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Review: Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Heather Wallace

Dark acts result in darker consequences. And there is little that’s darker and more complicated than the act of revenge.

Hamlet is not a hero. That was a big surprise in Bell Shakespeare’s production, because the last time I saw the Danish prince, 20 or more years ago, I was quite sure he was.

His anger and sadness after his father has died and his mother has rushed into marriage were understandable. In this retelling by director Damien Ryan the domestic drama isn’t just Hamlet’s trauma, it is all of Denmark’s.

The drums of war are sounding, Norway is militarising just over the border. Everyone in Denmark is on edge and everyone is under suspicion. Set in late 1950s Europe even private conversations are recorded in this Cold War setting.

In the castle of Elsinore there is the coldest of wars being waged, as the grieving prince succumbs to anger and despair. For an actor to take on one of the most revered characters in theatre and make him crude, callous, and violent while still making us sympathetic is an achievement.

Josh McConville in the title role is no traditional brooding prince. His rage erupts at those he feels betrayed by: his mother, Queen Gertrude; his love, Ophelia; and her father Polonius. He is also capable of great kindness and friendship. McConville is mesmerising, showing Hamlet in the grips of a mental illness.

Ivan Donato is Horatio, one of the few people Hamlet trusts, steadfast and stalwart. Donato makes him more than just a stock best friend, he is the voice of sanity that confirms the ghost of the dead king is real, and doesn’t hesitate to call Hamlet cruel and petty.

The entire cast is outstanding, 10 actors playing – as Damien Ryan described on opening night – “Every person in the whole of Scandinavia.”

Six actors play multiple characters: Phillip Dodd as the unctuous Polonius and a far from grave Grave Digger; Julia Ohannessian and Catherine Terracini are wonderful as the travelling players Yorrick & Daughters in a play-within-a-play, as well as serving as various guards and courtiers. Sean O’Shea is both the villainous Claudius and the ghost of his slain brother.

The actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also have double roles. Robin Goldsworthy is an inscrutable surveillance operator early on and then a scruffy backpacking Rosencrantz. Guildenstern on the other hand is an elegant sophisticate, Michael Wahr playing him with no socks and sunglasses perched on his head as though he’s just jetted in from the Isle of Capri.

By comparison Wahr’s Laertes is an upright, dutiful soldier who at first seems more heroic than Hamlet. Matilda Ridgway as Ophelia is boisterous, cheeky young woman, making her mental break at Hamlet’s actions so much more tragic.

Doris Younane, recognisable for her long TV career in roles like MacLeod’s Daughters and Sea Change, is spectacular. She is both a regal queen and a loving mother, deeply worried about her son. Hamlet judges her, but we shouldn’t. How can any of us know what her marriage was really like? All we have to go on is Hamlet’s viewpoint and he is as biased as any adult child believing his parents had the perfect relationship. Younane’s queen made me want to know more about Gertrude and what is behind her choices.

Counterbalancing characters and playing on expectations makes this production stand out. There was a big laugh when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names are called out over an airport tannoy, instructing them to collect their luggage before it is destroyed.

Productions of Hamlet can suffer and classic lines become clichés. Here “To be or not to be…” and “Alas poor Yorrick…” have freshness when said by this much more energetic Hamlet. My favourite moment though was watching Hamlet direct the travelling players in the play about his father’s murder. For all the seriousness of the subject and what’s at stake, he can’t resist being pedantic and frustrating his actors with his pretentions. It’s a funny scene, and not the only one by a long shot.

This is no weary and worn out production with lines you think you know by heart, no matter how often you’ve heard them before, you will experience them in a new way.

 

the essentials
What: Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Where: The Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 13-24 October
How much: $45.00 – $79.00
Tickets: Via the Canberra Theatre website

 

Images courtesy of Daniel Boud and Bell Shakespeare. Image 1: Robin Goldsworthy, Ivan Donato, Philip Dodd, Josh McConville, Image 2: Jane Davis, Catherine Terracini, Josh McConville, Ivan Donato

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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