by William Shakespeare
Director Peter Evans
Sydney Opera House Playhouse until April 2
Reviewed by Ron Lee, CSP
It was a delight to learn that Bell Shakespeare was to present my favourite work by The Bard. The Dane has everything you want in a play. There’s murder, intrigue, romance, philosophy, confusion, introspection, inner torment, morality and conflict.
When you’ve seen a play numerous times, you pay less attention to the basic work, and focus on the interpretation and execution. I’ve seen The Comedy of Errors set on a carousel, Richard III set in a small London flat and A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a squash court. This version of Hamlet is in Denmark in the 1960s.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, it’s basically, the king is killed, the queen hooks up with the king’s brother. The prince seeks revenge and wonders what things would be like after death. He mistakenly kills a doddery old man whose daughter goes mad and commits suicide. He reflects on his relationship with the court jester who had died 23 years before, and in the end, almost everyone dies. There you go.
An impressive and appealing aspect of this production is the diversity in the cast. As Claudius, Ray Chong Nee, a Maori/Chinese actor, plays older than his age and has the presence to carry it off. In the normally male role of Osric is Eleni Cassimatis who facilitates the climactic duel and almost presents as a party plan hostess. Jeremi Campese is Rosencrantz who comes across as a small, gay man with narrow hips and a skivvy. Jane Mahady is Guildentern who is, this time, a ditzy young woman.
James Evans is the gravedigger in the “Yorick” scene, but holds back so that the focus is almost entirely on Hamlet. When we first see him as The Ghost, I couldn’t help but notice that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Rodney Rude.
As Gertrude, Lucy Bell turns in an expectedly powerful, emotion-charged performance. Sometimes it is understated and suppressed, but is there none-the-less.
Now-veteran actor Robert Menzies is the rambling Polonius. For decades, Menzies has been strong and reliable in every role in which he’s cast. Others holding up their ends are Rose Riley as Ophelia, Jacob Warner as Horatio, and Jack Crumlin is Laertes.
So how is Hamlet with a female in the title role? If the lead actor is substandard, the entire production will fail. Harriet Gordon-Anderson was given the massive responsibility of carrying this production and she excels. She has the acting chops and doesn’t play with compensatory masculinity. For the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, director Peter Evans has her sitting on the downstage apron of the stage, legs dangling over the edge and breaking the fourth wall. It wasn’t performed as a deep internalisation as much as thinking aloud and communicating directly with the audience.
Hamlet has been so popular for the past 413 years that many of its phrases have become part of our daily dialogue. Have you ever heard, “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark?”, or “To thine own self be true”, or ”Brevity is the soul of wit”, or “There is method in his madness”, or “The lady doth protest too much”, or “Cruel to be kind”, or “Good night, sweet prince”, or “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”, or “To be, or not to be. That is the question”?
The original title, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was too long for many people, which is reflected in the fact that it’s Shakespeare’s longest play, containing almost 30,000 words. The five-act play is reduced to two for this production.
If you have a short attention span, this production is for you. However, if you’re a strict Shakespeare purist, you might need to compromise your attitude. Either way, this latest incarnation of Hamlet is entertaining, compelling and worth catching for so many reasons.