Monday, December 25, 2006

In The Bleak Midwinter (1995)

Hamlet played by Joe Harper
Directed by Joe Harper

It's December 1995, I'm at university the first time around and I live very close to the one cinema I would say that I ever really loved, The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. In The Bleak Midwinter turned up pretty much unheralded but I'd read about it in Empire Magazine who gave it a sparkling review and having loved everything else Kenneth Branagh had directed (yes, even Dead Again) and being someway into a lifelong appreciation of Shakespeare I knew had to go and see it..

The Hyde Park was the kind of cinema in which any film could potentially be packed out because the audience tended to go see whatever was on. I took my tall friend Dave with me, even though he wasn't sure if it was his kind of thing - in black and white and about theatre - and we sat at the back of the balcony because there was more legroom.

I'd like to be able to give you a long flowing description of the experience of seeing it for the first time but I really can't. I remember being enchanted and laughing a lot and feeling very Christmassy afterwards and Dave saying that it wasn't what he was expecting and that he really enjoyed it but other than that I'd say that it just made me more excited about seeing Branagh's Hamlet the following year, this almost being a rehearsal for that.

It wasn't until the following Christmas, when I was given the video that I really fell for the film. There was certainly the nostalgia factor - I'd left university by then and it reminded me of a good night out at a place that I wouldn't necessarily be able to go back to with someone I hadn't seen in months. But it was also that it somehow managed to distill everything I felt about Shakespeare into an hour and a half and was also brilliantly funny and touching.

The following year, in 1997, I watched it around Christmas time again while I was wrapping my presents. And again in '98 and since then it's become part of the ritual. When I say that I watch it every Christmas, I really do. Which seems like the definition of a favourite film. Each viewing it means more or less to me than the year before depending on what else is happening in life. Last year I was at university again nd it just fitted into the many hundreds of other films I seemed to be watching. This year I noticed that the main character mentions in his opening monologue that he's thirty-three and I realised that I'd be the same age as him next time I see it.

Perhaps I should provide some background because I know that this isn't a film many people have heard of (it's not even available on dvd). In The Bleak Midwinter (or A Midwinter's Tale as it's called in the US) features Branagh and Shakespeare stalwart Michael Maloney as Joe an out of work actor who decides to produce Hamlet at Christmas time in a disused church in his sister's home village of Hope. With him are a group of actors, some in the offseason from seaside shows, all with their own neuroses and the film charts the rehearsal process and the production. It very much follows the structure and style of the Hollywood backstage films from the heyday of the studio system, except with obvious nods and influences from sources as diverse as Woody Allen, Ealing comedies and silent cinema.

Branagh says that it isn't autobiographical, but when Joe describes his passion for the play, that he saw it when he was fifteen and it changed his life that's exactly what the director has said about seeing Jacobi at the RSC all those years ago. His motivation for making the epic film version of the play later mirrors one of Joe's needs here - to try and make something which has a reputation for being musty and boring and making it exciting for a new generation, essentially dragging out of slow amateur schoolroom readings.

Having tried acting and been around a few actors I can absolutely say that the film captures the brilliance and pain of the art, the fact that it can boil down to bringing the deep seated emotional crap that you try to suppress up to the surface in order to entertain others. But what is really clever, is that having suggested from the opening that all of the characters are pretentious and affected and everything everyone expects actors to be - John Session's raving queen and Richard Briers grumpy old man, for example, in a series of carefully chosen two-handers he carefully peels away the surface and reveals them to be perfectly normal people like us, absolutely aware of the mask they're otherwise wearing to get by in the profession.

I think the film was derided at the time as another opportunity for Ken to give his chums something to do, but I thought it was unfair, particularly since it allows them to reproduce the fragile chemistry that any short term group dynamic has but also because many of them are producing what I think are career best performances. People like John Sessions or Celia Imrie, so often stuck playing grotesques and eccentrics are brilliant here when demonstrating the serious side of their all too camp exteriors. Gerard Horan, latterly typecast as policeman is beautifully touching as Carnforth the man with the drink problem. To be honest the only weak link is Jennifer Saunders with her mad American accent who looks like she's charged in from a Comic Strip skit, but there no doubt she's fulfilling the role of the big producer redolent of the genre.

The film is composed rather like a something from earlier in that century - most of the action plays out in medium or wide shots in deep focus with the actors moving into the foreground and back again creating the effect of seeing characters on a theatre stage - there are very few close ups and they only appear late in the film as the group is fractured and the infighting and arguments have begun in earnest. There are montage sequences, such as the audition process and the costuming but Branagh uses a series of jump cuts and juxtapositions to move the story forward.
Branagh employs lighting akin to film noir which fits the mood of the play in production and there are some lovely compositions as the actors walk in and out of silhouette.

Noir is also implied in the costumes that are finally selected for the production within the film which have a kind of 40s gangster style - and there's a spectacular use of a machine gun which accentuates that idea which I don't want to give away. There's also very little music. The film opens with Noel Coward singing 'Why Must The Show Go On' and ends with a plucked instrumental version of the titular Christmas carol. It's a brave stylistic choice but it gives room for the actor's performances to provide the emotional core and make the one musical moment from inside their story - when Nina (Julia Sawalha) sings Ophelia's lament - all the more heartbreaking.

