Review: Hamlet ~ theatre notes

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: Hamlet

Back in another age, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a copygirl in the Finance section of that long-gone afternoon daily the Melbourne Herald, I found myself unexpectedly fascinated by the captains of industry. In another life, I might have become a finance reporter. The Alan Bonds, Rupert Murdochs and Robert Holmes à Courts of that time, ruthless accumulators of wealth, power and privilege, were, I realised, our equivalents of the princes of the Renaissance.

Since then, we've entered an age of increasingly volatile hyper-capitalism in which corporate power has swollen monstrously to become the major global influence, eclipsing national governments in its power and reach. Many corporations have bigger revenues than entire countries: the giant US corporation Wal-Mart, for instance, has revenues equivalent to the GDP of New Zealand. And this has had a catastrophic influence on our politics (the News International meltdown in Britain is only one, obvious example: remember Tony Blair and Britain's defence industry?) and even more sobering implications for the future of the planet.


It's this background that makes Simon Phillips's corporate interpretations of Shakespeare so compellingly lucid. As the great critic Jan Kott elaborated, Shakespeare is the theatrical chronicler non pareil of the revolutions of power: and Phillips correctly locates contemporary power in the boardrooms and designer mansions of the filthy rich. His superb Richard III pulled on familiar techniques of propaganda and media spin, the political theatre of appearance, to generate a portrait of the deceptive glamour of tyranny. And now, with Ewen Leslie again in the leading role, he's turned his attention to one of the great tragedies.

Directed and performed with a brutal clarity, this production of Hamlet is a riveting evolution from Richard III. It gleams with Phillips's theatrical deftness, which is reflected in the sardonic wit of the prince; you can be sure that Shakespeare's comedy is well-buffed here. As in Richard III, but with more art, Phillips has ingeniously folded technology - mobile phones, iPods, laptops - into the action, so that the anachronisms create a stage language that places us simultaneously in the present and Shakespeare's past. His solution to the fight-scene in the final act is in fact a blindingly obvious stroke of genius.

But crucially, for all its cleverness, this production doesn't flinch from the darker aspects of the play. The world of the Danish court, with its murderous competitiveness, deception and surveillance, is brought unsettlingly into the present. Although the details of war are mostly excised, we are always conscious that it stirs in the shadows. This production brings to the fore Shakespeare's unillusioned examination of the brutality of power, and the foul dust floating in the wake of its dreams.

Hamlet is arguably the ur-play of modernity: as countless critics have said, in the figure of Hamlet, feudal notions of power and honour clash with modern introspection and self-consciousness. Many contemporary productions dispense, as Phillips has here, with the role of Fortinbras, making it a effectively a family drama, and also, not incidentally, removing the hopeful horizon of a return to order: the play finishes with the corpses.

One of the best Hamlets I've seen is Richard Pyros, in an astounding 2004 production performed in a shopfront in Northcote: he played Hamlet, as I said at the time, as a contemporary romantic, "at once sensuous and full of loathing, raging against the mortal trappings of his flesh", in the claustrophobic politics of a toxic family. In Phillips's Hamlet, by contrast, we are always aware of money and power: the prince is a scion of a toxic house, a son usurped of his inheritance.

Pyros's Hamlet, with Horatio as his hand-puppet, was mad from the beginning, a man locked in an existential crisis. Leslie's is a rational prince, at first playing at madness and at different points plunged into its outreaches, without ever quite succumbing to its escape. His madness is all act, and contrasts with the heartbreakingly real breakdown of Ophelia (Eryn Jean Norvill), one of the high points of this production. This interpretation makes the final conflict between Laertes (Tim Ross) and Hamlet, and Laertes's sudden doubt of his revenge, deeply moving, because Hamlet is unambiguously in his right mind; and it gives weight and meaning to Horatio's (Grant Cartwright) loyalty. Power here is an abstraction, like capital itself, which infects every relationship with fatal ambiguities: the single exception is Hamlet's friendship with Horatio.

If you like, this is an anti-Romantic Hamlet, a man broken by the impotence of his rationality, rather than by his excessive sensibility. He becomes a reflection of contemporary powerlessness, intelligently aware of what is rotten in the state of Denmark, and yet unable to act against it. The machineries of power, like those of tragedy, have their own force and logic, so even those who think they control it, as Claudius does, become its victim. It's impossible to watch this production and not think of Rupert Murdoch.

Shaun Gurton's set, a revolving maze of glass walls, is extraordinary: its abstract lines recall Benedict Andrews's obsession with windows and reflections, and with Nick Schlieper's lighting, permits a continuous shifting of perspective, with backlit glimpses behind the walls of other characters, or a sense of endless corridors that open into public or private spaces. The action moves swiftly from the sumptuous interiors of the rich to desolate vignettes showing the shabbiness or waste behind the luxury: Hamlet, for example, interrogates the ghost of his father (Robert Menzies) in a pile of rubbish, next to an overturned wheelie bin.

