Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Murder Most Foul : Hamlet Through The Ages

Tell me, what would you do with a book that attempts to capture the history of Hamlet? I'm talking all of it, from the original Amleth story all the way through to screen captures of Ethan Hawke moping about when Kyle MacLachlan watches in the background.

So it is with David Bevinton's Murder Most Foul: Hamlet Through the Ages (Oxford University Press), which surprisingly still weighs in at just under 200 pages.  What do you say to that, Harold Bloom? :)

The author is not just tackling how the character of Hamlet has been portrayed over the years, either. He's truly gone for a complete history of the play in every sense. There's a diagram of the Swan Theatre, which has no trap door in the stage, and discussion about what this would have meant for a performance of Hamlet, which requires one.  How would Polonius have hidden behind the arras? Would he fall through it and back onto the stage, or would Hamlet have to pull back the curtain to see him? What does Hamlet do with the body when he drags it offstage? That's all just in one early chapter. There's depth like that on every page.

These issues may seem trivial, particularly to the theatre-folk in the crowd who have to deal with such details every performance. But this is not a lesson plan in how *you* might stage Hamlet, this is a history of how Hamlet *was* staged. That is what makes it fascinating. There are times you want the plays to be timeless, and there are times when you want to feel connected to their origins.

Jump forward to modern days and Bevington has something to say about all the most popular modern video interpretations. There's a surprisingly lengthy and positive description of Mel Gibson's version (which, according to Bevington, was always intended as an "action movie" Hamlet), and then a story about the disastrous timing of Kevin Kline's production coming out the same year and basically getting lost on PBS, despite its emphasis on "superb performances" and "insightful interpretation". Branagh's, Tenant's and event Ethan Hawke's interpretation also get a fairly detailed examination.

I have to admit, books like this are intimidating to me. They are so densely packed with stuff that I just plain didn't know that I can't get through 3 pages without saying, "I could make a post out of that!"  Typically several times.  I know my style, and this is not the kind of book I sit and read and absorb end to end.  I can't do it.  Instead I'll grab it and flip to a random chapter, knowing that wherever I land I'll learn something new and want to talk about it.

This is a great addition to my reference library, and I thank Oxford University Press for sending me a copy.

1 comment:

JM said...

Trap doors, sometimes more than one, were a common feature of amphitheatre
type structures.The Swan was built in 1595, after James Burbage's "The Theatre" was almost 20 years old. Other theatres pre-dated the Swan-- Curtain 1577, Rose 1587--and the Globe was built in 1598-9, modelled on the structure of The Theatre.
Is Bevington really willing to base a discussion about the alternate staging of Hamlet on the copy by a friend of Dutchman Johaness de Witt's sketch he made while visiting London; on the very rough drawing we have of the interior of the Swan, because de Witt (or his friend) failed to include a trap door? It just strikes me as rather strange.