It has dated slightly. One of the jokes hinges on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers which to be honest seemed out of the date at the time although the target audience will at least have heard of it - I'm not sure what the equivalent now would be - probably Xbox or Wii. Also, when Nicholas Farrell's Tom is auditioning for Laertes, he goes into a wild digression about how relevant Hamlet it and mentions that it's like Bosnia. That would be Iraq now I suppose. One element that hasn't aged is the crucial plot point of the filming of a giant sci-fi trilogy that could be the new Star Wars, especially since we've actually had a new Star Wars trilogy (coindentally featuring Celia Imrie as a fighter pilot) and since and everything seems to be about pre-planned franchises and series now.

Some other things I noticed watching it again the other night - the (uncredited) puppet theatre girl in the audition scene is Katy Carmichael who played Twist in the sitcom Spaced. The brilliance of the acronym LCA - Less Crap Acting. Joan Collins as Joe's agent gives probably her best performance since classic Star Trek's City of the Edge of Forever. That Maloney is the best Doctor Who we never had and is completely wasted playing the range of wackos always seems to now in tv dramas - this is the man who stole Juliet Stevenson from Alan Rickman in Truly Madly Deeply after all.

Stylistically different to anything else what Branagh has directed but still with that love of theatre and theatrics, it touches me each year and even with the darkness, somehow manages to put me in the Christmas mood. There is a scene in which people talk about what makes their life worth living and someone mentions Brief Encounter and offers to buy someone as a present. Do yourself a favour and hunt a copy of this down in time for next Christmas because if you're a reader of this blog I really think you'll enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

07 Kevin Kline

Hamlet played by Kevin Kline
Directed by Kevin Kline

Kevin Kline's production and performance was one of the key experiences I was looking forward to in this endeavor. During the Hamlet documentary that inspired everything (mentioned in the introduction), Kline was one of the most lucid in regards to the effect the part has on an actor and the sheer endurance required in getting from the young dane seeing a ghost and becoming one. He tells an anecdote about being on stage and being so exhausted during a run that he forgot where he was up to in 'To Be Or Not To Be' - he'd said 'to die, to sleep' but couldn't remember if it was for the first or second time and so he ploughed on ahead certain that if he had skipped a few lines the audience would have heard it anyway.

Kline's is a very moist Hamlet. By that I mean during much of the play its rare that he passes through a scene without welling up, the sheer weight of Hamlet's endeavor and its psychological effects dwell upon his face at all times. I think in the documentary he mentions how emotionally draining the experience is and watching the actor as he runs the gamut of emotions its easy to believe. It's measured too - at first there's a hint of going through the motions as though he's holding back some reserves for later in the play, but then, in the appearance of Hamlet Snr, he snaps to attention and he begins to convince. Kline says that in this version (the second time he'd played the character) Hamlet it borderline mad, and actually this is quite a straightforward reading in that way - I didn't detect that he was feigning madness - he appeared to be floating in and out of the malady.

The confrontation with Gertrude just after the manslaughter of Polunius, so often played as though her son is convincing her of his sanity and bringing her into his confidence, she simply seems to be coping with her son, actress Dana Ivey's eyes reflecting that she's humoring her daffy offspring. The selected intermission reflects these readings, appearing after Hamlet and Ophelia's only (if not private) scene together which confirms once and for all his madness. But then, cleverly, once he's been to England, R&G are dead and he's seen the deceased Ophelia and he understands to an extent what the end game will be, the tears dry and he's a much, much more controlled character. Yet, his still seems a surprise, not something predetermined. His performance is subtler than most, but none the worst for it. Sometimes the shouters lack texture.

The rest of the ensemble features many actors that would go on to appear in multiple episodes of the Law & Order franchise (work your way through the imdb cast list). Josef Sommer's Polunius, comes across as a Shakespearean detective using interrogations and tests to examine the form and nature of Hamlet's madness - the fishmonger sequence in particular is presented from his point of view and lacks the asides that some Hamlet actors drop in to show who's in charge - in this case Polonius is. Brian Murray's Claudius is surprisingly sympathetic much of the time, which should work against the character especially in the closing act but somehow works - he deeply regrets what he has done to his brother and is looking for a way to save his kingdom. Oh and, heroically, Leo Burmester's Osrich enters my fantasy casting - he's portrayed as an English gent rubbing up nicely to Kline's American - I thought of Alfred, Bruce Wayne's butler.

Something that is noticeable is the emphasis on Hamlet's absentia. Whether this was a decision taken by Kline as an actor and director to give himself a breather obviously isn't clear, but its a far more democratic production than some. Embarrassingly, this is the first time I've noticed that a full month passes within the first few acts of the play (either that or its generally ignored) which makes Hamlet's decent into madness far less sudden - and indeed this is exactly what Polonius is describing to Claudius before being called a fishmonger. This also leads to the pleasing appearance of Fortinbras, so often cut in shorter productions, who's story as presented here contrasts Hamlet - they're both much the same age and both attempting to avenge their fathers. Everything Ophelia is there too, including a short speech after Hamlet leaves her for the last time, so often omitted. Also welcome is the run-up to The Mousetrap including the Player King's turn. Impressively, Kline has managed to drop in everything that's usually omitted in a production that times out at two and a half hours, without obviously wrecking the momentum.

