Review: Hamlet ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Hamlet

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Designed by Fiona Crombie, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composer Sarah Blasko. With Brendan Cowell, Colin Moody, Russell Kiefel, Heather Mitchell, Barry Otto, Chris Ryan, Laura Brent, Joe Manning, Tim Richards, Matthew Whittet, Darren Weller, Paul Reichstein and Sarah Blasko. Bell Shakespeare @ the Victorian Arts Centre until August 2.

Hamlet is the most amorphous of Shakespeare’s plays. As the Shakespearean critic Jan Kott pointed out, there is a Hamlet for each age, reinvented afresh. Hamlet has been called the first modern expression of self-consciousness, a man of inaction writhing in indecision against the feudal certainties of his father. Coleridge said that Hamlet was a case study in “mental philosophy”, which examined “the effect of overbalance of the imaginative power”. The play has been a vehicle for examining the brutal circle of state power, in which the bloodletting goes full circle back to rational authority (represented by Fortinbras) or, more recently, a lens to examine the nuclear family, bringing its incestuous passions and tormented relationships to the surface.

And its subtext of madness has prompted so much speculation that Oscar Wilde felt moved to contemplate an essay: “Are The Commentators On Hamlet Really Mad, Or Only Pretending To Be?” Fair question, really. Hamlet is a text so richly turned, with minefields of ambiguity in almost every line, that it will no doubt continue to seduce critical speculators for years to come.

For all that, it’s still a play, “a project” as Shakespeare says elsewhere, “which was to please”. And there is much to please in Marion Potts’ fine production for Bell Shakespeare, from the moment the lights dim on Fiona Crombie’s cavernous industrial set and Sarah Blasko’s bewitching voice floats out over the auditorium.

This is a contemporary Hamlet which, without the patronising edge that has characterised so much of Bell Shakespeare’s ventures into making the Bard “relevant” to young people, draws on contemporary youth culture to create its aesthetic (even, very effectively, calling on horror movies for the unnerving zombie ghost).

Elsinore is an architecture of urban decay, a space made of concrete and rusted metal. It features a shallow tiled pool of water to one side running beneath a metal crypt that climbs up all of one wall. (Water features constantly in this production: it runs down the rusting slabs of the crypt, a symbol at once of the sacred and of the desire to cleanse blood guilt.) On the other side of the stage is a spectacular three-storey spiral staircase. The castle is hinted by fake arches at the back and an arched door to one side.

The space is furnished with some chairs and a table, and, at the back, as if it has been abandoned by former tenants, an upright piano. The whole creates a stage that is at once flexible - up and across and back - and expressive. This fluidity is helped along by one of the real pleasures of this production, Nick Schlieper’s extraordinarily inventive and subtle lighting, which inhabits and shapes the empty stage as much as any of the performers.

Hamlet is seldom performed in its entirety, and this version is no exception. Potts keeps the initial political frame, with Norway on its way to invade Denmark under Fortinbras, but this is forgotten through the middle acts, and Fortinbras’s appearance at the end amid the corpses might well puzzle those unfamiliar with the play. She also boldly (and effectively) cuts all of the play-within-a-play: our knowledge of it is confined to Hamlet’s commentary and a form of cockney mummery involving a tapdancer and Blasko.

Within this, we get a Hamlet who is a petulant adolescent in open rebellion against authority. Brendan Cowell plays Hamlet as a rock god, with echoes of Michael Hutchence as he sways on stage, a shrug-shouldered parodist of himself and everyone else. (His first gesture is to throw his shoes at his mother and uncle.) This is a wholly legitimate interpretation, harking back to the nuclear family take I mentioned earlier. But the fact is that his performance nearly drove me crazy (thus answering Wilde's question) through the first three acts; I thought Cowell was grievously miscast.

What I missed, more than anything else, was Hamlet’s animating, cruel intelligence. For all its energy, Cowell’s performance seldom gave me any sense of the mercurial, impassioned consciousness that makes Hamlet such a fascinating character. I might have forgiven him anything, had that quality been there. Perhaps what is most frustrating is that it’s present in flashes: there were moments after interval when Cowell’s performance became less mannered, and his performance began to grate less, even began to work for me. But these were all too seldom.

