Review: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Review: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

As I left the Melbourne International Film Festival premiere of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, it occurred to me that I will probably not be able to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet again without wanting to laugh. First-time director Oscar Redding has achieved something spectacular: he’s created a new Hamlet, an interpretation so radical and emotionally searing that it redefines the role.

This is possibly the most tormented Hamlet committed to film: a man so isolated that his only friend, Horatio, is a hand-puppet; a Hamlet who is mad from the start, driven to despair and paranoia by the dishonesty and venality that surrounds him in the corrupt court of Elsinore.

It’s definitely not Shakespeare for the costume-drama set. Redding treats the play with bold disrespect that reveals a deeper concern with its living meaning, giving us a Hamlet that digs deep into the psychoses of our age. He’s made a demanding, relentless film that invites you into the drama and then hurts you. The emotional realism of some scenes is so painful to watch that you want to turn away. But you keep watching, because you can’t help it.

The great Shakespearean critic Jan Kott says Hamlet is a play that absorbs its times. And there is certainly a dizzying variety of Hamlets: the wan melancholic poet of the 19th century, or the mid-20th century Hamlet, who was the personification of modern self-consciousness in collision with the brutal machine of history.

Peter Brook suggested another take in his beautiful 2001 film La Tragédie d’Hamlet, which features Adrian Lester in the title role. Brook fillets out a claustrophobic family drama of individuals trapped in remorseless passions, and Lester’s Hamlet, lushly framed in luxurious crimson fabrics, smoulders with sensuous loathing and corrosive wit. In Brook’s film, the easy adage that the personal is political is illuminated with new meaning.

It’s hard to imagine anything further from Brook’s exquisite aesthetic than Redding’s grim settings, where Elsinore becomes the Flinders St Station subway, or Gertrude’s bedroom a shabby bathroom. But there are similarities, all the same, in the approach of these two films. Both cut the play heavily, dropping the introductory ghost scene and stripping out all of its complicated political machinations. And both expose the emotional nakedness of the text, depending on brilliant performances to convey the complexity and depth of its passions.

Redding’s cuts are much more radical than Brook’s – Ophelia, for example, says scarcely anything at all, although the pitiable image of her suicidal madness is at the centre of this film. He hasn’t attempted to contemporise the script: the play is performed straight, so that Hamlet, filmed in familiar places like the Bourke St Mall or Melbourne laneways, becomes a nightmare that lurks under the skin of urban Melbourne. And in truth, it’s a little unsettling to walk out into those same streets after watching the film.

Drawing from the Dogme school of minimalist film-making, each scene is filmed in a single take using one hand-held camera. The action takes place over a single night, beginning at 12.15am and ending at dawn. The camera is a character in itself, peeking around corners or through curtains, or zooming up on faces in unbearable close-up.

And as Hamlet’s psyche disintegrates, so does the cinematography, which as the tragedy reaches its climax has something of the quality of live war footage. The screen goes jarringly black, or we are running in a panic, or the sound continues over a sudden still, as if the screen is arrested in shock.

Redding's film began life on stage in 2004, when he directed Hamlet with most of the same cast in a shabby shopfront in Northcote. Drawing on the poor theatre aesthetic, which is the theatrical equivalent of Dogme, the actors rehearsed for months in public spaces around Melbourne. What resulted was one of the most exciting Hamlets I have seen anywhere.

This background accounts for the remarkable performances in the film. With the exception of Steve Mouzakis, whose thuggish Claudius lacks the subtleties of the other performances, they give the lie to the claim that Australian actors lack the skills to deal with classical dramatic language.

This cast features the cream of Melbourne theatre actors, with stand-out performances from Brian Lipson as a comically naïve, bumbling Polonius, Adrian Mulrany as the Player King and John F. Howard as the Gravedigger. But crucially, Redding has a brilliant Hamlet in Richard Pyros. There are times when his performance lifts the hair on the back of your neck: this Hamlet might be mad, but the method in it has a profound legibility, and his corrosive intelligence shines through every gesture.

As Aristotle said, tragedy is a dramatic means of calling up within an audience cathartic feelings of pity and terror. That this is difficult to achieve is beyond question: to explore the extremities of the human psyche without descending into Grand Guignol or self-parody requires not only a passionate honesty, but acute intelligence and skill. Redding’s micro-budget achievement is astounding.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, adapted and directed by Oscar Redding. A Poor Theatre Film. Melbourne International Film Festival, screening 5pm Thursday, August 9, Capitol Cinema, Melbourne. Picture: Richard Pyros as Hamlet.

