I don’t care what anyone says, good Shakespeare should come alive on the stage, it should buzz, it should whirr, it should sing. It most certainly shouldn’t be a historical document that we wheel out, shake the cobwebs off and mount productions of purely to make ourselves feel like we are perpetuating a culture of ‘real theatre’. “So, what,” (I wondered aloud to myself in typical Shakespearean fashion) “was this much-hyped production of Hamlet featuring Brendan Cowell as the big man to be, or not to be then, eh?”
Well, it is with complete and unreserved enthusiasm that I say it’s pretty damn fine indeed. Hamlet most certainly is alive and kicking in Cowell’s incarnation as a prince who truly “rocks” (in the rockstar sense) as a very modern royal. In fact, he’s the kind of prince who wouldn’t be out of place on a boozy bender with the Windsor lads William and Harry - perhaps with Paris Hilton along for the ride! But this is praise, (just in case you mistook it for something else) for this is entirely what director Marion Potts wants us to see in the character. Hamlet is lost. Sure, he’s got cash, prestige and plenty of privileges, but there’s a sense here that he’s overindulged and until the moment where the apparition of his dead father appears and asks him to avenge his murder he’s a man (barely) without a mission. Thus, the ghost sets him on a course that will end in disaster, but will surely teach him a lot about life and himself along the way.
By stripping away the emphasis on politics in this version Potts has allowed us to focus much more readily on Hamlet’s inner journey, and this goes a long way towards helping us understand him. Cowell works tirelessly in this department to make Shakespeare’s prose hum. Every word is clear and full of true meaning and coupled with his moments of child-like whimsy this performance is a delight to behold.
Also truly sublime is the choice of Sarah Blasko as composer. Her musical accompaniments add a layer of melancholy rapture to the performance which goes to the heart of Hamlet’s grief, anger and loss. Ingeniously, Blasko is incorporated into the production itself as one of the players, which creates a seamless quality to her musical interludes.
Meanwhile, Colin Moody’s Claudius is a revelation. His soliloquies go a long way towards creating an empathetic window into the soul of a character that has so often come across as one dimensional in previous productions.
Barry Otto is simply scrumptious as Polonius, whose playful verbosity succeeds in boring the characters on stage, while he charms the audience off it, which is precisely the way that Shakespeare intended it.
Gertrude (Heather Mitchell) plays a trophy-wife style of queen who seems to be making the most of a bad situation. While Rosencrantz (Tim Richards) and Guildenstern (Matthew Whittet) provide beautifully timed comic relief that really does make the audience laugh out loud at their antics.
If I had to pick the weakest link, I’d say that it’s Ophelia (Laura Brent). Unfortunately, her interactions with and about Hamlet don’t really make us believe that she is in love with him, which leaves a rather gaping hole in the love-story side of things. And while her mad turn in act IV is suitably kooky it’s too late for us to make the leap.
The set design (Fiona Crombie) is highly functional, yet stirring and poetic. And Nick Schlieper’s lighting design - particularly when Russell Kiefel’s spooky, night-of-the-living-dead ghost glides onto the stage - is highly effective.
If we could give stars for theatre (and this is such a star-studded production that I don’t see why we can’t) I’d be giving it four and a half - and Brendan Cowell really does deserve every single one of them.
Bell Shakespeare presents
By William Shakespeare
Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 6 June - 12 July 2008
Bookings: Sydney Opera House Box Office 02 9250 7777