However, he is supported by a very strong cast, and the whole production transcends its limitations. Colin Moody’s Claudius reaches the Shakespearean extremes that in Cowell’s performance are only gestures, and his confession of guilt as he prays is one of the strongest moments of the play. I enjoyed Barry Otto’s movingly camp portrayal of Polonius, and Chris Ryan was a strong and deeply credible Laertes, a character who could easily be all blandness. Tim Richards and Matthew Whittet as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make an enjoyably gormless double act, and I very much liked Laura Brent’s naive and fragile Ophelia, whose madness touches a terrible pathos. In short, for all its flaws, this Hamlet is well worth a look.

Photo: Brendan Cowell as Hamlet in the Bell Shakespeare production.


Anonymous said...

Welcome to Sydney Alison. Try to see "Don't Say the Words' before it closes. Very good, fascinating deconstruction of a myth--think you'd like it. Anna Lise Phillips excellent.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi TE - I'd love to, only I'm in Melbourne! (This was the touring season...)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your review Alison. It was very interesting to read about Brendan Cowell. I was commenting to a friend on the Friday before we were to see the show that after seeing his second poster on the outside of the Arts Centre that he looked a bit more annoying than the first one (and I LOVED him in Noise) and made the comment that this production (and his performance) would have to be pretty damn amazing to make me happy to see it...considering the marketing materials and his slap happy smug bugger/I'm way too cool to be doing anything but being cool in this poster expressions.
(My friend pointed out that this would be a directed photograph).

We decided that given the strength of Marion Potts stylistic brilliance (I make that comment in light of being completely under-whelmed by her production of that poem at Malthouse earlier this year - her style amazing but where I wondered how she would go if given a good script to work with) and that if this Hamlet worked it would REALLY REALLY work. That if it didn't work, well then it would be a waste of time to go sit through it...smug bastard and over done style = too much. Bring on Lateline!

So it was with a strange sense of dismay when my friend and I had a disastrous falling out on Friday night and someone else went with her on Saturday. When we got back together on Monday I asked her how it was. Her new date LOVED it, but then again he is an English teacher. While my friend said "it was alright". She also mentioned the lead being a bit light on.

I am saying all this because I wonder about the casting of known actors. Imagine if we had someone less well known playing that role? I wonder if these roles are cast in some part to garner ticket sales. I wonder if this is a fair thing to do? I wonder what the feeling is for casting as a business decision.

I for one am glad I didn't sit through it if my friend thought it was 'alright'. I generally find I am a lot harder on theatre than she is.

And am I actually alone in thinking that Shakespeare is actually not that great? I am aware that this might raise the ire of the majority of the population, but simply ask because to me there are some pretty compelling stories going on, and some pretty sweet turns of phrase, but apart from that I simply find that this is another example of the Great British Empire inculcating us with their imperialism ( much like they decided to steal this land).

I simply wonder if a director as aobviously brilliant as Marion Potts, and an actor as wonderful as Brendan Cowell sat down with three writers they loved, gave each of the writers a commission, and themselves a fee, then they developed three scripts, and put on the on they liked best, whether we might actually get something amazing? Rather than this Shakespeare thing?

People argue that these words have survived over 400 years, yeah but so has slavery. Does that make it good?

The bible has survived over 2000 years, does that make it right/good/the best?

I am just wondering if I am alone and whether anyone out there has an argument in support of Shakespeare texts that actually moves beyond the brainwashing they've been given like a great flock of sheep.

I am all for monologuing Marc Antony's speech to the masses following the death of Caesar (Friends, Romans, Countrymen) and all for some of them sonnets), but then again, I would rather read a John Steinbeck anyday. Then again I would rather read some T.S Eliot anyday.

I just don't get this thing about the bard. I wonder who the great Middle Eastern writers of drama are who have survived in their cultures for an equally impressive time, and perhaps this is simply me hating the white man fascist thing.

I am interested in this. I am also interested in the question as to whether any of the current 'great' theatre writers will survive for 400 years - given the advent of film/new media.

