Saturday, July 02, 2016

Hamlet: Revised Edition. (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson.

Books In an effort to acknowledge the passage of time and how even some of their Third Series publications might require some reconsideration, as scholarship begins on the Fourth Series, Arden presents this revised edition of Hamlet, first published in 2006 with some thirty extra pages inserted to present additional scholarship and further productions and publications.  For some reason, having gratefully received review copies of the plays for some years now, in my memory I'd already reviewed the earlier version and was all ready to simply link back to my opinion with some necessary amendations of that opinion.  But it appears not.  Right, then.

The Arden Hamlet was and is groundbreaking for presenting all three extant Hamlet texts, first Quarto, second Quarto and first Folio (ignoring later reprints) across two publications and treating them as separate entities worthy of study in and of themselves.  All three texts contain lines and scenes which don't appear in the others or in the case of the first Quarto whole sections which are simply different, some would argue incoherent and there's been much discussion as illustrated by the authors in their introduction as to exactly where they came from before they were published in this editions.

Previously, with the exception of facsimiles, editors have taken it upon themselves to try and create a "right" or "ideal" version of the play, attempting to reproduce "what Shakespeare intended".  This led them to either choose the second Quarto or Folio as their base text (and including variations at the end) or as was customary for years, and often still is, a conflation, drawing together all three texts, compiling a version which mixes together the three texts.  Before I became a fan, I assumed there was only ever one text of Hamlet, the conflated version, surely studied much in schools for many years and was amazed to find that simply wasn't what Shakespeare wrote.

Taylor and Thompson take the view that because can't really know the origin of the texts before they appeared in the relevant publications and that it's their job as scholarly publishers to present the texts in as readable editions as possible that they should, with the exception of modernising the text and "fixing" error in the original printing,  present them pretty much as is.  For more on the implications that has on the Q1 and F1 texts, see my original review of the accompanying volume containing those texts.  For all its textual "faults", Q1's scene structure has become pervasive as a signpost for directors seeking to the cut the text.

The evidence based approach pervades the publication, as the authors seeking to present the arguments of previous scholars whilst enunciating just how much assumption and hearsay has seeped into scholarship, the need to back-up shaky arguments transforming maybes into certainties.  We can't know exactly the relationship between the various texts whether they're successive rewrites, alternative versions for different venues and even if Shakespeare himself had a hand in their preparation or another hand.  But scholars across history have become lost up numerous blind alleys.

The structure of the book is standard Arden with the "eclectic" approach of the Third Series allowing the authors to choose the topic which mostly interests them.  Here that means that although some lip service is given to the psychoanalytic approach to Hamlet's character, the discussion focuses primarily, across the introduction and appendices, on the textual matters and discrepancies which then feeds into a production and publication history hinting towards a suggestion that the interpretation methodologies of editors, actors, authors and directors converge.

The decadal update extends these themes with the inevitable mismatch between four hundred and then ten years being concentrated on in similar number of pages.  The authors also bravely include criticism of their original publication, from the decision to treat Q1 with the same respect as the other versions to individual choices within the actual text.  Inevitably there's still an obvious cut off point, as the text doesn't noticed that Maxine Peake's performance was filmed for release and there's no mention of the Radio 4 Afternoon Drama production starring Jamie Parker.

Nevertheless, of all the Hamlet editions available this is the publication I'd recommend to anyone seeking a scholarly edition of the play and have on numerous occasions.  Reading appendix 2, which carefully unpicks the differences between the texts and the misapprehensions wrought on them across numerous publications was the first time I really became suspicious of scholarly motive and realised that there isn't one Hamlet.  There's what's in the original text and then the hundred of different versions since, on the page and on the stage.

Hamlet: Revised Edition. (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by Neil Taylor and Ann Thompson is published by Bloomsbury. £8.99 paperback. ISBN: 9781472518385.  Review copy supplied.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

38 Maxine Peake

Theatre Let's begin at the ending or indeed further than the ending into the credits which include the following statement: "The text of HAMLET was created for the 2009 production starring Jude Law and directed by Michael Grandage which played London and New York".  Does this happen much?  It's certainly the first time I remember seeing a production in which, rather than the director and possibly actors taking a view on the text of the play themselves, effectively pulling something prepared earlier from the shelf.  To an extent, doesn't this mean that you're interpreting someone else's interpretation rather than Shakespeare's own words?

