Friday, June 11, 2010

25 Brad Yates

Hamlet played by Brad Yates.
Directed by Ned Rogers.

I’ve talked before about the methods that have been used to try and introduce Hamlet to audiences which might not necessarily have been in contact with the play or Shakespeare or even theatre before.  From my own experience, my preference would be to offer up a very good production – the RSC with Tennant, the Branagh film and throw the viewer right in.  But I appreciate that for some, three or four hours of blank verse can be daunting prospect so they want begin with something shorter and sharper to take the edge off.

That’s what Telemedia Productions had in mind in 1993 when they produced a small selection of tutorial videos covering four tragedies – Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet.  As they suggest on the inlay to the video “Everyone should be familiar with the timeless works of Williams Shakespeare.  Now with Understanding Shakespeare, everyone can!”  It’s a worthy mission, the only problem is that they pretty much fail.  In almost every respect.

The video is initially introduced by William Shakespeare, or a genial American accented lookalike:

Mister Shakespeare offers some random biographical particulars about himself (including a very detailed Curriculum Vitae for his father) then a short synopsis of Hamlet using stills from the ensuing dramatic reconstruction.  This is then followed by a shortened version of Act 1, Scene 1, the Ghost’s first visit after which Horatio, still in character steps forward and it become apparent that we’re about to watch a truncated version of the play with him filling in the gaps in the plot:

Then just as events are gaining some momentum, we cut to what looks like the old Play School studio and three slightly nervy Shakespearean scholars who with the aid of presenter/director/writer Ned Rogers (that's Ned Rogers) will it seems be offering commentary on the action rather like the pundits on Match of the Day:

If you've been counting you will have noticed that this video has the kind of redundancy seen in Submarine Command Systems, with three sets of presenters interjecting at various points to help tell the story as well as the video'd theatre and as events proceed the demarcation between their various departments slowly breaks down, with Horatio sometimes offering commentary and the experts providing a synopsis, to such a degree that it's a surprise that ACAS aren't called in.

The problem is that the experts rarely have a chance to say anything interesting.  A typical example is the agreement that Polonius advice to his son and daughter – which we’re not shown -- is a “throwaway scene”, though one admits that it is at least “setting him up as a duplicitous SOB”.  Much is made about the double revenge plot, contrasting Laertes’s approach with Hamlet’s, but Fortinbras, with his own motive for revenge is barely mentioned other than a veiled reference to “Norwegian ambassadors” very early on.

The commentary is also replete with the kinds of contradictions likely to confuse a newcomer.  Before the accidental murder of Polonius, we’re told that “Hamlet shows no remorse” yet afterwards, Horatio steps forward and says “Hamlet does regret the death he gave poor Polonius” (not forgetting that Gertrude says as much herself in the text). No mention is made to the various versions of the play other than to note that “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I…” only appears in one of them.  They’re clearly conscious about not trying hand too much baggage to the viewer, in which case, why bring it up at all?

If I was viewer new to play, I’m also not sure what I’d make of Horatio’s interjections anyway. He's sometimes silhouetted on set when Hamlet is supposed to be alone and it's only really inferred (which is never enough) that he wouldn’t ordinarily be eavesdropping.  Every now and then, I'm sure I can detect a certain passive aggressive restlessness from amongst the expects because Horatio's stealing some of their best linking material.  They certainly don't have a proper answer when Ned asks: “In terms of the play, The Mousetrap, it does trap the mouse doesn’t it?” I’m not sure how that educates anyone.

What of the production itself?  Events don’t begin well when Hamlet Snr arrives with his voice treated via a ring modular which makes him sound like a Cyberman.  The sets are minimal, the costumes mock Elizabethan.  All very old fashioned and shot for clarity rather than finesse.  Eventually everything settles down into a greatest hits collection which, as is often the way with these abbreviations, emphasises the soliloquies and most notable incidents with each of the main characters given their most prominent scenes.

For the purposes of this mission, I'll admit this is on the edge of being counted as a complete production, but since Brad Yates is quite good in the main role and I did feel as though we’d been through an experience together, it seems fair to give him some due prominence.  Yates has something of the Kevin Kline about him especially in the eyes, but perhaps not quite the fire.  When Eva Loseth’s Ophelia talks at the close of the nunnery scene of “the things I’ve seen” we can’t quite match the horror in her eyes with the preceding action.

Loseth is clearly the best actor in the piece.  In her few scenes, Ophelia comes across as a complete person.  In the aforementioned nunnery scenes she betrays a very controlled fear which breaks only when Hamlet has left and she is gifted the whole of her soliloquy.

Her later appearance in madness is suitably heartbreaking and I couldn’t keep my eyes off her and neither can the other actors who are generally only ok, but really raise their game in these brief moments.  I had hoped she’d gone on to have long and fruitful career, but despite some guest spots in the likes of Quantum Leap and Star Trek: Deep Space 9, she was last seen as Check out girl in Lakeview Terrace (2008).

I'm conscious I've been very harsh on a eighteen year old instructional video which had the best of intentions, . but I wonder about the kids and even adults for whom this was their first and perhaps even only experience of Shakespeare, quietly fulfilling any prejudices they may have and wonder if they know what they’re missing.

But perhaps there is just the chance that they saw the humanity in Yates and especially Loseth’s faces, some of the poetry touched their imagination, and decided to seek out a longer, better production to see if some of that emotional truth was be carried over.  But as the video closes with three good-byes, from Horatio, from the experts and from "Shakespeare" himself, it's really difficult to tell.

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