Sunday, June 10, 2007

14 Nicholas Farrell

Hamlet played by Nicholas Farrell
Directed by Natalia Orlova

Produced as part of the BBC's Shakespeare: The Animated Tales project, this Hamlet manages to lucidly abbreviate the story to just over twenty-five minutes employing voiceover and impressionistic imagary from the Russian animators of Christmas films who use paint on glass to create the world. Bravely, screenwriter Leon Garfield only layers in narration when absolutely necessary -- to explain the prince's tooing and froing between Denmark and England, relying instead on Shakespeare's verse where possible.

There is some creative license. In the opening narration, Michael Kitchen's delicious tones, after noting that 'Something was rotten in the state of Denmark' goes on to imply that there are already whispers in court regarding Hamlet Snr's death, that perhaps he was poisoned, a fact that in the play only Hamlet and perhaps Horatio is privy to. It's pretty unequical as to the Dane's state of mind on hearing the news: '(Hamlet) hides his terrible knowledge under a cloak of madness'. It seems pointless to list the cuts because there are so many, but it's interesting to note that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don't survive (simply referred to as 'spies' when necessary) but the Gravedigger still manages to enjoy a few jokes.

With little time to create a pschological coherance it's perhaps understandable that the performances whilst distinctive don't leave as much of a mark as the mystical images. That said, Nicholas Farrell's Hamlet perfectly carries some of the narrative burden even if there's little time to establish much of the humour inherent in the character on the page -- but its telling that he only really flies when interacting with others, Tilda Swinton's etherial Ophelia or Dorien Thomas's rather stolid Horatio (Farrell would later appear in Banagh's Hamlet film is Horatio).

It is the first time I've seen the same actor doubling the two older brothers, Claudius and Hamlet although the irony is lost of course because the character designs are so different, the former reminiscent of The Walker Art Gallery's portrait of Henry VIII. Claudius is perhaps the most memorable of characters with Hamlet perhaps being a touch too much like a yokel -- but is long golden locks do contrast nicely against the stone grey back drops and the crashing of the sea that buffets the castle.

Overall then, it's a treat, the kind of pleasure which is best enjoyed in the evening with a cup of coffee and some rice pudding, feet up next to a radiator and I wish that the funds had been available to animate the whole play in this style. The most effective moments are when the visuals and sounds take flight, as in the terrifying appearance of the ghost, with actor Joseph Shrapnel's booming voice relating the terrible deed as he floats stately across the battlements. But the most emotional scene is reserved for Ophelia's decent into real madness and her sucide, her songs echoing about the halls of Elsnore, her figure decending into a ghost like state before disappearing into the garden, her drowing signalled by the disturbance of a crane.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

13 Derek Jacobi

Hamlet played by Derek Jacobi
Directed by Rodney Bennett

I knew when I began this process that there would be certain 'tentpole' productions, so renowned that I'd want to save them and relish them. The BBC Shakespeare Hamlet is one such presentation with its central performance from Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart's Claudius and Claire Bloom's Gertrude. But for this fanboy there's an extra level of interest because glancing through the cast list beforehand it would be quite easy to say 'I can't believe it's not Doctor Who'.

In casting terms that means Geoffrey Beavers who played the Doctor's nemesis The Master during the eighties, Lalla Ward (Ophelia), who famously companioned Tom Baker's timelord as Romana (before marrying him in real life) and Jacobi who would later go on to play a version of the Doctor on an audio cd (Deadline), The Master in an animated story for the BBC website (The Scream of the Shalka) and is soon to appear in an episode of the new television series (Utopia).

But a range of actors who filled bit part roles in Hamlet would go on to do the same in Who. Geoffrey Bateman (Guildenstern) played Dymond in The Nightmare of Eden), Emrys James (First Player) was Aukon in State of Decay, Peter Burroughs (Player) was the Jester in The King's Demons, Peter Benson (Second Gravedigger) essayed the role of Bor in Terminus, Stuart Fell (Player) has been a whole vast range of different characters including Alpha Centuri in The Curse of Peladon and Reginald Jessop (Messenger) was type cast as a Servant in a number of episodes.

That connection continues behind the camera as the production is kinetically directed by Rodney Bennett who helmed a range of stories for that series in the same period (The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment and The Masque of Mandragora), the fights were co-ordinated by B.H. Barry (The Mind Robber and Four To Doomsday) and the vision mixed by Shirley Coward (The Tenth Planet and Remembrance of the Daleks). The music too is supplied by that series' main composer during the Baker era, Dudley Simpson and indeed one of the few distractions is when Simpson's familiar brass section clashes in between acts or scenes, so redolant of a cliff hanger or the attack of a Wyrrrn.