This review was printed in today's Australian.


Anonymous said...

I can only say I hope this one hits the festival circuit, or at least has a DVD on the way. I'd be fascinated to see it.

Anonymous said...

Horatio as a glove-puppet and the the whole play "a nightmare that lurks beneath the skin of urban Melbourne". Wow. Must go see!

Alison Croggon said...

I'm sure there'll be a DVD, George, and who knows? Maybe it'll come your way. I hope you do check it out, Anon. Brilliant though I think it is, I am quite certain that some people will loathe it. Like I said, it's not one for those who like their Shakespeare comfortable.

Paul Martin said...

I wanted to see this film, Alison, but couldn't fit it in. Based on your's and Matt's comments, I hope it gets a post-festival screening that I can get to. I don't mind Shakespeare comfortable or not (I even found redeeming features about the much-maligned Macbeth).

Anonymous said...

And fortunately, it works as a film, too.

Alison Croggon said...

Quite right, Matt. It mightn't have worked at all. I confess, when I first heard they were planning to make a film of it, I had some trepidation. Films of plays can be dire. They translated it admirably into another medium.

Anonymous said...

Indeed they did; in fact, their interpretation leaves many other filmed versions of the play (not to mention of theatre generally) for dead, both dramaturgically (as you argue) and cinematically (as I do). I'm still reeling from the experience three days later!

TimT said...

Hamlet pisses me off. Guy spends the whole play not doing anything. Kind of the point, I know, but still makes for a boring play. (Here's a parody of Hamlet I did a while back.)

Was going to see King Lear, but your review put me off it. Behold the POW-AH of blogging!

Anonymous said...

Not an unusual reaction, timt. Dr. Johnson was huffy about the play's "neglect of poetical probability" and complained that "The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose". TS Eliot famously called the play an artistic failure because "nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him". There's a long critical tradition of regarding it as a "problem play" for the very reason you mention.
On the other hand Coleridge, one of the earliest and most eloquent defenders of the play saw that Shakespeare "intended to portray a person in whose view the external world, and all its incidents and actions were comparatively dim, and of no interest in themselves, and which began to interest only when they were reflected in the mirror of his mind.[...]The poet places him in the most stimulating circumstances that a human being can be placed in. He is the heir-apparent of a throne; his father dies suspiciously; his mother excludes her son from his throne by marrying his uncle. This is not enough; but the ghost of the murdered father is introduced, to assure the son that he was put to death by his own brother. What is the effect upon the son? - instant action and pursuit of revenge? No: endless reasoning and hesitating-constant urging and solicitation of the mind to act, and as constant an escape from action; ceaseless reproaches of himself for sloth and negligence, while the whole energy of his resolution evaporates in these reproaches. This, too, not from cowardice, for he is drawn as one of the bravest of his time-not from want of forethought or slowness of apprehension for he sees through the very souls of all who surround him, but merely from that aversion to action, which prevails among such as have a world in themselves."
Hard to beat Coleridge when he gets going!

Alison Croggon said...

Glad to hear I saved you a bucket of money, TimT; if you were going for the five pound tickets at Stratford, I'd say it would be worth it to see McKellen, but wow, at the expensive end those tickets were pricey (and the cheaper ones would have had you miles from the stage, the State Theatre was really too big for the production).

Thanks for that gorgeous passage, Hamletfan. Yes, STC is one of the best, though you suspect rather that Coleridge is speaking there equally of himself. Someone told me a charming but no doubt apocryphal story about how he literally buttonholed a friend (Charles Lamb, I think) in the street, baling him up in a doorway, and launched into one of his perorations, holding onto the button on his jacket. Lamb, in a panic because he couldn't get away, finally cut the button off his jacket and made his escape, leaving STC behind still lecturing the button. Bless.

TimT said...

Cheers, Hamletfan. That is a good defence of Hamlet. It's certainly one of the first and most comprehensive examples of a psychological drama, and quite a daring idea for a tragedy. I still don't like it, though I can appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

Please do not see this film. It is so bad. Very hard to sit through, thanks so much.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - it would probably help discussion if you explained what you mean by "bad". And why you feel compelled to warn people against seeing it, since perhaps what you think "bad" others might think brilliant. Surely you mean it's not to your taste?