In the main then, this recording of the production produced for New York Shakespeare Festival and broadcast in 1990, doesn't disappoint. This isn't a recording of a performance before an audience, rather a transplanting of everything into a television studio - which is a shame actually because in places it deadens the drama as moments that may have been electrifying with spectator reaction don't quite have the same power - the Hamlet/Gertrude post-Mousetrap debrief for example (although I suppose it depends what kind of audience you're expecting - I gasped and wonder if a crowd might have too). Non-specific modern dress with simply sets pretending to be stone with lighting and dry-ice employed to create mood and landscape; the 'wooden' floor is particularly noticeable and the deep edges of the floorboards become props in places, for example during Ophelia's decent into madness, excellent actress Diane Venora (who would later play Gertrude in Michael Almereyda's film) claws away at the floor.

As with all of these recorded theatre productions, there is a sense, unavoidably, that half of the production is lost because of the requirements of its new media - in other words a lot of acting going on, but only the decisions of the director revealing what he believes to be important. This can obviously slant further the decisions of actors and the stage director so you do have to tread carefully when commenting. There are some spectacular moments though; after the ghost leaves, Hamlet faints, falling from the battlements into the waiting arms of Horatio and the guards (which demonstrates a lot of trust amongst the company), the image mirrored at the end of the presentation as the Dane is carried off to a military funeral by Fortinbras's men. The duel too has a kineticism, but has an added twist of Laertes allowing the palpable hit, almost as though he's given up and wants Hamlet to win. The only read disaster is the music. A hodge-podge of percussive instruments and oh-god synthesizer music recorded by Bob James that sounds for all the world like the material that ruined some of Doctor Who during the eighties. It's particularly destructive during Hamlet's death scene, Kline's final moments steamrollered by James mickey-mousing. Ugh.

There's a review of the original stage production in 1990 at the New York Times, and also of Kline's earlier attempt in 1986. On reflection I have to agree with much of what the reviewer says, although I'd say that that the scene in which Kline directs 'The Murder of Gonzago' is the moment when he truly shines.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960)

Koichi Nishi played by Toshiro Mifune
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Or The Bad Sleep Well for the English translation. Akira Kurosawa's approach to Hamlet (in TohoVision!) reminds me of the quip Eric Morcambe once made to Andre Previn during a Christmas spectacular. "I'm playing all the right notes. Just not necessarily in the right order." Which isn't to say that in this admirable film anything is in the wrong order. Rather than slavishly following the beats of Shakespeare's story, Kurosawa reconfigures the icons, so that the Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude, Horatio, Laertes and Polonius become apparent as does the deployment of a ghost, as is the motivation for the Hamlet figure Koichi Nishi's revenge. The approach is refreshing, since although I loved both Throne of Blood and Ran, its good to be in the territory of influence rather than retelling.

For me, the film has more in common with old Hollywood than the bard. The opening has hints of the early Frank Capra films written by Robert Riskin, a gaggle of newsmen following and commenting on the police investigation into the company that stands for this retelling's Elsinore. As the story proceeds the framing of shots and the cold anti-hero status of Toshiro Mifune's Nishi who will stop at nothing, even reducing his identity to a shadow smacks of film noir and the gangster films of the forties and fifties, particularly the work of John Huston and Fritz Lang, both of whom revelled in the darker edges of society. Lang in particular often featured a female character with some kind of disfigurement similar to Keiko (Ophelia)'s lame foot. Nishi is complex rather than sympathetic, his methods only vaguely different from those that wronged him.

Oddly enough, my favourite moment is early in the film when Tatsuo Iwabuchi (Laertes) gives his wedding speech. He's played by Tatsuya Mihashi who was the genial lead overdubbed in Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lily? to become Phil Moscowitz and initially he seems to confer that geniality here. The opening of the speech is fairly natural best man stuff, a few jokes, and then from nowhere he notes that if Nishi doesn't treat his sister correctly he'll kill him. This is not a joke. He's deadly serious. But cleverly, Kurosawa films him from behind allowing us to see the reaction of the congregation for whom this threat is as unexpected as it is for us. Joe Pesci's Funny How from the overrated Goodfellas is a fair comparison. Only the intervention of an elder who congratulates his passion allows the proceedings to continue.

Chuck Stephens has written an excellent essay on the film, The Higher Depths.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet (2004)

Hamlet played by Simon Keenlyside
Directed by Toni Bargallo

When I began this journey I knew that it would be a learning experience and not just because I'd essentially be seeing the same story, over, and over, and over again. I knew there would adaptations I would end up watching and although there are a couple that I'm saving until I'm really in the mood, last night I sat through Ambroise Thomas's opera adaptation as it appeared at Covent Garden.

Firstly some qualifications:

(a) I don't love opera singing so ...
(b) I don't love opera

Possibly because

(c) I haven't seen a whole opera before.

Without fixating on this fact, I do want to also note that in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere tells Julia Roberts that there are two types of people those who love opera from the beginning and those who learn to appreciate it, he misses out a third group - people who haven't had time to do either because they've been busy with everything else. I don't feel bad about it, and I don't think I'm too old and if anyone wants to write in with magnum opuses and classics that I really should hear, feel free although it's probably best if I just promise to watch the inevitable broadcast from Glyndebourne on BBC Four at Christmas. Even though I was watching alone and on the smallish screen, I tried to keep with the experience though, clapping with the audience when cued and having a real toilet and coffee break at the interval (or change of dvds), and although I didn't have anyone to complain to about the seating arrangements or the price of the tickets, I did check my email.

