Archive for John Trenaman

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s scenes #2

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2022 by dcairns

Twenty-one years post-Olivier, Tony Richardson brings HAMLET to the screen in a bold and cheap undertaking, filmed entirely at the Roundhouse Theatre, using every inch of backstage space, a trick comparable to Welles’ use of the Gare D’orsee in THE TRIAL. The comparison is in the repurposing but also in the fact that the environments don’t really pretend to be the places the script would have you believe they are. We can TELL Welles is using a railway station and that adds to the film’s surrealism. We can tell that the redbrick warren — in fact, a former railway engine shed — of Richardson’s HAMLET isn’t a realistic Elsinore of the late middle ages. This doesn’t exactly impart surrealism — in a sense it imparts a spurious taste of realism, the kind Richardson made his name with. It’s an industrial space. It has grit. And it also emphasises the theatrical nature of the venture, since it resists pressing into service as a royal abode, works only as backdrop.

To prevent this setting becoming too glaringly false, Richardson makes his movie almost entirely in closeups. This movie may be tighter than Dreyer’s PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. To the immense credit of Richardson and cinematographer Gerry Fisher (who may have operated the camera himself, union rules permitting, or there may be an uncredited wizard at work), the shots are incredibly mobile and inventive, constantly reconfiguring the compositions to switch from one character to another, regroup characters, reposition and reframe individual characters, in some really quite long takes.

Here I was going to quote David Thomson’s amusing Richardson takedown from his Biographical Dictionary of Film, but I’ve just discovered it’s not on my shelves. I definitely didn’t throw it away because Richardson’s wrong about Richardson. But apparently I found some reason to make shelf space for something else. Thomson claims that Richardson was a demonstrably lousy filmmaker. I think a short burst of HAMLET gives the lie to that supposition — you can insist that Richardson never made a film that worked, if you like — that’s subjective, and I would disagree but it’s a claim you can stand behind. But whether Richardson’s HAMLET works as a whole, what we see here is quite a lot of skill. I mean, tons.

The curse of Scottishness, embodied by John Laurie’s Francisco in the Olivier, is now passed to Gordon Jackson as Horatio, and from him, presumably, to Nicol Williamson’s Dane. Other interested parties: Robin Chadwick as Francisco and John Trenaman as Bernardo, or Barnardo if you believe the IMDb. A number of the spear-carrier types in this production went on to considerable careers — Michael Elphick, Anjelica Huston, Roger Lloyd Pack, but these two stayed just as useful background.

Richardson starts off on red brick — start as you mean to go on — then glides DOWN to a brazier, viewed from the inside, Francisco poking at it. We don’t see anyone’s breath but we feel the cold, I think — just from the acting. We cut to see who’s coming, and then it’s all one take!

Only blunder — Jackson should have waited a second before delivering his last line, so he could get his glasses off and stop masking his face with his hand. But that’s the kind of error you get in long takes, the price you sometimes have to pay. With video assist and a very long schedule you can maybe solve every case of it (or with CGI retouching, I guess).

Shakespeare makes a mistake, or at least plays fast and loose too — in the full text, we’re told it’s just gone midnight, but then at the end of the scene it’s dawn. But I guess we’re up north, land of the midnight sun. Poor ghost, condemned to fast in fire in between walking the earth, but it’s 90% fire to 10% walking.

Count the number of different compositions we get in this oner.

The ghost does not appear save as a light on the characters’ faces and a Delia Derbyshire electronic music effect.

The same holds true in the second ghost scene (apologies for the glitch in the middle of this one: my fault). A great solution, if you’re uncomfortable with showing a ghost. Richardson, being a realist, approaches the Jonathan Pryce angle — Williamson voices the ghost’s dialogue along with his own, which makes sense — Shakespeare seems well aware that the ghost is telling Hamlet what he wants to hear, what he already feels to be true (“Oh my prophetic soul!”) So anything that brings that out is psychologically valid. But Richardson doesn’t need to cut the first scene, as Richard Eyre did for the Pryce version.

(Frankly, squeamishness about having a ghost appear strikes me as silly, audiences are capable of imagination and accepting things in drama which they don’t ordinarily believe in. But deciding not to show the ghost is interesting to me as an ambitious creative choice.)

Good long takes again. If we were showing the ghost, it would be harder to avoid a shot/countershot strategy, but from what we’ve seen, Richardson and his team could have managed it. There MAY be a hidden cut when the ghost departs and Williamson turns.

Both our versions so far have ommitted H’s talk of his “tables” — maybe because they’re wary about their Hamlets looking too old to convincingly play students. But Williamson does “set it down,” but by scratching on the wall with his dagger, and then visualising the wall as Claudius and knifing it. (Claudius, by the way, is Anthony Hopkins, a year younger than the actor playing his nephew, which is FINE.) What he actually scratches is something like IILITII — passable gibberish. But his method of writing is only good for runic symbols, it’s hard to say one thing while carving another, and anyway, he’s overwrought.

As with Macbeth, Romeo, Juliet, and others, the role of Hamlet is nearly always played by actors older than the character seems to be. (Is Hamlet two ages? How long is he away in England? I get the impression it’s not long at all, but he’s thirty when he comes back.) The assumption is always that a really young actor won’t be able to pull it off, but I imagine there would be gains as well as losses in having someone who looks like they could be a student. Hamlet’s agonies are somewhat adolescent.

Williamson, pasty-pink Scotsman, is nobody’s idea of a student. But he makes a very credible madman. And he covers a wide span between the conversational, making the words seem like he’s just thinking of them as we watch, and the truly freakily overdone. I would like him to keep more cool, but Hamlet is a fairly histrionic fellow I guess (the adolescent side).

Although this is fairly different from Olivier’s approach — and I think Hamlet benefits from a less controlled performance — both approaches are valid, though — both films go for a vaguely Elizabethan wardrobe (hard to work out who Richardson’s designer is — Jocelyne Herbert is credited as production designer, and she did do costumes on occasion — Philippe Pickford is wardrobe master, per IMDb — but I presume he just looked after the stuff and got it onto the various bodies. I like spoken word credits, but they always have to leave out so much.

There’s maybe a dash of medieval in there too. I think, in a film, there has to be some sense that this is a different historical period, so you can have swordfights and stuff. I forget how the Michael Almereyda version handled the swordplay — mainly I remember Ethan Hawke doing “To be or not to be…” in a video store, and when he gets to “…and lose the name of action,” you realise he’s in the Action Movies section. But you can also see WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? on the shelf. Which is the kind of blunder you’d get in a real Blockbuster, but is rather distracting during the big soliloquy.

I’m not going to do the Almereyda. Should I do the Zeffirelli? The old bastard did rather impress me with his episode of 12 REGISTI, so I think I should…