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.


adriene said...

You should see Laurence Olivier's version. It has the "to be or not to be" speech over a cliff as well, which you mentioned in a very old post that you'd never seen before. That's probably where it originated, on film anyway.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Thanks for that. I've been saving it until I reach the tenth Hamlet (Branagh hopefully turning up for twenty) but it's a shame to know that even what appeared to be an original note in the Houston Hamlet was a 'homage' ...

Judy said...

Great to find your blog today after following the link from your comment on the Guardian "ten greatest Hamlets" link - I will be exploring here a lot more. I've just recently watched this Kline production on DVD and so am very interested in your review - I agree about him being a very emotional Hamlet, as Tennant was in the recent RSC production, which again I've only seen on TV. Kline did remind me a bit of Olivier (whom I was sad not to see in the Guardian list) - something about the way he speaks the verse.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Thanks Judy.

Tennant's Hamlet is a bit more measured though and as I said there he's obviously using a emotion defence mechanisms to try and stop the responsibility from crushing him. Indeed, it's only when he's addressing us, that the barrier really come down.