The statement appears on the Royal Exchange's own website and was presumably in the original programme, but deliberately ignoring such things before watching any production so as to preserve some surprises, I had spent the duration considering the bold textual choices of stage director Sarah Frankcom when in fact it's Michael Grandage's thought process which should be considered.  It's certainly made me retrospectively rethink my opinion on the production and the role of the actors and director.  Without having seen Grandage's production, how am I to know how much of what I've just seen, such as cutting Fortinbras, was down to the current director and how much is a simple replication of 2009?  Yes, I could go glance at some reviews, but one shouldn't really need to.

So it's to Grandage we look for the choice to shift "To Be Or Not To Be" far later in the play to just after the closet scene, making it a meditation on that act as much as Hamlet's own mortality, though chilling emphasis given on the latter due to the Prince brandishing the revolver which did the deed, weakly pressing it to his temple.  It's fine and I'd be interested to see how it fits in the original staging.  But this textual purist is also bound to say it's not what Shakespeare wrote and unbalances our understanding of his psychology at that moment and the extent to which his feigning madness and shifted off into something else, which is something I'm not sure this production ever really takes a view on.

The one big textual decision which can be attributed to Frankcom is also wrapped in the casting which is to regender a large number of roles to female, most prominently Polonia, Marcella, Rosencrantz and the Gravediggers with pronouns necessarily edited to compensate.  Sometimes a syllable is dropped so "gentleman" becomes "lady" and in one case an extra joke is added as Hamlet on first seeing the Gravedigger initially hails "Whose grave's this sirra?" without reaction before quickly changing it to "Whose grave's this madame?"  For the most part it's invisible and only now and then does it disrupt the rhythm of the pentameter but not the extent of creating too much of an imbalance, an imperfect if necessary solution.

The dynamics do change.  As with Julie Taymor's film of The Tempest, the connections between Polonia and her children reverse with Laertes becoming the favoured of the two, the relationship with Ophelia markedly resembling that between Lorelai and her mother in Gilmore Girls, especially during the embarkation scene which is set around a dinner table similar to the one which Rory's forced to eat at every Friday night.  The style of Polonia actress Gillian Bevan's hair even resembles Emily Gilmore actress Kelly Bishop.  Bevan's the standout of the production actually, dominating the stage, with the advise scene become a moment in which genuine wisdom is being imparted, albeit with Laertes forced to listen as a condition for receiving her credit card.

Although I've seen criticisms about the decision to not regender Hamlet too, but because Peake's blistering in the title role, suspension of disbelief is easy.  Aspects of the performance are problematic, with moments in which Peake is working against the text, or parodying its more masculine aspects, but for the most part its a study in grief, how someone has to deal with so many changes in the house within this foreshortened timescale.  There's a telling look from Peake when she's asked or more likely ordered to stay at Elsinore rather than return to college which shows that an escape plan has been snatched away, underscoring the notion that "Denmark's a prison".  Hamlet's being held against his will.

Nevertheless there is a sense in places that some decisions were never quite worked out in rehearsal in favour of the grander set pieces.  As well as whether Hamlet's actually mad or not, his relationship to Kate West's Ophelia's also poorly developed, the nunnery scene feeling very make-do and actually oddly rushed through.  Similarly his friendship with Horatio, so rich in other productions never quite gels.  This isn't a plea for some LGBT+ shading but the text calls for certain things and the performances don't quite rise to them.  Although it's also true that in the film version, the editing always favours Peake and so it's possible elements of either of their performances have been lost.  The full power of John Shrapnel's Claudius isn't demonstrated until he's alone and commanding the space, his motivations unspooling like Richard III.

More than most filmed production, it seems as though the reaction to seeing the piece in situ could have differed to on television (or indeed at the cinema which was where this recording was originally designed - it's even described in some publicity as "Hamlet The Film".  Although recorded in front of an audience (and can't we, cough, here, cough, it, beep, beep) they're largely invisible within the darkness of the space, with lighting which keeps the illumination of the actors to the minimum required for a given scene.  Like the television version of the RSC production of Macbeth with McKellen and Dench, the characters emerge and disappear into to the black, and there's rarely sense that anything exists beyond.