All of which hopefully explains is why at no point in the next few paragraphs will I be even attempting to provide a review of the quality of the performance because I won't want to suggest any pretensions that I know what I'm talking about. Because I don't. All I'll say in the outset is I was really impressed at the players/singers ability to present acting performances with such range whilst also doing that with their lungs. Natalie Dessay is certainly one of the best Ophelia's I've seen in any media, absolutely heartbreaking in the passage when she descends into madness, alone and commanding the stage for reasons which will become clear. Simon Keenlyside's brooding Hamlet also impressed.

Inevitably, my interest lies in how the story has been adapted for another media, still staged and yet with a musical form of expression. Perhaps most surprising where the narrative changes introduced by Thomas to accommodate the requirements of opera. My rudimentary understanding that for musical purposes there needs to be bass, baritone, mezzo-soprano and soprano voices. In this version that means Claudius, Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia. As per Shakespeare, Laertes disappears very early on, but more striking Polonius is largely jettisoned in all but for one scene, which has an obvious knock on effect later. Unsurprisingly, Fortinbras isn't mentioned either.

Douglas Adams once said that if were to make a film of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, rather than repeating the scenes from the radio series, books and television version he would feature all of the moments in between instead. Startlingly that's what happens here. The story actually begins with a chorus singing out celebration for the re-coronation of Gertrude, but the subdued lighting signals that all is not well. There is then a rather touching scene between Hamlet and Ophelia which means unlike the play we have a glimpse of the couple before it all goes bad. Then, Laertes passes through on his way abroad to entrust Ophelia's safety in Hamlet's hands - this is something of a change because it turns his sisters later madness into a betrayal of that trust.

The narrative of the original play doesn't begin until a full half hour into the performance and even then its done rather subliminally, with the Horatio figure dashing through revelry to reveal the ghostly vision from the battlements. Here are some of the highlights of the differences: when Hamlet Snr does inevitably appear, he tells Hamlet that he must avenge his death before revealing who the killer will the and the plot is the ghost's with the son fulfilling the dying wish of the father. As with the play, Hamlet madness becomes reported rather than scene, although unlike Shakepeare's account, its up to Ophelia to signal the change. One of the major changes in this version is that Ophelia's part is beefed up considerably to the extent that she's almost an equal - indeed she speaks to the audience as much as Hamlet and to an extent our sympathies lie with her as she is unable to comprehend his malady and why she is spurning him. Claudius and Gertrude question Hamlet on this

Then, given the stripped down nature of this version of the story and because there obviously needs to be a sub-finale (or whatever), the close of the first act is taken up with The Mousetrap, although Hamlet has ordered the presence of the players rather than their haphazard appearance in the play. This is the first section that has real fidelity with the 'original' with the bit of business between Hamlet and Ophelia largely intact. The only real change is that Hamlet signals his madness by covering himself symbolically with blood when Claudius reveals his annoyance at the events depicted in the play, unexpectedly pushing the crowd gathered for the player's performance against himself rather than his step father.

Beginning of Act II and Hamlet is wondering why his plan hasn't worked and drops into 'To Be Or Not To Be' (more on which later). By this time I'm wondering exactly how Ophelia's madness will be introduced without the death of Polonius, just as Polonius arrives on stage (with Hamlet listening far away) to note that he was in on the plot all along (something hinted at in the opening act). But this is Polonius's only appearance, and although the Hamlet/Gertrude scene is again bizarrely almost complete it ends with Hamlet stalking off. What actually leads Ophelia to madness is Hamlet spurning her love and empahsising that she should instead 'retire to a convent' ('Get thee to a nunnery'). This is probably the best moment in the performance as Dessay commands the stage, huge vases and a couch being her only support. The audience thought she was good too, clapping for two minutes whilst she lay on the floor, still totally in character, unable to acknowledge.

And then, oddly, the grave diggers arrive, rip some floorboards up from the stage, climb into the hole and dig out some soil. No Yorrick, although Hamlet and Laertes skulk in randomly to wonder who will be buried, there's a altercation and Hamlet is stabbed. The funeral procession answers their question. Then the ghost of Hamlet Snr makes final surprise visit to remind Hamlet of his 'mission' to kill Claudius (something he'd singularly failed to do earlier in the play when he had the chance) he stabs his stepfather, there's a crescendo and the curtain falls. Note that Gertrude survives and the mortality of the young Dane is by no means certain. And I was disappointed because I was looking forward to singing and swords.

I know that I haven't completely captured the experience of seeing a story so familiar rewritten in this way. I loved that Ophelia is more prominent here, probably so that a production could attract a first class soprano and her relationship with Hamlet has even more consistency than in Shakespeare's version. Arguably both are valid, although the lack of Polonius does mean that the impact of one of the themes of the story, that of the tragic loss of a parent and the hopeless repercussions is reduced. Its interesting too that because Hamlet potentially lives and is hailed as King it becomes even more of a revenger's tragedy than a study of real madness (although neatly the opera, like Shakespeare, doesn't have a definite answer to that). Apparently though a different version of the play was premiered after Thomas's death in which Hamlet committed suicide before the shows end, which doesn't seem like the correct end either.