The written play has been superceded by other media, yet we hold onto Shakespeare as some kind of god. I fail to see how this elevation is actually anything more than a cultural arrogance on the part of the (white) British Empire.

And before you all write in telling me the names of great Arab poets and asking me to read them, my question is not what I should look for to read, it is more about what companies program and what schools teach.

Seriously, Brendan and Marion should get some writers to craft them a vehicle don't ya reckon? Imagine if that Malthouse show (Venus and Adonis was it???) didn't have the Shakespeare nonsense that made no sense but had a story about two women having an affair while their blokes were at war or something...after all wasn't Shakespeare writing in the language of the day?

Thanks for humouring me Alison et al. Now bring on the outraged defenders of white murderous culture with a paucity of original thought (yes that is an invitation!!!).

Big smiling man :)

Anonymous said...

Blah blah blah...
I think, I am intertested, I for one, I wonder... who cares?
Read a book.

Nicholas Pickard said...

Thank you Alison. And here I was, thinking that I was all alone with Sydney's rave reviews.

And anonymous, spot on ... read Jan Kott instead.

Alison Croggon said...

You weren't alone, Nicholas. Chris Boyd, Cameron Woodhead on the Age and I were pretty much on the same page on this one. Hard to get past us steely-eyed Melburnians...

Hi there smiling man... I'll defend Shakespeare any day. Of course he can be used in the cause of English imperialism (Olivier's Henry V being the classic example). And of course he can just be a vehicle for conservative cultural values (the RSC's production of Lear being another classic example) although I think he's most boring when approached in this way. But he can also be used to blow those same cultural values up: Dood Paard's production of Titus at last year's MIAF being one example. And if you want to see a wonderful contemporary Hamlet, get your hands on A Poor Theatre's dogme film Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, which is shot in Bourke St and Flinders St Station and features a brilliant performance by Richard Pyros. It is one of my favourite takes on this play, even though the hand-held camera made my eyes bleed.

In my view, there are still, even now, few writers who can rival Shakespeare's linguistic brilliance and theatrical fertility. (I adored Venus & Adonis, which I thought a rare example of poetry working in the theatre, but I like my theatrical language rich). He attracts contemporary theatre makers because his work stimulates their creativity: he's still an inspiration to theatre writers, and a high point of challenge and excitement to actors and directors. That's why people keep doing him. And that's a lot harder to argue with than the old schtick of cultural imperialism.

Nicholas Pickard said...

That Poor Theatre film was really quite wonderful.

Bell Shakespeare and the STC showed it in Sydney and it was a breath of fresh air.

Although I found the ending quite weak, Pyros' portrayal as Hamlet was fantastic, fascinating and had that oomph missing from Cowell's version. And I'll never forget that Horatio either.

Alison Croggon said...

I didn't know it had a Sydney showing - so glad you had a chance to see it! I loved the ending - dawn rising over Bourke St, the camera sweeping around and returning to that empty bench. It's had me in tears each time I've seen it! (Three viewings, for the record). Pyros's rendition of that speech "What a piece of work is man" is, I think, burned into my brain.

Anonymous said...

Hello Big Man, hope you are still Smiling.

I’m sure you’re not alone in having reservations about Shakespeare but for me he’s pretty bloody good.

Very rarely do I see a production of his plays that totally fires but the three or four I’ve seen in the last 20 years have been landmark events in my life. So I would argue that mostly we fail to do his work justice. I find it can be powerful on all levels from the most elevated to the most base, and all at the same time.

The longevity of his survival as a writer gives us a cultural yardstick by which we compare ourselves with the past, observe our changing culture and recognize the aspects of humanity that haven’t changed in 400 years. I think that’s pretty valuable and a good argument for continuing the exploration of his words.

So I don’t think you can substitute a modern writer and replace Shakespeare. No one writes like that anymore. There are many fine qualities in many modern writers and they bring a great deal to the theatre that Shakespeare doesn’t but then [obviously] he has other attributes that they don’t. I guess one feature of his writing that I particularly enjoy is his use of antithesis to explore the ambiguity and contradictions of existence. I don’t think there is a writer who does that as effectively. And while not everything that bares his name is theatrical and poetic gold, the range, diversity and quality of his output is astonishing.

