Hamlet | Old Nick CompanyPhoto - John Davidson

Well, it’s Hamlet. It’s a play most people have seen before, probably many times, and it’s Shakespeare, so what can you say? This production from Hobart’s hardworking Old Nick Theatre Company, directed by former head of NIDA John Clark, is not breathtakingly original. It’s modern dress, with courtiers wearing power suits; Hamlet (Andrew Casey) kisses his mother (Clare Grey), who’s cast far too young to actually be his mother, on the lips; there’s a combination of guns and swords used: all ideas that have popped up once or twice before. And yet there’s a vitality and sincerity to this production that makes it entertaining theatre. The cast acquits itself well, the pace is cracking and, most pleasingly of all, the text’s many moments of humour are effectively conveyed. 

Staged in the intimacy of the Peacock Theatre, with most of the action taking place centre stage within a painted circle, this Hamlet manages to be grandiose and yet personal. Gertrude appears in slippers and a dressing gown and you really feel like you’re in her bedroom; the meeting of Hamlet and his father’s ghost (John Peacock) is a cosy, if creepy, reunion; while apparently genuine danger is courted during the duel scene (especially if you’re sitting in the front row).
At first, there’s a formality to proceedings, the characters dressing much as they might in a modern day Danish court, with Hamlet formally attired in a suit, as is his uncle, Claudius (James Casey). But as Hamlet’s torment and doubt grows, he begins to favour tattered jeans and T-shirts and, memorably at one point, a waistcoat with no shirt (straying a little bit too far into boy band territory for my liking). Ophelia, meanwhile, wears a formal gown for state occasions but otherwise gets around in cute little dresses. It’s a useful device to emphasise the growing chasm between the story’s two generations; with Horatio and Hamlet in their jeans and Bonds T-shirts, while Gertrude and co. cling to more respectable attire. This seems interesting, making it a play about disenchanted youth. 

But I’m not sure what the modern setting adds over all. There’s no specific analogy being drawn, and all that making it modern dress does is to create little nonsenses: for instance when Gertrude tells of how Ophelia’s dress “bore her up” and then “pulled her to muddy death,” and you think, ‘That mini-dress from Valley Girl?' But, to be fair, if modern dress can make the play more accessible to some audiences – to the very young, to the Shakespeare-phobes – (and that is, no doubt, the intention) why quibble?

As Hamlet, Andrew Casey holds our attention, although he is certainly stronger in comedic mode, with more serious speeches sometimes rushed. He brings charm and warmth to the role, interspersed with fits of anger; effectively conveying a privileged young man who’s suddenly woken up to the harshness of reality. A particular standout for me is Peter Reardon as Polonius; he plays the role with lightness and dignity, while allowing jokes at his expense to be very funny. Natalie Venettacci is fittingly intense as Ophelia, while Clare Grey is sympathetic as a prim and matronly Queen Gertrude, shattered by the events overtaking her. As Horatio, Luke Leitch is another standout, confident and natural; while the gravediggers, Mick Lowenstein and Mark Thomson, are obviously having a fine old time during their scene, allowing the audience to do the same.
So, yes, it’s the comedic elements that really stand up to be counted here. This is a play about death, how people deal and don’t deal with it, and how everything in life comes back to one unpalatable fact: that we all must die. This point is made relentlessly so that Hamlet is about the most tragic of tragedies, and yet there’s humour everywhere in this interpretation. Even in the final scene, with corpses all strewn about, Horatio quips ruefully, “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane”. Faced with a ‘quintessence of dust,’ the play seems to say, what is there to do but laugh?

Old Nick Company Inc presents
by William Shakespeare

Director: John Clark

Venue: Peacock Theatre, Hobart
Dates: 12 - 21 June 2009
Bookings: Centertainment 6234 5990 | www.centertainment.com.au
Visit: www.oldnick.org.au

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