Hamlet | new theatreLeft - Johann Walraven as Hamlet

What can one do with Hamlet that hasn’t been done, over and over, before?

Arguably more than any other play, Hamlet has the potential to be a tragedy in more ways than one. Yet, barring outright hamfistedness, the play, as written, is such that the intensity of the drama itself almost always shines through. Right up to the present, rarely do we see such passion veritably jumping, almost unbidden, from a manuscript. Not bad, for a piece over four centuries old. And, surely, there is uncanny parallel between the Danish prince’s anguish and our own, almost minute-by-minute torments; (albeit ours might be over a malfunctioning mp3, as against some Oedipal outrage).

And, just perhaps, there’s no more visceral satisfaction than watching H exact revenge on his murderous, wife-stealing uncle, Claudius. The psychopathology of the play, so easily underplayed and underrated, is enough, on its own, with which to grapple. Who’s (authentically, materially) ‘mad’ and who isn’t? Indeed, ye olde bard entertains the premise that all ‘madness’ is ‘imagined’, or ‘invited’; in the sense that inflammations like grief and rage make us so. And love, most of all. And, after all, what are grief, rage and even murder, if not expressions of love? This is the key, controversial question Shakespeare forbids us ignoring and agonising over.

Four centuries and more ago, it appears, the human sphere was as devoid of abiding loyalty as now. With its delicious turns of treachery, incest, and moral corruption, Hamlet encompasses almost all of the human experience in a single bound. Not even Desperate Housewives can deliver that; well, not in one ep, anyway.

New Theatre has taken this timeless tumult and given it a somewhat predictable and obvious ‘modern’ emphasis. For me, this is practically redundant and better left for the viewer to interpolate, than for him, or her, to be forcefed, like some reluctant, bibbed child in a literary high-chair.

Having said that, under Fiona Hallenan’s direction (ably seconded by Danielle Wilding-Forbes), New’s version, even in succumbing to the above paradigm, manages notable novelty, with an individualistic, idiosyncratic panache and comedic audacity ‘the old Bill’, I venture to say, would’ve cherished. (Satirical highlights included hip-hop sequences and cameos by 21st century stars, the iPod and bluetooth device.)

Top of the pops with the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1879 (almost as long as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon prevailed on the album charts), Hamlet is all too often let to hams, who think it must be writ large. They miss the point. Since its seismic eloquence  veritably leaps from the page, subtlety of delivery is the key. Less is more. Restraint allows its supercharged power to fully assert itself.

New has managed this. Hallenan, it seems, has pulled her actors back, as much as pushed them forward. Some of the most influential & iconic phrases in English are deliberately underplayed; their praises undersung. Hallenan and her deft cast get it. As a result, it’s much easier for us to get it, too.

Moreover, Hallenan has unselfconsciously opted to couch all the richness of the play’s language, culturally, visually and literally, in the contemporary Australian vernacular and has adopted the cadence of ‘Strayan’, as against Elizabethan speech.

This is done so successfully as to mean it could be performed in Esperanto, Aramaic, or Japanese and we’d still get it. Only occasionally does it tip a little too far in that direction, mostly via relatively minor infringements of diction. Otherwise, it’s careful not to genuflect too deeply towards either the clichés of modernity or classicism.

Tom Bannerman’s set design proved deceptively versatile and, with the complicity of  Tony Youlden’s lighting, afforded a compelling encounter between Hamlet and his late father’s ghostly visage.

John Blake’s sound design, too, assisted, in large measure, in creating mood, anxiety, suspense and trepidation. In short, he made all the right noises.

The aforementioned craft yields great impetus in bestowing the kind of dark foreboding befitting the cloister of the criminal underworld, Melbourne. Oops! Elsinore.

The cast includes numerous familiar faces: Ashley Adkins, Donna Brooks, Alex Bryant-Smith, Rebecca Clay, Harley Connor, Richard Cox, Barry French, Dannielle Jackson, Tara Jay, Joshua North, David Ritchie, Dee Wilson, Peter Wright, and Johann Walraven, as the tormented prince.

Among them, Walraven’s weedy Hamlet distinguishes himself, with few, if any, falters. The casualness with which he declares his soliloquies, alone, is impressive. Physically, he’s almost the consummate ‘broodgroom’.

Speaking of physicality, confrontational scenes, such as those between Hamlet and Ophelia, the same and his mother (Gertrude), while not quite so his fisticuffs with Laertes, are executed very, at times almost too, convincingly! Laertes, furthermore, dies an incredibly redolent, dramatic (hold the ‘melo’) death: bravo!

An earthy Ophelia exhibited sublime method in her madness, ’though her Kath-’n’-Kimesque accent, for mine, went just a little too far and tended to obscure the clarity of her speech.

The bumbling take on Polonius was a comedic triumph: his son, Laertes’ ‘silly old bugger’ reaction, too, to his dad’s precepts, was precious. It’s almost a relief when he’s daggered, as it is when any windbag bureaucrat bites the dust.

Shakespearean veteran virtuoso, David Ritchie, as Claudius (Ham’s uncle), brings a just-so soupcon of Dr Evil or, better yet, Boris Karloff to his treacherous role. His enunciation, breath and rounded delivery is an on-the-job masterclass for any actor.

All-in-all, Hallenan has made bold, judicious and courageous choices, most of which have shown substantial return on the creative investment.

Fortunately, these Danish royals bear precious little resemblance to the current crop (Frederick, for one, is so stultifyingly, stick-in-the-mud benign), among whom only our own, Mary, shows any promise of cool calculation.

But, enough, I’ve already given my thoughts too much tongue.

New’s hip-hop Hamlet is cool, dude!

new theatre presents
by William Shakespeare

Venue: new theatre | 542 King Street Newtown
Dates: 13 March – 12 April 2008
Times: Thursday – Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 5pm
Tickets: $27 full / $22 concession / $20 (groups 10+) / $10 Preview Wed 12 March
Bookings: 1300 306 776 / www.mca-tix.com

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