Showing posts with label Laurence Olivier. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Laurence Olivier. Show all posts

22 June 2022

An Antic Disposition


Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet are probably the best-known of Shakespeare’s plays, and at least the most quoted – if not misquoted, for that matter.  Romeo & Juliet is performed often, by both professional and amateur companies, because it’s pretty straightforward.  Hamlet is trickier, or has the more troublesome reputation.  The prince, too, is one of those parts any name brand Shakespearean actor is pretty much obligated to take on early, like Lear, later in life. 

Olivier’s is the one most people know; his 1948 picture is usually cited as a classic.  I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks he kind of missed the point.  Kenneth Branagh took a stab at it, but you have the unworthy suspicion Branagh is trying to knock Olivier off his perch.  I saw Richard Burton do it on stage, but unfortunately everybody in the cast was acting in a different play from everybody else – and surprisingly, the most effective performance was Alfred Drake, playing Claudius as mildly puzzled.  I don’t have a problem with Zeffirelli’s version, Mel Gibson, but they cut the play even more severely than Olivier does.  For my money, the most engaging production is the 1980 BBC Shakespeare: Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, Patrick Stewart as Claudius.  It’s the full original text, with a runtime of three and a half hours, and it’s unapologetically played as a political thriller.

Hamlet, notoriously, is open to interpretation.  The melancholy Dane, the guy who doubts himself, and hesitates.  Olivier takes for his epigraph a line from early in the play, “Oft it chances in particular men,… carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,…” and then leaves out the rogue and peasant slave soliloquy entirely.  To my mind, this has it completely backwards.  A recent production I just saw, by the Upstart Crows here in Santa Fe, edits out that same speech Olivier chooses as emblematic, but includes all of the rogue and peasant slave speech, which I think is key to the play.  “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?  What would he do, had he the motive and the cue for passion that I have?”  Hamlet, we can agree, is clearly a revenge plot.  Claudius has usurped both his brother’s throne and his marriage bed.  The prince is prompted, his word, by heaven and hell.    

It’s a misreading to suggest Hamlet can’t make up his mind.  He thinks Claudius is a rat from the get-go, and he’s furious with his mother, “to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets,” but he’s choking on his own resentment.  Even after the Ghost shows up, he second-guesses himself: “the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.”  The real sticking point, though, is that Claudius “popp’d in between the election and my hopes.”  Hamlet wants to be king himself, and Claudius cheated him.  In order to swing this - regicide, and a coup – Hamlet needs Claudius seen to be guilty, to be “justly served.”

If you read the whole play, front to back, or if you see a production that’s the whole thing, more or less, you notice the political machinations.  It’s not something read into the text, or grafted onto it.  It’s organic.  Watching the BBC Jacobi, or the Branagh movie (Jacobi as Claudius, all the more sinister for seeming reluctant), or the Upstart Crows, which left very little out, and moved like a rocket, with no wasted motion whatsoever, the political dimension is front and center.  Once the kid realizes he’s got a solid alibi to go after his uncle, he’s only waiting on opportunity.  But he himself understands he can’t be regarded as some cranky-pants teenager with a grudge; he has to be seen as responsible, not as settling a score, but righting a wrong.  He charges Horatio, as he’s dying, to report his cause accurately.  “Absent thee from felicity a while.”  This isn’t chump change.  The obligation is everything left to history.  How the story is told, after Hamlet leaves the stage.  He didn’t kill the guy because he screwed his mom; he killed an illegitimate king. 

There’s a terrific poem by Constantine Cavafy.  The premise is that Horatio has a dog in the fight.  After the events in question, Horatio becomes a court favorite, and if he maintains the narrative, it discredits Claudius, creates a legend around Hamlet, and legitimizes Fortinbras as heir to Denmark.  Cavafy’s an astute critic, if a bit cynical.  

What is the story, exactly?  The son of a dear father, murdered.  “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” the prince says, when Claudius calls him his cousin and his son, in the opening scene at court.  We know something’s amiss.  The question is whether Hamlet’s nuts.  The play is how he justifies crazy. 

Suppose, then, that Hamlet might be a classic example of the unreliable narrator.  He’s completely transparent, his thoughts spilling over, unpacking his heart with words, but is he trustworthy?  The rest is silence.