Wednesday, April 27, 2005

03 Will Houston

Hamlet played by Will Houston
Directed by Michael Mundell

This is the first time I've seen the 'To Be Or Not To Be' speech with Hamlet standing on the edge of a cliff thinking about jumping in. At least I don't think I've seen it before. But that reflects this production overall, a grab bag of moments which seem very familiar, and not just because it's an oft produced play. Perhaps there are only so many ways you can present certain scenes.

This is a bit of an oddity. After looking about online I've found that this production was created for the education market. Which is possibly why it feels like a greatest hits of the play rather than an attempt to tell a cohesive story. The big moments for me such as the appearance of the Ghost and the set up for The Mousetrap are textually given short shrift whilst not a solliquey is lost. Some scenes end mid-speech with the characters walking offscreen or by simply cutting away. It generally doesn't feel like it's telling the story -- there isn't the emotional punch which the really good productions can give even though we've heard the dialogue and know the story by heart.

Under those circumstances that in the end Will Houston's Hamlet turns out quite well. He starts the play totally mad, in high pitched Berkoff mode all gestures and squeeking, looking upon that Ghost as being perfectly normal, almost as though he'd been waiting for him to show up. But during the flow of the play, Houston slips towards the sane with a slight glint in his eye that actually its the rest of the world which is insane.

He is hampered, though, by the production. Shot on video on location in Peebles and Stratford it seems to have been recorded in sometimes tiny spaces using a multiple camera set up. In places this means the framing is in entirely the wrong place for key moments -- we see much of Ophelia's madness in the bottom right of the frame hidden behind the back of an actor and a table. It's not a stylistic choice, it's just that the camera couldn't get there. Also, what's happening with the ghost? Someone's obviously found a setting on the camera which renders the picture through filter creating an outline effect -- it robs Hamlet Snr of his dignity.

The sound is extremely off putting in places. The producers have chosen to use the dialogue recorded 'on the day' which is fine, even if it means some of it sounds like it was recorded in a portacabin. The problem is that in many places the words are drowned out by sound effects dubbed in to create scene (crowds, or birds, or both) and the incidental music which comes along the point out when there is an important dramatic moment happening which we can't miss. Sometimes it's a bit inappropriate especially because it sounds like it's from stock and doesn't ebb and flow properly with the dialogue.

In the positives though, Gareth 'Blake's Seven' Thomas is a good Claudius (especially in the closing stages when it becomes clear that everything has gone horribly wrong), Lucy Cockram make a decent Ophelia and there are good performances throughout the rest of the cast, including Christopher Timothy's Gravedigger. And there are some lovely scene setting shots in the first hour of the film which have been recorded at some kind of medieval re-enactment day which are fun. It feels like a Doctor Who fan video - a group of people getting together to make a tribute to something they love -- at no point does anyone seem to be going through the motions and this generally sustains things through to the end.

I watched the dvd of this production on the 27th April 2005.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Lion King (1994)

Simba was voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas & Matthew Broderick; animated by Tom Bancroft & Dale Baer.
Directed by Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff

On release, The Lion King was widely broached as being a departure for Disney -- it was their first major animated film not based on a particular source material, be it a fairy tale or piece of literature. Which in watching is only half-true. Whilst it doesn't directly re-tell a particular story, it does draw on a number of elements, including Disney's own Bambi and particularly visibly, Hamlet. Except with Lions.

Almost. The story is superficially similar -- a king murdered by his brother who steals the throne but is eventually revenged by the late king's son. But the action of the play is shaken up, the elements moved about for the purposes of expressing different themes and creating an ending which while not completely happy, is certainly more positive than the mass slaughter which occurs at the end of Shakespeare. For example, the late king, Mufasa does appear as a ghost to the young Hamlet figure, Simba -- but rather than explain how he died (something his son will have to learn later for dramatic purposes) he nudges Simba into following his destiny of taking over the crown.

The film is more concerned with telling a good story than directly referencing its sources. There is a moment when the Claudius figure, Scar holds up a skull, but it doesn't seem like a conscious homage. Similarly there aren't any noticable times when the dialogue parallels anything from the play, except perhaps 'To be or not...' (when Simba finds his life catching up with him in the plains) but that's more to do with these being universal themes rather than anything specific. Also Timon and Pumba, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a much great slice of the action, especially in the closing moments. We effectively see in the film what might have happened if Hamlet had gone to Wittenberg instead of hanging around the palace plotting revenge. Another what if built on here is the appearance of the Hyenas on the prideland which certainly smells of a successful invasion of Fortinbras while Claudius is in power.

The Lion King is a favourite film and I wouldn't want it to change -- the balance between tragedy and comedy is just perfect, as are songs, which are probably some of the best Elton John has written. In the interviews and commentary for the film on the dvd, you can tell there is a slight disappointment that the creators of the work couldn't nudge it closer to the Shakespeare. Certainly the original concept art was much bolder and starker. Was there a moment during the development when the script was much closer to Hamlet the play and how different would that version have been? Less songs presumably and Nala drowing in the watering hole. Which would be wrong, frankly. Still at least we can introduce the play to kids by saying ... "It's a bit like The Lion King only sadder..."