The biggest change is obviously in language. The opera itself is in French and I watched it with translation. Having given up on French after only just scraping through even though I was in set four at school I only have a smattering picked up through osmosis from years of watching French movies. Rely on the subtitles is obviously madness and through, somehow you'd could tell that much of the real poetry had been lost somehow. Early on Horatio exclaims 'My legs have given way' and Hamlet's advice to Ophelia 'Retire to a convent' simply doesn't have the same power. The only soliloquy to survive is inevitably 'To Be Or Not To Be' which in the subtitles became:

To be or not to be
Oh, enigma
To die ... to sleep ...
To sleep
If only I were permitted to break
The bond that ties me to earth
But then what?
What is this unknown land
From which no traveler has yet returned
To be or not to be
Oh, deep enigma
To die ... to sleep ...
(repeat to fade)

Either this is a literal translation in which case huh? Or its simply paraphrasing the French, in which case why not simply use Shakespeare's text? Oh, enigma indeed.

What I learn from this experience is that to an extent in opera, in adapting a narrative it becomes far less important than the noise - its about touching the audience through the sound of music (sorry). Even the staging is spare, with lighting effects and two giant architectural bits of set filling in for every local -- I particularly liked that bright fill light was used when Ophelia was mostly happy, and brutal frost darkness when she'd tipped over the edge. This was repeated in the presentation of the opera on dvd, in which the shifts between scenes and before the production were filled with a visual trip to the orchestra pit and the faces of the people providing the music.

This was not about even attempting to allow the viewer to suspend their disbelief but to provide an overview of the whole experience. To this end, surprisingly, the audience were also shown taking their seats throughout the concert hall, the jewelry rattlers in the stalls being most visible. As the curtain drops on the first half, most of the spectators are clapping, the other half already marching up the isle towards the queue for the toilets or the bar or the ice cream stand. I'm not sure if that's rude or not, but the seven minutes of applause at the end, as the actors/singers bounded on stage probably made up for it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

06 Mel Gibson

Hamlet played by Mel Gibson.
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

A surprisingly enjoyable rendition of the play, Franco Zeffirelli's film is gloriously free and easy with the text. It opens with the funeral of Hamlet Snr in which the young Dane is shown leaning over his father's coffin dropping in some of Claudius's pronouncement from Act I Scene II, dropping the first scene and appearance of the ghost entirely. Within the context of this version of the story, that works perfectly well, since in this adaptation anything extraneous to the central revenge story has been dropped, Hamlet's story being paramount (so as usual Fortinbras and the political intrigue are omitted too - although mention is made of the weakness of the state since Claudius snatched power and then spends much of his time having parties). Throughout the film, scenes and moments that are reported in the text are played out on screen, although no new words are given to the actors and characters, who without Shakespeare's wit are left to emote silently.

Film writer Kirsten Thompson believes that rather than having three acts, a typical screenplay and so film has four sections or chunks, each becoming apparent at a turning point. Once you're aware of the formulae, it can become maddening because in the average two hour film they become apparent with thudding regularity and you'll often spend some of your time (unless it's a really great film) watching for their appearance. This version of Hamlet adheres to this structure perfectly, proving that the filmmakers wanted to create a motion picture, rather than simply a filmed theatre production.

Essentially the first turning point occurs after the set up portion of a film when the lead character makes a discovery. This occurs just over half an hour into this Hamlet when the ghost advises his living son of his brother's murderous tendencies - this creates the problem for Hamlet. The next turning point is led by the acknowledgement of whatever the problem is. In this case, during The Mousetrap, Hamlet gets the proof he needed that the Ghost was telling the truth and that Claudius is guilty. The final turning point is the moment which can only inevitably lead to the climax. In this film it is tricky because that section is filled with incident, but I think it's supposed to be when Laertes challenges Hamlet to the duel therefore giving Hamlet the inevitable possibility of bringing the revenge.

Elsinore is a medieval castle, almost a ruin as though the decaying family at the heart of the story has writ large and broken through the walls. It's the image I'm sure most people have when they think of the landscape of the play although sometimes the ramparts don't quite match - this might be because filming took place at four castles (two in England, two in Scotland) as well as Shepperton Studios, but also introduces an element of the any place, of a broken history tumbling in on itself. The only bumpy moment is just after the ghost disappears after the revelation scene. For probably the only time during the film, Gibson is obviously standing on a set, a prop man possibly standing nearby with hose at the ready to keep the polystyrene stones wet.

Considering this was filmed and released at around the time of Air America and Lethal Weapon 3, when he was generally considered to be a 'star' rather than an 'actor' Mel Gibson's performance is beautifully layered and inspiring. On this occasion, Hamlet is faining madness, all the while observing Claudius, Polonius and his mother from doorways and walkways devining their intentions, always a step ahead. 'To Be Or Not To Be' is related within a mausoleum and is one of the few quiet moments when the man is allowed to be himself and contemplate his actions and the plots that are developing around him. These are not given to camera, and the only moment when the forth wall is broken, which is arguably the most effective in the whole film is after the pact that the ghosts existence will be kept secret - Gibson passively stares at the audience, bring them briefly into his world. Particularly good is the chemistry with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and this is one of the few occasions when they seem equals and you can actually believe that they are friends, old school friends, making their betrayal and Hamlet resulting reaction all the more chilling (this is obviously helped by having Michael Maloney playing Rosencrantz - he'll get a promotion in the Branagh version to Laertes).

