Saturday, February 25, 2012

800 Words: Hamlet Rant

I think I’ve always preferred the comedies to the tragedies. What Shakespeare gained in depth, he also gained in longueurs and confusion. Shakespeare learned tragedy, but he was a born comedian. Whereas I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night in their totality and would not throw out a moment of them, I’ll take isolated scenes and passages from Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear and love them to death as so many others do. But the thought of watching any of the three uncut is enough to put me to sleep. Those plays need a production from a thoughtful, non-intrusive director who still realizes that Shakespeare needs a bit of help. The only one of the mature tragedies that retains all of Shakespeare’s most profound insights into human nature yet still has unstoppable momentum is Macb*th (yes, I’m always afraid to say it or spell it out, theater or no theater. I do not believe in superstition, yet so many odd things occurred while I was present when Macb*th came up that I don’t ever want to chance fate again). Earlier tragedies like Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet are great works too, and while they have all the unstoppable momentum which the later tragedies lack (ok,...maybe Julius Caesar doesn’t), even Romeo and Juliet falls short of the mature tragedies in their most magnificent scenes - and at least Hamlet doesn’t have Friar Laurence ...yech!

Like Beethoven’s 9th, only a great recreative mind can successfully interpret Hamlet, a play which can seem so confusing on the page. For years, there were so many passages in Hamlet I found confusing. If Hamlet goes mad, why do his insults seem so precisely aimed? Why does Gertrude seem completely sympathetic to Hamlet by the end of the bedroom scene, only to turn on Hamlet later and allege that he’s completely insane. Why does Polonius seem like such a blithering idiot in his dealings with everybody but Laertes? Why does Laertes so quickly buy the testimony from Claudius that Hamlet killed Laertes, and why does Laertes so quickly turn on Claudius and become sympathetic to Hamlet before he dies? And why does the Claudius/Laertes scene have thirty lines of talking about fencing celebrities???

Or at least, most of these were questions I still had until I lived in London and saw Trevor Nunn’s modern dress production of Hamlet at the Old Vic - one of the great revelations of my life. Finally, Hamlet was a play that made sense. Hamlet’s half-madness was no longer confusing, it was simply eccentricity - a method for a depressed twenty-something to gain self-respect. Gertrude might publicly tow Claudius’s line, but by Act IV she views Claudius with revulsion. Whereas Hamlet was a self-loathing adolescent, Laertes was a self-posessed jock - as prone to quick but stupid action as Hamlet is to over-hesitant prudence. I don’t doubt that there are many other valid ways to interpret Hamlet, but Nunn made a series of interpretive choice that clarified the text for me. Was it exactly what Shakespeare had in mind? Who cares.

(exhibit A as to why people should not direct themselves in Shakespeare)

We’ve all seen terrible Hamlets, Shakespeare’s invited bad actors and directors to murder him for 400 years. But occasionally we see the same terrible Hamlet. If Hamlet is difficult to bring off on stage, it’s nearly impossible to bring him off on screen. Unfortunately, most of the actors who’d possess the drive and ambition to bring their own Hamlet to the screen are automatically bad Hamlets, because they radiate far too much self-belief to be believable as considerate introverts. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet has brilliant moments, yet it remains a disaster. Nobody wants to watch an uncut Hamlet, let alone a Hamlet that seems charismatic enough to be Henry V. Every one of that movie’s 241 minutes is so over-controlled that we cannot ever forget that we are watching Kenneth Branagh. It’s not Shakespeare, it’s four hours of watching ‘the Great Shakespearean Actor’ (emphasis on the ‘o’) Kenneth Branagh, interpret, and interpret, and interpret Shakespeare for us. In his review of the movie, the critic Stephen Hunter quipped that Hamlet should be renamed ‘Ken.’

(A Hamlet who knows how to act for the camera...)