I don’t think that it is only a case of cultural imperialism that gives him his status – although he is now a brand and thus harder to see without cultural glasses distorting our view.

SAJ is right that Jan Knott is an interesting writer on Shakespeare. You might also try Harold Bloom and Peter Brook. The book “1599” is also quite something I’m told – but haven’t read it yet.

On the broader question of new media – they can do lots of things very well but there are also some things that a live event does better than anything else. It’s all swings and roundabouts to me.

So there’s some of my thoughts for now – what do you say BSM?

Anon, feel free to join in. It’d be nice to know what you think.

Anonymous said...

Poor Theatre's film was quite something. It was a fascinationg contrast to the Cowell performance. Petulance, passion and intellect.

Anonymous said...

to be or not to be, that is the question...whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.

that is pretty damn special tho isn't it?

"as a decrepit father takes delight, to see his active child do deeds of youth, so I, made lame by fortunes dearest spite, take all my comfort of thy worth and true"

and that. wow!

"I will rouse her with my fingering..." (he's talking about his musicians but he's hot for her...that dirty bard!)

ah yes, this stuff is inside my brain, how it got there I do not know...perhaps it is so much a part of our culture that we have no choice...

but then again:

"you flounder in wet shit, you know, like you've ust eaten a rancid omelette." Pinter

(oh my, the key on my keyboard has stopped working!!!! Disaster. I wanted to go buy some eans from ust eans...)

and to summarise:
"...we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of this exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time" T.S.Eliot

"And in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take." The Beatles

Alison, you and your contributors are amazing. I am feeling quite a lot of love (except from Anon!!!).

Noam, you say some pretty excellent things, which to me is enough to sit here thanking the stars that at least I have theatrenotes and not a hot classroom in the early 1990's surrounded by boys with footballs and a quite astonishing grasp of the three R's.

xxx big smiling man (smiling even more now)

Chris Boyd said...

Noam, you big tease... what are those three or four "landmark events in my life"? Do tell! (And when are you gonna start blogging instead of this brilliant guerilla commenting you do?)

[The comment "word verfication" is OZWOG!!!]

Anonymous said...

Who cares if Shakespeare was a Moorish wench with two heads? The play's the thing - and if you don't like the play then forget about it.

Not only is Brendan Cowell a poor casting choice - he is a DEEPLY depressing indication of what's wrong with this place - so uninspired, so lacking in rigour, so mediocre. And getting away with it.

Did Marion Potts have a synapse incident?

From the Daily Telegraph:
It is believed Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600. Over the following six years he is said to have written a number of other important literary works, including Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.
"And people call me prolific. The guy was on a roll," says Cowell.

What a guy.

Such a waste.
Bell Shakespeare should be boycotted.

Down with squishy-faced Cowell!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more Anonymous. Appalling and blatant marketing that does nothing but give theatre a bad name.

Anonymous said...

Ahoy -

I can understand the criticism surrounding Cowell’s performance and to an extent I agree. There was quite a lot of flailing about and I longed for him to just stand still a moment. It was as if he needed a gesture or movement to illustrate each line. But I would put this on the director for not reigning it in a bit.

I saw this Hamlet as almost a bull in a china shop – unable to keep control of his energy he just went on a rampage destroying everyone he loved and hated with equal abandon. He didn’t seem overly intelligent – or if he was – a kind of intelligence that you see in undergraduates – they think they know everything but have never actually lived any of the grand theories they are spouting. And I did find this interesting. He was almost like a child used to getting what he wants – and when he sees the world is a lot more dirty and awful that he had thought possible – it’s a fact which jars in his mind and he can’t just move past it.

Another problem I had with this production was that Gertrude seemed pretty happy go lucky about the whole thing. And if you weren’t told - I don’t think you would guess that she and the king were a new couple because the way they interacted with one another was so easy and jovial. As if this situation were the most natural in the world.