Some of the staging is beautiful and beautifully shot.  When Hamlet meets the Ghost of his father (doubled by Shrapnel), lightbulbs are lowers from the ceiling creating an orange glow across the actors faces familiar to anyone who's seen the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (it's notable that light bulbs were also a feature of Adrian Noble's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream representing the Forest of Arden).  A camera has also been mounted in the gods, so scenes often begin from above or punctuated by overhead shots to emphasise the action.  When Hamlet rips up Ophelia's remembrances and throws them at her, it's in slow motion.  The home viewer is in a privileged rather than audience position.  During fishmonger, Polonia even breaks the fourth wall.

For all that, Yorick is a mess.  The performances are fine, great even.  Grandage's script privileges us with a rare viewing of both gravediggers and all their banter, both female with the key clown played with a very good scouse accent.  One of the few occasions I laughed here was during the back and forth with Hamlet in relation to whose grave it is.  But Frankcom has gone symbolic, with dirt or some such replaced with a jumble of clothing with Yorick's skull represented by a cardigan with knot in the middle (pictured).  When Ophelia's funeral arrives, her body is represented by the blouse she was wearing during the madness scene and its lain on the ground, the whole business just looks silly, plus it feels wrong that Peake be denied the opportunity to play with an actual skull.

Ultimately not the best production I've seen but it thrums along to its own rhythm.  It takes a special production for me to really become involved in the story any more having seen it so many times, and although there are too many Brechtian distancing effects on this occasion, the compensation of hearing the text performed well is its own reward.  Having Peake play Hamlet doesn't feel controversial and she's more convincing than many of her male counterparts.  Ideally in future there'll be much more gender neutral casting across all productions so long as there's enough leeway in the text and Hamlet's the most accessible of the lot.  Now I'm imagining what Catherine Tate, Gugu Mbatha-Raw or even, yes, Romola Garai would do with the role.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

37 Christopher Plummer

Hamlet played by Christopher Plummer.
Directed by Philip Saville.

Woosh. Ever since seeing a clip of Plummer's Hamlet narrating the players as part of the Playing The Dane documentary broadcast during the Bard on the Box season in 1994, I've been more than intrigued by Hamlet at Elsinore in which BBC and Danish Radio co-produced an outside broadcast recording of the play at Kronborg Castle in actual Elsinore. This has only increased across the years as innumerable documentaries have included shots of its primary curiosity, Michael Caine in his single classical role playing Horatio.  Now, finally, this morning, well, here we are.

The BFI's still invaluable ScreenOnline section has a short explanatory piece about the making of Hamlet at Elsinore.  As they explain, this was a milestone in television history as the first drama recorded entirely on location outside of the studio, the result of the Danish company having originated the idea but eventually bringing in the BBC to produce, the former supplying sets (obviously) and background cast with the latter providing crew and the primary cast.  Given everything they had to work with, bulk cameras and lighting rigs and appalling weather it's impressive that it even exists at all.

That it exists and is also of such high quality is a miracle.  At just over three and a quarter hours and containing most of the play, this is an entirely "cinematic" interpretation which also somehow doesn't deny its theatrical origins.  There are noirish moments which stand alongside both the Olivier and Kozintsev film versions and at only a few points do its televisual origins show.  Although there are certainly moments when Saville experiments but doesn't quite achieve what he set out to do, Hamlet at Elsinore is clearly in the vanguard of great productions.

Saville and the team fully utilise the location with what must every room in Kronburg utilised in some part, with the chapel even being utilised for the nunnery scene and the expansive central courtyard being the perfect setting for the arrival of the players and for Hamlet to hail, from a window, the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  There are shots of the modern interior here but nothing much as change in the past fifty-odd years, even the paintings are in the same positions, which in the show are presumably supposed to depict Hamlet's ancestors.

The key directorial choice here is ceilings - in almost every scene there'll be a shot framed from below across an actors chin, up their nose and towards the ceiling of a room as if to increase the apparent headroom of each location.  Given the technology available,  the number of close-ups is startling, especially for Plummer's Hamlet who is introduced in isolation, the viewer unable to quite grasp his position in the throne room at mother and step-father interact with him until everyone leaves and he has the space to himself.