As the “greatest play ever written” Hamlet attracts egomaniacs like magnet attracts metal. This is why it’s always nice to see a Hamlet in which the director doesn’t actually appear on screen. Even if he’s not my favorite among the ‘filmed’ Hamlets (that would be Nicol Williamson), the best of the movie ‘Hamlet’s is Mel Gibson. The movie which surrounds him isn’t very good at all, and Gibson is certainly an egomaniac, and he’s also insane enough to be a natural Hamlet. After watching Olivier, Burton, Kline, and Branagh put the ‘ham’ in Hamlet, it’s nice to see an actor that knows better than to preen about like an untamed gazelle. Mel Gibson is many things, but among them is also one of the most talented screen actors the world has ever seen. Along with Nicol Williamson and Derek Jacobi, he’s one of the few Hamlets I can watch on screen that don’t make me want to throw the television through my window.

(Scofield. Among the best...)

Even among the loose baggy monsters in Shakespeare, Hamlet is not my favorite. King Lear is simply a better play. It has far fewer dry passages, and in place of a single character through which the entire play filters, it has a dozen characters of roughly equal importance, any one of which is more interesting than any of Hamlet’s supporting players. Hamlet ends in a twenty minute fencing match gone awry, Lear ends with two hours of apocalyptic war. Even at Hamlet’s most profound, funniest, most entertaining, Lear is there to best Hamlet every time. So if monsterpieces are your cup of tea, why is Hamlet everybody’s favorite play when Lear is not just better, but bigger?

(Kozintsev Hamlet....easily the best)

In place of a dozen leads, Hamlet has two fascinating characters: Hamlet and Elsinore. Hamlet is an amazing character stuck in an almost completely cliched Shakespeare play. The only other true interest in the play besides Hamlet himself is how Hamlet came to be who he was: how did the court at Elsinore shape Hamlet? And conversely, how does Hamlet come to shape the court at Elsinore? In this way, the Branagh Hamlet scores much better on the Elsinore front than it does on the Hamlet front. But even Branagh must take a back seat to Grigory Kozintsev’s Hamlet - a mid-60’s Soviet film performance of Hamlet directed by Grigory Kozintsev, translated and adapted for the screen by Boris Pasternak and scored by Dimitri Shostakovich (talk about A-list talent...). Kozintsev’s movie is easily the best of the screen Hamlets which I’ve seen. Any movie Hamlet should realize that even the best Hamlet’s portrayal will be a pale shadow of the power he casts in the theater. A movie Hamlet rides upon how well Elsinore is filmed. Not the castle, but all the details of the court itself. Each of the supporting players must be competent, but they also must be directed with enormous detail. By a million miles, the Soviet Hamlet’s Elsinore is the most intricate, most decadent, most ruinous ever put to celluloid. In both Kozintsev’s Hamlet, Shakespeare perhaps became a coded statement about the nature of the Soviet Union and how easily such a burly edifice could crumble.

(The best...)

But then again, Kozintsev made a King Lear half a decade later, and I just watched it for the first time. If Kozintsev’s Hamlet is magnificently dark and tragic, then his Lear is positively cataclysmic. If the Kozintsev Hamlet is about how a corrupt society can can decay into ruin, then his Lear is about how a ruined society can come to dissolve into ash. It has all the bleak intimacy of the Paul Scofield King Lear, and all the bleak pageantry of Kurosawa’s Ran. I used to think the Kozintsev Hamlet was the best of the Shakespeare movies. Now I’m pretty sure, the Kozintsev King Lear is on another level entirely....

...until I see the Orson Welles Shakespeare movies again, or Throne of Blood, or the Zefferelli Romeo and Juliet, or the Ian McKellen Richard III, or the Olivier Henry V, or the Branagh Henry V, or Forbidden Planet, or ‘O’, or the Placido Domingo Otello, or the Trevor Nunn Twelfth Night, or the Anthony Hopkins/Bob Hoskins Othello, or the John Cleese Taming of the Shrew, or the Derek Jacobi Hamlet, or the Nicol Williamson Hamlet, or the Brando/Mason/Gielgud Julius Caesar, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or The Lion King, ...y’know there are a lot of good Shakespeare movies out there. There are just more that suck.

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