|Beth Buchanan as Ophelia, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark|
While I had not been around at the time of A Poor Theatre’s well-received 2004 production of the play, which Redding had staged with little money in an abandoned shopfront in a Melbourne suburb, I had heard very positive things about it from people in the know. Nevertheless, I was feeling dubious about its cinematic reincarnation. The last thing I was in the mood for was two hours of theatre pretending to be cinema.
My concerns, however, were almost entirely unfounded. Borrowing heavily from the cinematic language of Dogme95, the film caught me off guard with its motion sickness-inducing cinematography, narcotic imagery, brutally distorted sound design, and—in a not always successful attempt to evoke the technical limitations of digital video—its deliberate use of frame dropout.
“I stole as much as I could from the Dogme films”, Redding confirms over coffee six months later, half way through the film’s 10-day season at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. “Festen [director, writer Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 1998] is still one of my favourite films. It’s an extraordinary piece of work. When you watch a film like that work so successfully and so powerfully, you can’t help but think that you might be able to do something similar.” He adds, laughing, “I don’t know if I did that, but certainly having that mentality made it a hell of a lot easier to make the film.”
“And to what extent were you conscious of making a film”, I ask, “and not merely a piece of filmed theatre?” At a time when the vast majority of Australian filmmakers remain stubbornly reliant on theatrical and literary storytelling models, instead of on cinematic or even televisual ones, Redding’s film strikes me as a breath of fresh air. “Oh, I always approached it as a film”, he replies. “We’ve all seen the little video snippets of theatre shows before. They’re terrible.”
Upon closer inspection, however, The Tragedy of Hamlet retains a number of theatrical elements beyond the obvious one that is its text, and these in turn grate against its more cinematic components to compelling and disconcerting effect. Indeed, much of the film’s formal interest is derived not from the smooth translation of the original production from stage to screen, but rather from the tension that exists between the two forms at their points of coincidental intersection.
The most obvious and well-explored of these points is the image and its frame line, and the logic by which this frame line operates in both the theatre and the cinema. In their more inventive moments, Redding’s images exist somewhere between the two forms, the indexical, practical geography of his scenes giving way to an inherently theatrical spatial and causal logic rooted in the bent psychology of the mad-as-a-hatter prince. In this configuration, the frame lines function much like the wings on either side of the theatre’s proscenium arch, the very structure of which, like the frame of a painting, delimits a space or field, whereas montage, and particularly the continuity editing of classical cinema, creates an open, contiguous space that logically continues beyond the edge of the frame.
Held in close-up for much of the film, Richard Pyros’ Hamlet is forever being surprised by the incursion of others into his frame, even when logically he would have seen or heard them coming a hundred metres away. In the film’s most impressively choreographed sequence, shot in Melbourne’s Degraves Street underpass, the physics of the various characters’ entrances are very often implausible, but the manner in which they suddenly appear is always dramaturgically and tonally appropriate. Hamlet’s self-absorption and claustrophobia become the terms by which the image operates, and his existential anxiety becomes as much about the non-being on the other side of the frame as it is about dying and sleeping no more.
Hamlet’s psychological state is further echoed in the film’s more self-reflexively cinematic elements. Far from offering a disembodied or omniscient point-of-view, the camera is constantly being highlighted as a subjective, embodied participant in the proceedings: the film opens with the cameraman shooting his own feet, and he can later be seen reflected in the mirror of Gertrude’s bathroom, putting the camera down on a stool and leaving.
“I love the premise of it”, says Redding, “and I think it works exceptionally well for Shakespeare....having a handheld, documentary camera there suits the style of Shakespeare, the immediacy of his writing. It also gives the characters someone to talk to.”
Indeed, with the exception of a late scene in The Melbourne Waiters’ Club, in which Hamlet is not present, the wildly physical handheld camera is the prince’s constant companion. In my own, slightly eccentric, reading, the camera can in fact be taken as an external manifestation of the character’s soul. As Hamlet’s madness becomes increasingly more pronounced as the narrative progresses, so too does the camera begin to malfunction: the tape begins to jam, the sound and image drop out, and the whole thing becomes increasingly difficult to watch. Like a 1970s flicker film, the form begins to wound the audience, performing an optical and aural violence upon them—Hamlet’s own internal violence rendered cinematically. “Till then sit still, my soul”, he whispers at one point, though the camera, like the bug-eyed prince himself, cannot help shaking.
“There are a lot of people who find it difficult to watch and there are a lot of people who find it unbelievably engaging, and I think it depends on who you are”, Redding says. “I don’t think it’s an easy film to watch in the sense that it certainly doesn’t meet you half way.”
Instead, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark meets itself half way. Existing somewhere between cinema and theatre, it employs the formal and logical resources of each to reflect on and illuminate the other, whilst simultaneously making manifest the internal tensions of one of the most famous fictional characters in history, which in turn become the film’s own. The result is one of the more interesting experiments in recent Australian cinema: an intelligent, violent, unrelenting exploration not only of this particular story, but indeed of the ways in which we might tell it, “with th’ occurrents,” to quote the Bard, “more and less, which have solicited.”
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, writer William Shakespeare, screenplay, direction Oscar Redding, performers Richard Pyros, Steve Mouzakis, Brian Lipson, John Francis Howard, Heather Bolton, director of photography Ari Wenger, producers Aleks Radovic, Oscar Redding, Richard Pyros, 120 mins, 2007; Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse, Feb 26-March 8
Matthew Clayfield is a freelance cultural critic, wayward filmmaker and postgraduate journalism student currently based in Melbourne, Australia. www.esotericrabbit.com/blog
RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 19
© Matthew Clayfield; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org