Keeping the action mainly within the walls of the castle necessarily guides the cuts.  Laertes's challenge following his father's murder isn't shown at all and the opening battlements scenes are staccato, even losing the opening line of the play in favour of introducing some dread and mystery as to what the soldiers are encountering, flailing about in the darkness.  For all that, a truncated Fortinbras is present bolstered by an impressive army of extras within what must be the woods at the edge of the castle (doubling as much further away).

Cutting "Who's there" and all aids Michael Caine's introduction as we hang on his every word as Horatio describes to Hamlet the emergence of the Ghost which in the full text usually puts Hamlet's reaction as the focus as a scene which we've already been privy to is described to him.  Caine's militaristic, almost clipped but matter of fact delivery is extraordinary, as though he's the first person to say these words, reveal this uncanny visitor.  So subtle is his work, it almost derails Plummer's performance which at this early stage is far more expressive.

There are deep, deep undercurrents of feeling behind Caine's mesmerising eyes.  Coolly spoken for much of the play, waterfalls of emotion flow from him when Hamlet dies as he's finally able to release the pent up feelings he had for his friend. According to his autobiography, he'd been told by a producer on Zulu that "I know you're not, but you gotta face the fact that you look like a queer on screen." so he worked it to his advantage here and "decided that if my on-screen appearance was going to be an issue, then I would use it to bring out all Horatio's ambiguous sexuality."

Plummer's Hamlet is less convincing.  The mad scenes oscillate between half-hearted and pantomime and the character never quite makes sense even when he's supposed to be sober in decision.  The actor's natural charisma just about masks this indecision but my mind often wandered to questions about production choices while he was on screen which is a strange place to be.  We're never quite able to grasp his inner turmoil, never quite convinced that he's not simply just saying these words because they're in the text rather than because he believes them.

In fairness he's not aided by some of the directorial experiments.  Plummer doesn't deliver his soliloquies to camera, which isn't unusual in filmed productions, apart from a single glance during To Be Or Not To Be.  Except in the desperation to do something different with the famous speech, its delivered as a montage against open spaces within the castle or close-ups on Hamlet, but the necessarily for the time haphazard editing makes the result disjointed and difficult to follow in terms of the emotional thread.

The fourth wall is instead broken when Hamlet addresses his father's spirit and the audience is placed in the point of view of the ghost, the camera hovering above Plummer.  Like To Be, it seems to be a decision born of diversity and then has the added problem of trying to coherently provide a voice at this key moment in the play.  The solution is a disembodied voice, but the actor then spends half the speech whisper-rasping like one of Doctor Who's Ice Warriors so that half of the necessary exposition is lost as is the connection between the two characters which is usually so meaningful.

Fortunately the production is stronger elsewhere.  Jo Maxwell Muller's Ophelia is initially estranged from her father and has an obvious affection for Hamlet.  There's a Brief Encounter moment at the docks as he sees her brother off as her expression becomes cold and disappointed when Polonius arrives and steals their final precious moments together with his endless advice, almost drawing on a smile when she has to turn and acknowledge her Dad.  Later she's unaware of her father and the new King eavesdropping on the nunnery scene, running away in disgust.

It's a strong cast, almost inadvertently.  Peter Luke the producer had decided not to fill out his production with big names so as not to distract from the story.  So he chose Caine, Plummer, Robert Shaw as Claudius  and yes, Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras (at a time when he was still playing Hotel Clerk and Tall Man in Nightclub) which means that a retrospective viewing doesn't have that effect at all.  Even Roy Kinnear shows up as the single Gravedigger years before he became a key player in comedic acting.

Despite my reservations about Plummer, which I'll admit might not be the same for someone who hasn't seen thirty-six actors play the character as well, Hamlet at Elsinore is an incredible piece of work.  The text is rendered lucidly and there are still moment when it's almost like hearing the words for the first time.  If I've drawn anything from it, it's that Michael Caine's self-esteem issues have denied what might have been a career peppered with some excellent Shakespearean turns amid everything else.  Is it too late for him to give us his Lear?