of vinyl giving the recording an wonderfully atmospheric quality. The music, mostly fanfares, was produced by Bernard Hermann who would go on to provide a score for Kane as well as many of Alfred Hitchcock films. You can’t ignore the fact that this is a piece of radio, theatrical and to a degree film history and on that level it’s priceless [via Wellesnet where there is a link so that you can hear and enjoy this production yourself].

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