Monday, January 02, 2012

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Over the course of the past few days, my spouse and I have watched a number of Shakespeare-related  DVDs. It began with the documentary, Discovering Hamlet, which features Derek Jacobi directing Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet for a live stage performance. What I largely came away with was the idea that directors must have to know the text of a play at such an internal level of absorption. It’s more than simply having read the play; it’s more than simply having played a particular part within that play and thereby having more than a passing familiarity with the lines. They have to have absorbed the text and the subtext, the language of the play as well as any unspoken themes.The director must have thought seriously about the various levels of text and theme. Directors must have considered each character in the play (just in order to cast the players), but also they must also have developed the possibilities in each character. How Ophelia interacts with Hamlet is more than just the scene wherein she tries to ascertain whether the man is mad with love or if its something more. Ophelia may be played as a pure innocent (immediately bruised by cold reality’s harshness), but she may also be played as someone essentially insecure from childhood (torn and uncertain) even before Hamlet’s behavior drives her over the edge. Which (of just those two interpretations) does the director want to see driving the action on-stage? Jacobi has a tremendous difficulty in stepping away from the physical acting on stage while directing; indeed, he says in the beginning that he -- as director -- wants to be considered as a member of the cast. His presence as the director (even if he is not onstage) should be felt by the cast in his direction of their playing as well as being felt by the audience (in terms of his interpretation of the various aspects of Hamlet and how his differs from foregoing interpretations).

The second thing that hit me was the very real difference between reading Shakespeare’s lines (as a reader of poetic form) and that of watching Shakespeare’s play unfolding with some plausibility. Some forms of Shakespeare deliver the performance with minimal set, costumes, etc., but with emphasis on the deliberate delivery of lines that have entered into our conscious use of the language. Other deliveries of Shakespeare want to make the performance so lifelike that phrases of lines may be swallowed up in the moment of emotional delivery. Two very different forms of performance and very different audience experiences.

I’ve been reading Hamlet over the past three or four days and I have found that one loses that as a solitary reader, moving slowly, reading all the words in one’s head, playing all the characters, but listening for the sound of the poetry rather than actually playing the part. I have been *reading* the play, but that’s not the same way of experiencing Shakespeare as watching Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh or David Tennant play the title role. My print edition of Hamlet (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark ) has illustrations by John Austen, dating back to 1922. Very reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, which is yet another disconnect of sorts. Austen’s interpretation of Hamlet is not at all like the film versions I’ve seen of this play.

I have on The Canterville Ghost (in the background) as I type and this particular film version has Patrick Stewart playing the Ghost, who assumes the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost for purposes of proving his existence to one of the characters. I didn’t know this when I left it on this channel but it does seem as if everything around me is lending itself to thinking about Hamlet.