Monday, June 16, 2008

Ye yan (2006)

Prince Wu Luan played by Daniel Wu
Directed by Xiaogang Feng

Publicised as a re-imagining of Hamlet set in feudal China and produced in the style of such costumed martial arts epics as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Yimou Zhang’s Hero, Xiaogang Feng’s film seems to have all of the elements of the play as though they were rewritten by someone who once saw the Mel Gibson version on television years ago. The treacherous marriage and coronation don’t happen until the middle act, and it's here also that we find something akin to The Mousetrap and Hamlet’s subsequent banishment. Most of the recognisable figures appear, though arguably the attitudes of Claudius and Gertrude have been reverse and she’s an old girlfriend of the prince rather than his mother. There are some nice tips of the hat in the production design with an opening battle in a bamboo theatre shaped like the globe and masks evoking a human skull.

The Banquet
(to offer its uk title) is sumptuously languid. There certainly flashes of brilliance, when Tan Dun’s music conspires with Timmy Yip’s art direction and Li Zhang’s cinematography to produce some arresting images. Ziyi Zhang’s multi-layered performance as the Gertude figure is often wrenching and stands out from a crowd of rather dower blokes. But the computer generated shots of the palace and landscape look dated and the fight sequences are pretty unspectacular in comparison to those featured in Yimou Zhang’s films, and most damagingly, the story simply isn’t as compelling or mysterious as it could be. Partly this is as a result of trying to move someone else’s narrative furniture around, but it can’t quite decide who the audience should be sympathising with.

Feng has clearly found a muse in Ziyi Zhang but his visual worship of her unbalances our attention away from what Shakespeare knew was important, Hamlet (or in this case Wu Luan)’s vengeance. It’s not necessarily a fair comparison, but when Kurasawa took an interest in the Bard, his adaptations faithfully followed the original plot and whenever his dialogue couldn’t evoke Shakespeare’s poetry he let the photography fill in the metaphoric blanks. In that way, the characters remained psychologically complex even as we gasped at the wind in the trees and the sand storms in the desert. It’s interesting to note that when Akira tackled Hamlet, he transposed it to present day. You can’t help but wonder if Feng hadn’t ignored Shakespeare completely he might have produced a more interesting and to be less boring film.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

19 Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen as Hamlet
Directed by Jeremy Mortimer

At the dawn of the new millennium, the BBC decided to commemorate the occasion with a series of radio productions of Shakespeare's plays. Some were critical of the project since the bard has hardly been ignored by Radio 3 and in the announcement there didn’t seem to be anything to suggest that these would be doing anything too out of the ordinary. When broadcast most were well received, especially since the casting suggested that the producers were looking to attract the young audience seeking accessible productions after the film cycle which ran in the late 90s beginning with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

The risk in the inevitable Hamlet was the casting of Michael Sheen who though respected for his stage work had yet to the hit the mainstream and define his career playing real people – Kenneth Williams, Brian Clough and of course Tony Blair. Anyone expecting that distinctive impression offering the famous lines will be disappointed. Sheen here as a much deeper cadence with a Welsh lilt, far more actorly and perhaps slightly mannered.

In his interpretation, Hamlet is already directionless at the opening of the play, apparently going back to college because there’s not much for him in Elsinore. His instability is given purpose by the visitation of the ghost (an understandably bitter, angry presence) the revenge for the bloody deed offering a course of action, almost a career. In carrying out his plan, he’s efficient but flamboyant and very much not mad. There’s a logic to his actions and it's only in the central soliloquy that the fear returns (and oddly this about as Blair as Sheen becomes).

All of which said, I’m not sure Sheen really wins here. His approach to what’s one of the most familiar scripts in drama is to ride over the famous lines, which he should of course, but he also doesn’t seem to be enjoying the language or the poetry. He’s more relaxed in the prose sections, certainly, and when Hamlet is in his best humours. But unlike Simon Russell-Beale, whose audio performance I loved, I found myself unable to empathise with him, or really believe in what he’s saying. I do suspect that he loses a lot of his presence in audio and I'd love to see what he'd do with it on stage. There’s no denying he settles down towards the end – he’s especially good in the gravedigger scene and the ‘Readiness is all is’ is heartbreaking.

Except that by then the rest of the production has begun to drag. This is the full text from the second Quarto and it certainly feels it. It's perhaps too accessible, designed to be as inoffensive as possible so as not to alienate a general and educational audience (it's a co-production with the Open University). At best, the production is doing some interesting things with the private and public face. David Bradley’s delicious Polonius is a different, more vital figure in his office sending Reynaldo to spy on his son than addressing Claudius (Kenneth Cranham) and Gertrude (Juliet Stephenson).

Elsewhere, the producers are largely leaving the interpretation up to the listener, and my taste has always been for directors and actors with a clear agenda, but this doesn't seem to have one. It also can't quite tell how epic it wants to be. Kenneth Cranham spends much of the time regally declaring the text whilst the likes of Stephenson and (the very young sounding Ophelia) Ellie Beaven are enjoying the chance to intimately address the audience and often in the same scene.

The simple soundscape lacks atmosphere and is a touch confused. Inconsistently, in the aforementioned (often cut) Reynaldo scene, typewriters clatter away in the background, yet everything else is clearly taking place in an echoing castle and other characters are transported by horse drawn carriage. Which should be interesting, I suppose, but acts as distractions stopping you from being taken in by the drama. The music is boring too – opening with a bit of plain song then drifting into something akin to electronic lounge music but again without a clear direction. The only truly great moment is when the mime before The Mousetrap is presented mickey mousing on a plonky piano of the kind synonymous with silent film; if only the rest of Mortimer's presentation was that distinctive.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Interview: David Tennant talks Hamlet.

TV David Tennant appeared on The Andrew Marr show this morning to talk about playing Hamlet amongst other things and here's a transcript. Believe me, it was as excruciating to watch as it is to read:
"ANDREW MARR: Yeah. You're, you're a Shakespearian actor, have been for some time. But Hamlet is the big one.

DAVID TENNANT: I suppose. I'm trying not to look at it that way at the moment. Just another play isn't it Andrew?

ANDREW MARR: You're going to, well you're going to bring - yeah except you - and just another audience will be a, probably the RSC will get audiences it doesn't normally have for its productions because you're doing Hamlet I would have thought. Lots of Trekkies in there ... Who'ees, Who'ees.

DAVID TENNANT: Well there will be Trekkies cos we've got Patrick Stewart in the cast as well. But I don't know. I think, I mean I think Ian McKellan was there last year doing King Lear.


DAVID TENNANT: So I guess he probably has an audience from ..


DAVID TENNANT: .. Lord of the Rings that maybe ..

ANDREW MARR: But it's, I mean every, I mean, I mean people will be watching to see - I've got an Olivier, a little clip of Olivier's Hamlet which is ..


ANDREW MARR: .. yeah let's just have a quick look at that.

VT: Olivier in Hamlet.
[editor's note: which by the way amounted to a photograph and audio from the film of Larry saying 'To be or not to be, That is the question."]

DAVID TENNANT: I'll do it like that then.

ANDREW MARR: You'll do it like that?


ANDREW MARR: So we've got it sorted?

DAVID TENNANT: Yeah, that's fine.
You can see the weird chemistry for the next on the BBC's iPlayer if you're in the UK. Spot the moment also when Marr, having called Doctor Who fans Trekkies he forgets the name of The Doctor's current assistant. [via]