This is a wonderful production. Tied though it is to the BBC drama department's idiom of the time, all studio bound, multi-camera setups shot on video, it straddles the divide between pure theatre and television and is one of the jewels in the BBC Shakespeare series, so traditional in many ways but radical in others. Perhaps acknowledging the limitations of the medium, Bennett favours performances over setting, a decision that pays dividends.

Series producer Cedric Messina's hope was that the big roles should be played by renowned actors and Jacobi certainly fitted the bill, having seen him in a famous 1977 West End production (more on which at a later date). At the planned time of taping, Jacobi was contracted to play Richard II on stage, so Messina waited until he would be free and thank goodness he did -- this recording captures one of the best characterisations of the role I've ever seen.

I don't I've seen Jacobi give a poor performance -- even in Evolution: Underworld he managed to keep his dignity. What makes this so special is that the actor absolutely understands the range of emotions that Hamlet is dragged through and is able to successfully layer in the sheer frustration of not being able to carry out his dead father's wishes either because of the situation or his own falabilities. Watch his face during The Mousetrap as he realises that his uncle hasn't reacted to the mime of the death of Gonzago and that he'll actually have to talk him through the deed, hammering home the message that he knows of the murder.

He's so very vulnerable too, slightly nervous, never entirely sure of his actions even when he's addressing the audience during soliloques; rather like other fourth wall breakers in such films as High Fidelity, Alfie or Ferris Bueller's Day Off, there's a bond of trust between him and us as he imparts his feelings -- a connection which isn't granted to Claudius when he too sits alone and faces the emotional consequences of his actions (Stewart looks away from the lense even in close up). Only towards the end does Hamlet's loyaly really shift to his good friend Horatio, loyally played by Robert Swann with just a hint of homo-erotic tension.

It's also a very droll turn as Jacobi mines the seam of black comedy that Shakespeare has threaded through the dialogue that I've seen so few other actors take advantage of. Some moments are laugh out loud funny, such as his treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here portayed as nothing more than acquantances suddenly dropping in unannounced rather like that email you sometimes get from someone you hardly knew at school who's signed up to Friends Reunited.

Some of this is made possible because of the choice to use a near complete text, allowing the actors the space to provide a more complete pschological arc for their characters. In this reading Claudius becomes a full blooded antagonist with almost as much screen time as Hamlet, Stewart relishing the opportunity to show both sides of the character, the public statesman who is privately guilt ridden. That tension is particularly clear in his dealings with a grief stricken Laertes (David Robb), nervously turning parental and sibling loss to his advantage.

There's certainly a grey area as to who the audience should be sympathising with. Although Claudius's murder of Hamlet Snr is inconscionable there's an inferance that he took the action for the good of the country to help the peace process with Fortinbras who to my understanding lost part of his kingdom in a previous war. To an extent it's almost as though Hamlet isn't seeing the bigger picture, putting his own revenge plot ahead of the country's needs, Denmark's strength. This production makes plain that if Hamlet Snr hadn't visited his son the stable status quo would have continued -- it's Hamlet Jnr's plans which lead to the death of a family and the downfall of the kingdom. Comedy, tragedy, irony.

It's no pleasure though to report that I don't think Lalla Ward's Ophelia really works. Perhaps it's because her noble Romana in Doctor Who is so effective that here she seems defeated by the text, never once coming across as really being Laertes sister or in love with Hamlet. Only later, during the descent into madness does the performance gain power but even then it's a forced mess of histrionics. Claire Bloom's Gertrude, by contrast, exudes nobility and a surprising eroticism (frankly she's a babe). Throughout there's an implication that her marriage with old Hamlet was rather boring one and her shift to his brother not too difficult a choice and indeed that the bond with her son was broken long before his father's death.

As Susan Willis notes in her wonderful book, The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making The Canon, from an initial push to produce backdrops that attempt to create a realistic period setting for each of the plays, as the productions drifted onward, taste shifted from representation to abstract with Don Homfray's designs for Hamlet being one of the first experiments. The exteriors then occur in a large empty studio, a grey void ringed with flooring at a slight incline, filled with mist for the battlement scenes, the sounds of the sea for the departing of Laertes and soil and a grave for Ophelia's funeral (which includes the sight of poor Lalla wrapped in drapes lying actually in the grave with mud dropped on top of her).

The interiors are even more experimental. Partitians have been painted with columns and vistas, bookshelves and libraries, paintings and wardrobes but they're generally used without regard for what's on them. During the scene when Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet's disposition with Ophelia they hide behind a wall with a landscape painted on to imply the view from the palace and Hamlet opens up the wall to see if he can find them hiding. It's the representation of a palace without regard for its geography which is by turns confusing and exhilirating and could be interpreted as an example of Hamlet losing his grip on reality, of the details of his surroundings losing their importance in comparison to his cause.