The utter focus on Hamlet means that the other characters become supporting players to a much greater extent and unfortunately with a few exceptions, none of them really has a chance to make too much of a mark. Alan Bates is particularly blank, much of his menace reported rather than evident. I've never been a fan of Helena Bonham-Carter and although her decent into madness is all perfectly manic, her tender Ophelia simply didn't work for me - although even in the full text the character is somewhat underwritten, the really great young actresses can make it their own with a smile, a wink and some warmth in that scene she shares with Laertes. And although her already fraught appearance so early in the story was possibly a directorial decision, it fundamentally means that you're not convinced that Hamlet could love her, especially not one as regal as this. On the plus side, Ian Holm makes a predictably good Polonius and Glen Close passes the Gertrude test brilliantly. On this occasion, Hamlet really does convince that he is not mad after the death of Polonius making his and her death all the more tragic at the climax simply because she has not been able to watch her husband closely enough.

The usual oddities abound for cameo spotters. Nathaniel Parker, tv's Inspector Lynley plays Laertes looking surprisingly like Leonard Nimoy. Amongst the players and unheralded is Pete Postlethwaite and if you've ever wondered what Christopher Fairbank who played Moxey in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet would look like in a dress and a red wig, here's your chance. Reynaldo is played by one of the ultimate character faces Vernon Dobtcheff whose been everything from a scientist in Doctor Who (The War Games) to a butler during Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A veteran too of many a Eurosoup production, I last remember seeing him ironically as the manager of the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Richard Linklater's Paris based romance Before Sunset.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Ophelia (1851-1852) by John Everett Millais

Detailed mini-site from Tate Britain about the painting. Included fun quiz about the painting of the fictional suicide.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

By The Way, Ophelia Is Pregnant

Real penny drop of an argument:
"A girl who has been seduced and abandoned need fear nothing but a broken heart, provided there is no evidence of her shame. But if she is pregnant, then there is no way to hide what she has done, unless she can abort the child, or kill herself. And, indeed, shortly thereafter, Ophelia drowns herself. The conventional interpretation is that Hamlet has broken her heart and then killed her father. But the play seems to suggest strongly that Hamlet has seduced her, and to hint that she is pregnant as well."
I've never seen this extrapolated out into a production and I suppose if anyone did decide to blend it in there would be hackles. But given the textual analysis that has been carried out on the play and the amount of reading I've been doing I can't believe I haven't noticed this before. [via]

Sunday, August 20, 2006

My noble lord, Pete?

I couldn't let the week go by without acknowledging the cover of Radio Times which features Eastenders star Adam Woodyat dolled up as the Dane. Sadly this isn't some publicity for an in-show bit of amdram or some kind of production featuring the cast -- instead its an excuse for a photo-op with the cast portraying different characters in different plays. The accompanying article is the usual stuff about 'if Shakespeare were alive today he'd be writing soap opera' which is something that's never been completely convincing to me. The article does note that most drama has been influenced by Bill and I have heard interviews in the past with Eastenders writers who have used Shakespeare as source material, suggesting that if you were to truncate some storylines they'd mirror some of the plays exactly with props even expressing visually some of the poetry -- is the other parallel that's drawn in the captions to the photographs. The one for Pete and Dawn reads:
"As a bit of a ditherer living in the shadow of his father and struggling to cope with his stepdad, Ian Beale has something in common with the Great Dane. He spends his life feeling sorry for himself and imagining the world is conspiring against him. But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Dawn Swann had her own share of family misery, and wears the air of someone who suffer's life's great cruelties beautifully - even if one of the biggest tragedies so far has been a broken nail."
In the photo inside, Yorick is replaced by a bag of chips. Which isn't the same somehow.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hamlet @ The Edinburgh Festival

A quick round-up of productions with links to a page where you can book tickets. What's surprising is that there isn't a 'pure' production, all have some kind of a gimmick. For example ...
Bouncy Castle Hamlet
Hamlet was published in 1603. Bouncy castles were invented in 1961. Somehow, they had been kept apart... until now. At last, Hamlet performed entirely on a bouncy castle. Ghosts! Pirates! Shakespeare! Jumping! What could possibly be better?

Hamlet: The Gloomy Prince

Join Mark and Daniel as they attempt to stage a version of Hamlet 'for kids'! What at first seemed easy becomes an utter nightmare as their production, relationship and set literally collapse around their ears.

The Hamlet Project
What if Hamlet had a second chance? Using Shakespeare's text, five actors from Drama Centre London examine the greatest and most complete tragedy ever told in this vigorous, bold and unusual show.