My one real criticism of the production is the sound design: there's clever use of amplification, necessary when the scenes are behind walls, but the blaring pop music was overdone, without adding anything much, and there were those creeping strings climbing up behind the scenes to indicate a Significant Moment which can be a bit of a curse in MTC shows.

As with Richard III, its success ultimately comes down to the performances of a strong cast. Leslie's Hamlet is an intelligently modulated performance: in the first half, his performance seemed oddly constrained to me, but after interval the constraint morphed into a finely judged restraint, in which passion and extremity throb beneath an increasingly distrait surface, as Hamlet begins to realise his true impotence against the powers that entrap him. Norvill's fractured Ophelia, clutching her box of precious objects, is the revelation of this show: Ophelia is not a big role, but it is critical, and very easy to get embarrassingly wrong. Norvill gives us not the melodrama of madness, but its tragic, mundane truth.

Grant Cartwright is an appealing Horatio: his friendship with Hamlet becomes perhaps the pivotal relationship in the play, the one true element in a world of masks and deception. Robert Menzies is at his actorly best as the Player King and is wholly compelling as the Ghost, bringing shades of Beckett to this desolate soul condemned to Purgatory. John Adams is a convincing Claudius and Garry MacDonald is a classically comic Polonius, with an uneasy edge to his pompous servility: as the eager servant of its corrupt power, he is the character who makes us most uncomfortably aware of the surveillance of the court.


I felt Pamela Rabe was somewhat underused as Gertrude, although her performance is first class as far as it goes. Stern, oddly vulnerable and sensuous, Rabe brings the passion for her son that uneasily underlies the role, although like everyone else she deceives him. Like Ophelia, Gertrude is an object of power, not a subject of it, and this aspect is under-explored. It makes Gertrude strangely static in the second half: she is trapped and damaged by her role, but it has little effect on her.

For all that, this is an excellent main stage production of Hamlet and, in its own way, surprisingly radical. It's a stark vision of the impersonal amorality and destructiveness of power that makes an intense and swift three hours in the theatre. I believe the show is sold out: if you don't have tickets, you'll have to pray that the MTC extends the season.

Pictures: Top: Ewen Leslie (Hamlet) and Robert Menzies (the Ghost); bottom, Leslie and Pamela Rabe. Photos: Jeff Busby

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Simon Phillips. Set by Shaun Gurton, costumes by Esther Marie Hayes, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composer Ian McDonald, choreography by Andrew Hallsworth. With John Adam, Ian Bliss, Jamieson Caldwell, Grant Cartwright, Travis Cotton, Ewen Leslie, Garry McDonald, Robert Menzies, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Eryn Jean Norvill, Pamela Rabe, Tim Ross, Brian Vriends and Lachlan Woods. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, until August 31.

23 comments:

bethanydhart said...

Give us a spoiler! I live in the states and can't see the production, though I'm keeping up on the buzz...can you tell us more about the "blindingly obvious stroke of genius" with regards to the fight scene in the comments?? Much appreciated!

Alison Croggon said...

Ok - spoiler alert...

Sometime after interval I began wondering how they were going to deal with the fight between Laertes and Hamlet that finishes the play: swords wouldn't have cut it (as it were). And obviously you couldn't use guns. It was performed as a fencing match, with masks and foils, which worked beautifully. It may have been done this way before, but it never occurred to me as a solution: and, of course, once you think of it, it's completely obvious and an elegant solution.

Also, I was once quite a good fencer. Back in the days when fencing matches lasted longer than 0.002 seconds, I really enjoyed the sport, and it was nice to be reminded.

shawjonathan said...

As a case of great minds thinking alike, the New York Times has a piece about the Shakespearean dimensions of the Murdoch story, at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/25/opinion/25marche.html?_r=2

Philip said...

FYI: Kenneth Branagh also stages the fight as a fencing match in his 1996 film version of Hamlet.

Alison Croggon said...

God, I've watched Branagh's version too. Maybe I was asleep by then.

George said...

In fact, it wasn't only the Branagh. The Ethan Hawke film went to this solution, as did the recent Tennant (on stage and in the filmed version). In Australia, the 2010 Toby Schmitz Hamlet in Brisbane did the same. It's a fairly standard approach, on stage and on film. So it might be 'blindingly obvious' but it's hardly a 'stroke of genius'.

Alison Croggon said...

I actually didn't get to the end of the Tennant Hamlet: I found his antic prince excruciating, even as a paid-up Tennant fangirl. But apologies, I got a bit excited there. Maybe it was something in the staging that made it feel fresh.

4 Coffins said...

Foiled! I'm sure Simon didn't take a fence...

Tim Dashwood said...

As the final fight is such a climactic ending, why is there no mention of a Fight Choreographer? I'm sure for a 'real' fencing match, the actors would have had to spend a lot of time training and rehearsing with a Fight Director.....although this 'creative' seems to have missed the credit. In this case, Nigel Poulton. Well done!