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Short shrift

Michael Billington in The Guardian ponders the shortening running times of new plays and if this is having a detremental effect on quality simply because there is so much of a subject to fit into so little space that there isn't enough time to develop some ideas. As always he's generally right, although I am of the generation with a lower attention span. Interestingly he invokes a quote about Hamlet as a way of demonstrating how times have changed:
You can't, of course, simply re-create old forms: as Alain Robbe-Grillet shrewdly pointed out, Hamlet would not be a masterpiece if it were written today since we do not live in the age of the five-act tragedy. But the new, slavish obeisance to the 90-minute rule stems, I suspect, from a mixture of fashion and ignorance; in particular, a shocking unawareness of even the recent past when drama moved beyond a single situation or point of crisis to examine causes as well as effects.
That is a feature which I've seen drift away in modern theatre -- multiple settings. Some of the award winning recent plays, for example, Joe Egg have thrived in a single setting. But this has the effect of creating the feeling of sitcom. One of the reasons Hamlet feels epic is because of the sheer number and variety of scene changes.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Log execs: Visas crucial

I had to post this. It's an amazing way of introducing a pretty dry news story by invoking The Dane. What does the following have to do with paper pulping? "Had the fictional character of Hamlet been a Maine logging company executive rather than a Danish prince, his famous question may have been phrased a little differently: H2B or not H2B? Though it has had an effect on Maine's logging industry, the increasing scarcity in Maine of seasonal foreign workers available through the federal H2B visa program has not resulted in a situation as dire as that faced by Shakespeare's tragic figure."

Sunday, April 10, 2005

02 Simon Russell Beale

Hamlet played by Simon Russell Beale
Directed by Clive Brill

There are generally three approaches to Shakespeare (and theatre for that matter) on audio -- recording the sound of a theatre production, creating a film without pictures, or producing a textual adaptation, in which the performances take a back seat to the performances. There is obviously some blurring of these approaches, but Clive Brill's production falls completely in the latter camp. It's the full text presented in a way which can be both heard and understood. Even if it renders it a bit slow in places.

It was worth hearing though, because for the first time I actually understood the sections of the play regarding Fortinbras. When cutting the play for production for performance the Norwegian is often the first to go, because the main domestic plot can happily play out without him. Which means on the odd occasion he and his invading army appear, I've often had trouble working out what they're doing there. I now know that Fortinbras Sr challenged Hamlet Sr in battle and was slain. Now Fortinbras Jr is throwing together a band of men to invade Denmark, partly out of vengeance but also to grab back lands which have been taken. I think.

The highlight is inevitably Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet. Something of an unsung actor (who some might remember as Widmerpool in Channel 4's adaption of Anothony Powell's A Dance To The Music of Time), he does stamp his ideas on the part and you get the feeling he's been wanting to express these ideas for years. It's a very regal version and you get the feeling that he would much rather go to Wittenberg than hang around the palace and the inevitable madness which will follow. But when he has to take the lead his dives straight in, convivial and excited. The venom with which he aproaches his enemies, especially, wierdly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who he has hardly any time for, fishing them out straight away) is excellent. You can see why he got the chance to repeat the role on stage at the Royal National Theatre in 2000 and a bit of a step up from second gravedigger which is the part he played in Ken Branagh's film version.

To be honest there are some pretty disappointing performances in here though. You would expect the late Bob Peck to inject some venom into Claudius, but instead he comes across as fairly pronderous, even generic, something that happens across the board. Perhaps the rule during this production was not to put too much of an interpretation on anything which might be fine if its to be used in study but does rather wring the passion out of it. Of the main cast, only Imogen Stubbs' Ophelia rises to the occasion, especially during her fall into madness.

The setting is simple, with subtle sound effects of wind or birds of echos depending on where the characters are. The specially composed music of Dominique Le Gendre is used to play in and out of scene and act breaks and although it's quite lovely, its deployment at times seems a bit random -- something booming before an intimate scene for example. Nothing earth shattering.

Which is unfortunately a good description of the production as a whole.

Listened to from a cassette on the 10th April 2005.

Monday, April 04, 2005

It is when Hamlet speaks to himself ...

Excellent Google Answer to the following question: "Taking into account the 16th and 17th Century English that was spoken in Shakespeare's time, (and using some of the suggestions shown in the following parenthesis), how do you perceive Shakespeare's ability as a writer (use of vocabulary, figures of speech, sense of dialogue, appropriateness and effectivenes of soliloquies, rhythm, use of blank verse) and as a composer of plays (plot, tension building, suspense of plot, climax, comic relief) when referring to the script of his play Hamlet?"