The Play's the Thing
Hilarious, award-winning new comic thing from Oxford. An egotistical theatre director tries to put on Hamlet. He ends up as insane as Hamlet himself. Curious? The play, in the end, is the thing...
Which sounds like another version of the In the Bleak Midwinter/Slings & Arrows story. Oh and ...
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Two old school-friend backpackers are summoned to keep an eye on the Prince of Denmark. Set in and around the action of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is one of Tom Stoppard's finest works.
Good luck to everyone.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Slings and Arrows (2003)

Hamlet played by Jack Crew
Directed by Geoffrey Tennant

Any backstage theatre drama that decides to tackle a production of Hamlet must be brave and crazy since they ultimately risk comparison with Ken Branagh's charming In The Bleak Midwinter. The excellent Canadian television series Slings and Arrows neatly sidesteps the issue by concentrating on the business and sponsorship of a modern theatre, reserving the usual conflicts surrounding the production for the closing few episodes. Tonally a crossing Northern Exposure with Arrested Development, the series takes the incidents from the play and scatters them through its episodes, so there is the death of a spiritual father, a duel between old rivals, the madness of an errant 'son', a ghost and a betrayal. Joyfully, rather than attempting to slavishly follow these familiar patterns, much like The Lion King they're merely influences and don't rule the action. Former mountie Paul Gross plays Geoffrey Tennant, a generally insane theatre director called in when his estranged mentor dies. He finds himself battling through a tenuous grip on his sanity whilst being embroiled in a battle to keep a theatre festival from descending into populism because of the serpentine machinations of a representative from a corporate sponsor. Meanwhile his previous lover Ellen, and Gertrude in the ensuing production has taken another young man under her wing and Ophelia's understood is canoodling with the movie star that's been hired to play the dane.

Frankly it sounds terrible but because of some excellent scriptwriting, uniformally amazing cast and a willingness from the director to creep out of the television roots to create something that is often very filmic, this is an often exciting, provocative and hilarious piece of drama. Whilst snatches of Fraser can still be seen in the eyes of Gross, it's amazing to see him playing a drunk mad impresario with such gusto combined with some touching tenderness. The surprisingly cast Rachel McAdams (this first series was filmed pre-both The Notebook and Red Eye) is as funny as she's always been, instantly likeable and perfect when she convincingly demonstrates her Shakespearian chops as Ophelia - I've often wondered the extent to which actors playing actors giving good performance throw off that psychological framing and are simply presenting their own performance - in which case I'd love to see McAdams essaying this role further. The same could be said of Luke Kirby, who's Jack Crew makes a brilliantly mad, passionate dane. Also obviously noteworthy are the excellent comic performances from Stephen Ouimette as Oliver Welles the Hamlet Sr whose not quiet yet ready to give up on reality and Martha Burns the Gertrudesque pushy, bored actress who is eventually reinspired by former lover Geoffrey.

The real success is the hint of cynicism that largely pervades the programme in regards to theatre and the commercialisation thereof. The reason that some of the canon are never produced is not necessarily because of the commonly held belief that they're not very good, it's that the educational curriculum and routine mean that the top ten are always being produced. One of themes of the series is that the text has become stale through over production with audiences being there so that they can look like their more cultural than they probably are. But the knife runs deeper here and the gloriously serpentine Holly (Jennifer Irwin) who wants to go even further and drop the art theatre altogether in favour of musicals. The central message in the end is that if you present the classics in that same bored, restoration format that people might be expecting it will be boring. But play it with passion, some anger, touch of irreverance and with the rough edges intact it will find an audience. The irreverance extends to the title sequence in which two old theatre queens sing the following lyric in a bar were the beer has obviously been flowing for some time...

Cheer up Hamlet,
Chin up Hamlet,
Buck up you melancholy Dane.
So, your uncle is at hand,
Murdered Dad and married Mum,
That's really no excuse to be as glum as you've become.
So, wise up Hamlet,
Rise up Hamlet,
Buck up and sing the new refrain.
Your incessant monologizing fills the castle with ennui,
Your antic disposition is embarrassing to see,
And by the way you sulky brat, the answer is To Be!
You're driving poor Ophelia insane!
So, shut up, you rogue and peasant!
Grow up, it's most unpleasant!
Cheer up you melancholy Dane.

Overall it resembles a Nashville of the theatre and impeccably structured, tells its story slowly, revealing the deep seated enmities and relationships across its six episodes. I wouldn't say that it's hilariously funny though - more clever and satirical and in places beautifully sweet. There's also a blissful ignoring of the televisual vogue for cutting between scenes every minute or so; theatrically some scenes to run as long as they need to be and not because the writers and directors are trying to show how 'experimental' they can be - it takes some work to allow two people to sit around in a room for five minutes talking about theatrical politics or literature and still make it exciting and here its managed seemingly effortlessly. But I guarantee that when the infernal skull needs to be in the right place at the right time, you'll be on the edge of your seat as I was hoping that Geoffrey can get there in time.

Monday, June 12, 2006

New Arden Editions

As Lea says: "As a wannabe future editor and recovering Hamlet junkie, I'm not entirely certain how I feel about this. It opens up interesting questions about the status of the Shakespearean text, since on the one hand, basing the primary edition on one particular version of Hamlet acknowledges that the text we usually study is a construction -- but then, isn't any edited text a construction? Especially if it's Hamlet and has megatons of cultural baggage attached to it anyway?"

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Hamlet Conundrums

"Looks at major issues of interpretation of Shakespeare's classic play that have occupied the minds of audiences, directors, designers, performers and critics during its 400-year history. In doing this, we hope to give a sense of the history of people's preoccupations with and thought about the play."