Alison Croggon said...

True, and thanks for the headsup. It was well choreographed. (Though, to be fair, I list more credits than most.)

Any thoughts on the sane Hamlet? I actually thought that the most interesting aspect of this show...

Alison Croggon said...

... given, of course, Wilde's famous question: is Hamlet mad, or is it the critics?

Born Dancin' said...

I was once a good fencer too! Is this a critic thing? Something to ponder.

When the fight scene began I thought it quite static and not very interesting, visually, but it dawned on me that they were going for fairly authentic fencing rather than stage fighting, which is a brave move. Usually there'd be a lot more hacking and slashing. There were a few bits that didn't ring true - I think Laertes didn't allow Hamlet a couple of ripostes, and the footwork was a bit hokey, but that sort of made sense given the emotional investment each player had in the bout.

What I did find a little odd is that Hamlet agrees to the match so flippantly, though. The direction and performances have up till then brilliantly conveyed what's at stake at this point, and Hamlet's just hit his 'holy crud they all want me dead and I'mma ready to cut a few throats meself' point. Someone says 'fancy a friendly match with the guy who's dad you killed?' and he effectively shrugs and says 'sure, why not?'

I agree that this 'sane' Hamlet is a brilliant directorial choice, and Leslie made for the most psychologically effective Dane I've ever seen. But that fierce rationality just didn't carry over into the finale, I felt. It was a minor quibble.

Alison Croggon said...

In my case fencing was a nerdy teen thing (back in the days when nerds were real nerds). Almost sure that the nerdy teen thing is a critic thing. Though maybe not.

Yes, it's the fencing (as opposed to stage fighting) that impressed me. I couldn't stand watching Branagh's again, and I seriously doubt I'll watch the Tennant: but were those a fencing match or straight stage fighting?

And, as you say, in this case not too bad either. To my eye it looked old-fashioned, aside from the ripping off of the mask after each round.

You didn't feel that by the end Hamlet had actually given up? I did. I feel that by that point he really doesn't care, and would as soon end his life with a bare bodkin as not. What's at stake is, by then, already lost.

Born Dancin' said...

Yeah, I suppose that sense of overwhelmedness/resignation was certainly there - it's just that an actual fencing match is about as threatening as a game of croquet (where we've been forewarned that one mallet has been dipped in poison, admittedly).

Alison Croggon said...

More exciting than croquet, surely? It's the excitement of pointy bits over blunt mallets.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Cameron Woodhead was also a good fencer. And Jana, i think she would be a good fencer. Can you please stage a fencing bout between all of Melbourne's theatre critics? Please?

Cameron Woodhead said...

I'm a shit fencer. Can't shoot straight either. I even cut myself in the kitchen on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, I've struck a few blows against the critics of this production in my review, now up on the blog.

I more or less agree with Alison, but with a slightly different emphasis.

And good news. The season has been extended by 3 days. There's also standing room available. Huzzah!

Alison Croggon said...

That is good news! Definitely not to be missed, I think. I'm toying with the idea of going again...

And you should write for free more often, Cameron. It lends you wings.

Cameron Woodhead said...

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." - Dr. Johnson.

It isn't really the money. Since I saw Hamlet I've written 9 theatre reviews, 1 book review and two weekly fiction columns. Argh.

I'll happy to write for free more often, though I bear in mind that corporations, as is their wont, will invariably use it as an excuse to pay writers less.

I'd be interested to know your take on the newspaper reviews, if you get a chance.

Alison Croggon said...

Often I'm inclined to agree with Dr Johnson. But I agree, it's the treadmill. My treadmill is causing me all sorts of grief. I'm waiting for spring to deliver a fillip.

Naturally I disagree strongly with both my esteemed colleagues on their take on Hamlet. What were my thinking? And I'll shortly upload another review in which I disagree strongly with you. Fun times!

Cameron Woodhead said...

Excellent. Our disagreements are rarely dull. Wonder which show.

Lawton said...

I'm a bit late jumping on the bandwagon I think but hell...

Great review. I'd agree that it was a wonderful show. Nice cuts to the script (they handled the player scene very well - I was curious how he'd do that).

I'm a massive Leslie fan - but the first few scenes were very uninspired. Maybe I expected too much - but all I got was a stereotypical whiney Hamlet. He certainly picked up though. I think you were VERY kind to John Adams. His Claudius was awful, his soliloquy nearly had me laughing out loud. Thoughts?

Alison Croggon said...

Glad you enjoyed Hamlet. I found it unexpectedly interesting, and it's hard to find a new slant on that play.

I did feel indifferent to Adams's Claudius at first, but I found that it convinced me more as the evening went on. Claudius as slick corporate CEO worked for me, and I didn't have a problem with the soliloquy. Maybe I was buying it by then. I'd have loved to see that production again, actually.