Otherwise there was a lot to like. I had no problem with Cowell’s apparent “tram wrecking” of the language – but then I like a bit of rough with my poetry – in fact I think maybe my problem with the gesturing was probably because it didn’t trust that the delivery of the text would be enough – that we would ‘get it’.

And in my opinion the mark of a good production is whether I get bored or not. And in the 3 hours 20 minutes there was barely a moment when I wasn’t in the world on stage. And during these moments I had a chance to observe the quietest, most attentive audience I have been in in quite some time. And we were a 1:30 matinee. Whatever problems I might have had were all but completely quashed by the fact that the Playhouse were clearly right there with the action – and for a play where pretty much everyone kinda knows what happens – I thought that was a commendable accomplishment - and no doubt had something to do with its lead's performance.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ahoy - I'm glad you defended Cowell here. I could see exactly why he was cast, and don't believe at all, for all I am critical of his performance, that it was a cynical decision. The production certainly held my younger companions enthralled, and as you say, and as you say, to grab the absorbed attention of an audience is no mean feat.

Anonymous said...

i STILL say "Down with Squishy!"

So there.

Geoffrey said...

I'm afraid I won't be going to see this production because I don't want to ... but anxious as I am to contribute something to conversation, I have just finished a dinner party with two friends who DID go and left well before it had finished because, in their words: "Life is too short for a bad Hamlet".

The work of Shakespeare is far less forgiving than almost any other playwright. That's why I find him so intoxicating - as an actor and director.

I remember an awesome Russian production of Hamlet I saw in London some years ago ... and Bell Shakespeare are never going to come close. Does that say something about me or them?

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

I'm interested to know how this casting choice can be interpreted as anything but cynical?
Even offensively cynical.

Given that Cowell had done zero Shakespeare, he had no business headlining a national Shakespeare company production.

Trained or not, to reach 32 without touching on Shakespeare disqualifies you from playing Hamlet. In my humble opinion.

Unless of course, the actor is a genius - not a self-conscious, self-fashioned 'bad-boy of the theatre'.

This simply wouldn't happen anywhere else on a mainstage.

Alison Croggon said...

Fair question. I'm obviously not privy to the casting decisions. When watching the play, I thought the intentions of the casting were very clear (which is why I said I didn't think it was cynical) even if the execution fell lamentably short. And the reasons seemed of a piece with the rest of the production - getting Sarah Blasko to do the music, for instance, which you could say was equally cynical (but nobody is saying, because it worked, and so seems instead imaginative and daring).

I would - as general rule - rather not call an artist's intentions into question without very good reason. This is the first time I've seen Cowell on stage, and in fact only the second time I've seen any of his work (the other was a play of his). To me, he's an actor like any other actor. And I think some attacks are getting a little ad hominem, and are more to do with his reputation, of which I know very little, than with what he did on stage. And that strikes me as unfair.

Anonymous said...

HI Alison, from a first-time poster to your blog. My appreciation for the fairness and lucidity of your comments and commentary in the face of some vitriol that is hard not to denounce as bitterness. We all know the canon and we all know the 'right', tried elocutary ways to perform shakespeare, so why do we have to keep reproducing them without variation? Why not try new people, new approaches? Of course this is high risk stuff, and I personally agree that Cowell's performance was flawed. However, I found passages mesmerising, and moving, and will always prefer to watch an actor, and a production, that tries to do something different than one that tows a line that Shakespeare himself would have mocked. Who are all these arbingers of Shakespearean authenticity?

Anonymous said...

What's an 'arbinger'?

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the typo. You probably realise I meant harbingers.

Anonymous said...

It think it is important to remember what Bell Shakespeares company is all about; showing these classic plays in a way that relates to today, to connect with a new generation, and rejuvinate and shed new light on the themes and characters that have been potrayed in a similar way time and again.
In my eyes, Brendan Cowell nailed his performance and achieved all of the above. He showed me a new way of looking at Hamlet, and I wanted to keep watching to see how his emo like character potrayed the famous old lines. Did you really want to see Hamlet in the same way you've seen him a thousand times before?
I felt Brendan Cowell was thouroughly engaging and out shone the bland performances of the NIDA graduate dominated cast.