Saturday, July 25, 2015

Dueling Hamlets pt. 2

I am running very late this morning, so I will try to be brief.  While the main selling point of the Driftwood production of Hamlet is that it starts from the First Quarto and then splices this together with the more refined language of the First Folio, the Stratford version seems to have been edited in a similar fashion.  I did recognize a few changes, such as some lines that seemed new and definitely some better jokes between the gravediggers.  But even though I just saw the plays back to back, I missed a few key aspects.  This page lays out a few of them, most notably that the To be or not to be speech is moved around from its normal spot and, probably even more significantly, that Gertrude becomes aware of Claudius's villainy and accepts it as truth.  Thus, towards the very end of the play when she is still declaiming Hamlet to be mad, she is actually part of a conspiracy of 2 (or 3 if you could Horatio).

I will say that due to the various cuts, even the longer Stratford version doesn't feel much like a traditional Hamlet where he is just a moody and slightly mad procrastinator.  Yes, there is the moment where he tries to determine if the ghost is telling him the truth or not, and in both versions he refrains from killing Claudius in the chapel.  But he simply does not have that many (or any other) opportunities to attack Claudius when he is not heavily guarded.  I actually am more troubled by how overly mad he is made in many productions.  I liked the Stratford approach where it was more obvious that Hamlet was just playing at being mad, though I did think that the madcap foolery after Polonius's death was misplayed.  Driftwood took a very different approach where the gloves came off after this death, and in fact Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern laid hands on the prince and roughly hauled him back in from of Claudius.  Even beating him at one point.  That was an interesting, if slightly over-the-top, direction, but it then made absolutely no sense for the king to essentially welcome Hamlet back into the fold after his return from England and wager on his duel with Laertes.  It doesn't make that much sense in the traditional version either, but at least in Stratford's production, Claudius's anger at Hamlet is kept a bit more in check and fewer people appear to be aware that Hamlet was banished.  (Thus, it is easier to appear things are not completely overturned when Hamlet shows up at Ophelia's grave.)

The 2nd most interesting decision by Driftwood is that Ophelia is deeply angry at Hamlet after he throws her letters back in her face.  She has not forgiven him at all by the time of the Player's performance, and glowers at him throughout.  He does not get to lay his head in her lap, as is far more traditional (including the Stratford production).  I don't know if it is something in the air, but both productions really emphasized the complete unhinged nature of Ophelia by having her emphasize the "country nature" of the song she sings and in both cases, she gives a kind of lap dance to Claudius.  (I checked and the text does not appear to have any such stage directions...)  However, it makes a bit more sense in the Stratford production where Ophelia seems to be dealing with a double death -- the death of her father and the death of Hamlet's love for her.  The Driftwood Ophelia doesn't seem nearly so fussed about Hamlet abandoning her (the Now reviewer agrees with me on this point).  I thought the Stratford Ophelia was a somewhat more internally consistent figure, though I remember thinking the mad scene was just a bit too coarse (it actually seems like she might try to feel up her brother at one point).

I thought both were quite interesting and worth seeing (2 days left for Driftwood at Withrow Park), but would give the nod to the longer and more polished Stratford version.  While there generally wasn't anything that was genuinely new, I did think Hamlet's monologues were conveyed more strikingly, whereas in Driftwood they were more like the typical set pieces and you could almost see them unfold in the dual column text of a Riverside or Oxford Shakespeare.  I may have mentioned that aside from the ghost, they did their best to play the opening scenes like a comedy, which gave it some additional frisson.  (So many of the comedies could decline into tragedies if not for some happy accident.  I'm not entirely sure any of the tragedies could have ended as a comedy, though perhaps Lear.  Lear certainly could have ended more like one of the romances, with bloodshed but still an overall happy conclusion.)

My single biggest fault with Stratford was the stupid replacement of shooting Polonius rather than stabbing him (going so far as to have Gertrude talk about Hamlet's rifle).  So unnecessary.  Driftwood was slightly better in the gravedigger scene (though not the Poor Yorick speech that follows) and it was interesting to see a different Hamlet-Gertrude bed scene (even if I didn't fully recognize the significance at the time!).  I'm still sorting through what I think of having Horatio played by a woman.  The Now reviewer claims that she {Horatio} had unresolved romantic feelings for Hamlet which deepened the ending.  I'm not sure I picked that up or even if I was willing to entertain that notion.  Certainly Hamlet never seemed to have any inkling of this.  As I said, that would have been quite the twist if Claudius did send Hamlet back to Wittenberg (as he requested) and then Hamlet found out that his true love was right under his nose (cue Survivor's "The Search is Over").  Actually, that isn't a bad idea for Sing-for-Your-Supper, though I don't know if I could boil it down to 10 pages.  I'll see about that on the train, and now I really have to go.

P.S. Yes, I did write it.  In the end, it was a combination of Hamlet with the sensibility of Oscar Wilde.  I only wrote out the first act, so I don't know if I really could sustain this and find a suitable ending.  I'd have to work the ghost in there somehow and most likely Claudius and Gertrude, though it would be awfully hard to keep the tone light if they were around.  I won't know for a little while if it got picked for Sing-for-Your-Supper, but you can read it here and provide comments below.

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