Having bought the boxset, I'm slowly working my way through all of these BBC Shakespeare 'performances', geekily in production order minus the histories which I'm going to watch together at the end. Some have been better than others but I wouldn't describe any of them as awful. Inevitably I've loved the Measure for Measure and the As You Like It is far from the disaster its reputation suggests (with it just see a young Helen Mirren and an old David Prowse acting in the same scene). If the Romeo and Juliet shows signs of early nerves, Twelfth Night is a lovely romp and The Tempest has real power. But I think this Hamlet almost towers above them all and will be hard to beat.

[Updated 07/12/2012!  BBC Worldwide has now made this Hamlet available to watch on YouTube.]

Monday, June 04, 2007

Extract from Dead Like Me.

Another Hamlet sighting, this time in the US fantasy series Dead Like Me. For the unitiated, this ran for two series in the mid-naughties and is the story of a group of photogenic grim reapers tasked with collecting souls at the points of accidental deaths. Although notionally an ensemble, the general focus is Georgia, a post-teen who was hit by a falling toilet seat in the first episode and who provides a voiceover reflection across the rest of the series.

One of the twists is that the reapers still have a corporial existence and have to hold down jobs and pay rent and eat and do all of things they would have had to before they died, lingering on Earth until they've reached their reaping quota. Georgia works at Happy Time, a temping agency and in the episode In Escrow has to interview and select a candidate for a job with an important client. She can't decide -- one flatulent, one's too pushy and the other's too needy.

Towards the end of the show she sits on a bed with the candidate's application forms in front of her in the apartment she shares with fellow reaper Daisy Adair, an actress from old Hollywood who apparently died in a fire on the set of Gone With The Wind. She just can't decide between them:
Why on earth is this so hard for you?

Because they all want it and they all can handle. Who to choose. How to choose.

You sound like Hamlet.

What do you mean I sound like Hamlet?

Indecision. I was Ophelia in Province Town.

Seems appropriate. Ophelia was the one who drowned right?

Yeah. Six nights a week and twice on Sunday.
After they're interupted by another reaper, Mason, seeking to use their record player, Daisy suggests, 'Let God decide.'

I can actually see a link between the episode and Hamlet. Something the series always tried to do was thematically join many of the stories together with the title as the hint as to what that theme might be. In plot terms, the title In Escrow describes the story of how Georgia's mother and sister are selling her old family home (one of the attempts to ground the series in reality is to keep those characters around even though they're not connected to the main body of the series) and their portion of the episode is about coping with the period before the closing of the sale.

Hamlet is all about waiting for the right moment, between the prince finding out about the murder of his father and carrying out his revenge. But the indecision is in when that revenge will be carried out -- it doesn't happen when Claudius is at prayer and actually some critics have had problems with dealing with the length of time it takes him to do the deed. If he didn't care about it being in a public arena why didn't he just carry out the execution much sooner. Instead he leaves enough time for Claudius having realised that his nephew is aware that he is his father's murder to develop a range of schemes to bring his downfall. In the end, it's Claudius who forces the issue and Hamlet who leaves his fate in God's hands. He lets God decide.

Which is also what Georgia does. Towards the end, she lays the application on the table and places her pet frog in from of them. 'To jump or not to jump...' she says as the frog steps forward. For reasons that spoil the ending of the episode it turns out that her choice, whatever it might have been would have awful consequences. At the close of the episode, Georgia reflects: "I actually read Hamlet in high school. The guy can't make a decision and everybody dies. [...] I am Hamlet and everybody died."

Friday, June 01, 2007


Duane has had an answer from the RSC's press office regarding the whole Cardenio announcement. I'll let you visit Shakespeare Geek for the full clarification but it isn't a new find or authentication of an old text but a production based on that later translation called Double Falsehood. It all seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding.

In other news though, according to someone commenting on the blog, Arden are currently preparing an edition of that play for publication, edited by Professor Brean Hammond, Head of School of English, University of Nottingham. There's a transcript of a television interview with him here which seems to suggest it will be published under their Shakespeare banner and that they are making a case for it having a certain canonicity.

It's not listed in their catalogue yet though. Interestingly, Arden are beginning a new series in 2009 of drama from the same period in their distinctive style, so perhaps if they can't authenticate Double Falsehood they'll put it there instead.

Frankly, this is all getting far too confusing. I think I'll stick to Hamlet. So about the placement of 'To Be Or Not To Be' ...