Raymond Chandler's Hamlet

"Something was rotten in Denmark, rank and gross, as rotten as a dame named Gertrude in bed with her husband's killer while the caterer recycled the funeral baked meats for the wedding reception, at which the bride did not wear white."

Friday, February 10, 2006

Branagh Hamlet dvd may be out in 2006 after all

"Our commitment to releasing HAMLET is 100% but remastering and production schedules may force a delay. It will be out within the next 12 months -- we must be able to have the time necessary to release it properly. We do hope you understand. Please be patient. It will be worth the wait." -- Ronnee Sass, Executive Director of Publicity for Warner Home Video

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Interpretation of Ophelia

Interpretation of Ophelia
Originally uploaded by Terri Lynn.

bardseyeview: A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

"Shakespeare has now laid out on the chessboard of his imagination the pieces of his Hamlet Game. We have the anguished, hypersensitive Hamlet, the innocent and somewhat passive Ophelia, Polonius the lover of intrigue and indirection, the upright but absent Laertes, the disconsolate Ghost, the presumptuous-toward-Hamlet and accused-by-the-Ghost King Claudius, and the king's overly-dexterous new wife Gertrude. With the pieces lined up on the board, Shakespeare begins that series of scenes of haunting strangeness and disorienting depth that make up the heart of the play." -- Jeremy Abrams is currently working through Hamlet offering his commentary.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Branagh Hamlet DVD Campaign

Regular reader Nathan has just sent this email he's recieved ...

Hello everyone,

I am writing to let you know that the 2006 DVD Release of Hamlet may be in jeopardy. I spoke with Mr. Branagh's assistant who shared some potentially disappointing news. She explained that last month Warner was very excited about the project and spoke with Ken about his ideas for additional content for the DVD release; however, last week, they
received an email stating that the release may be moved back until January 2008!!!

As a result, I am writing to let you know, that once again, on Valentine's Day we are going to let Warner Bros. know how many of us have been awaiting this DVD release and that a 2008 release date is NOT acceptable.

Be sure to visit the website on Tuesday, February 14th to send your email to the "powers that be" at Warner Bros. This year's letter urges them not to delay the release and emphasizes the fact that this is indeed the 10th Anniversary of the film. Also, it recommends a High-Definition release of the film because Hamlet is one of only seven films in the past 10 years to be filmed in 70mm format and thereby making it a perfect candidate for an HD-DVD release.

Thanks for all of your support!

Mark Cassello

This has been on and off the release schedule for years. I've a VHS and a V-CD copy and they're fine, but don't really demonstrate the clarity of the photography. It's a real shame -- I absolutely suggest that we take action on the 14th ...

Enfolded Hamlet

Tracks the changes between the First Folio and Second Quarto. [via]

Sunday, January 29, 2006


Originally uploaded by vebelfetzer.

From a vivid set of photos which appear to riff on John William Waterhouse's famous painting.

The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet

"Writing a play about Hamlet, in or around 1600, may not have been Shakespeare's own idea. At least one play, now lost, about the Danish prince who avenges his father's murder had already been performed on the English stage, successfully enough to be casually alluded to by contemporary writers, as if everyone had seen it or at least knew about it. Someone in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, with an eye on revenues, may simply have suggested to Shakespeare that the time might be ripe for a new, improved version of the Hamlet story." -- Stephen Greenblatt

Hamlet page

Originally uploaded by kevinthoule.

Enjoying Hamlet

"Hamlet is the first work of literature to look squarely at the stupidity, falsity and sham of everyday life, without laughing and without easy answers. In a world where things are not as they seem, Hamlet's genuineness, thoughtfulness, and sincerity make him special." -- Ed Friedlander's extemely useful and fabulously long guide to enjoying Hamlet. This is going to take me weeks to read.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Hamlet liikemaailmassa (1987)

Hamlet played by Pirkka-Pekka Petelius
Directed by Aki Kaurismaki

This film, whose English release title was Hamlet Goes Business is darkly comic noir thriller set in contemporary Finland, transposing the story to the corridors and offices of industry which takes just as many liberties with the plot and dialogue as The Lion King and even has the audacity to offer a twist ending. Imagine Ealing's The Man In The White Suit without the slapstick.

Considering the brevity of the plot, it is incredibly slow. This is one of those occasions when action which should be sifted through in a few moments take whole minutes of screentime -- to no great effect. I'm reminded of some of the Coen Brother's earlier films, or perhaps Jim Jarmusch -- but whereas on those occasions you were interested to see what would be happening next, in this adaptation of Hamlet the element of surprise is generally lost.

I'm not that sure I actually enjoyed watching this, except for the liberties taken with that ending, some of which are laugh out loud funny. Pirkka-Pekka Petelius gives a very blank performance as Hamlet Jr. and actually most of the cast feel like graduates of the Robert Bresson school of non-acting.

Characters live and die and no one seems to be caring too much. When Polonius is offed the reaction is much the same as if someone forgot to order another pint of milk for breakfast. About the only figure I really cared for was Ofelia (their spelling) who gets kicked about as a pawn between Claudius and Hamlet. Her death scene is undeniably moving.

I watched the VHS of this film on the 7th January 2006.