Hamlet | La BoiteLeft - Toby Schmitz & Eugene Gilfedder. Cover - Toby Schmitz

There’s a fairly provocative advertising campaign for Hamlet, La Boite’s first “grown-up” show of 2010. On billboards, postcards and brochures across Brisbane, lead actor Toby Schmitz glares out at us, a soaking wet t-shirt clinging to his body, hands on his head, eyes radiating anguish and fury. He looks modern, masculine and utterly sexy. I’m sure it’s this very image that inspired a portion of the audience, including me, to sit down on a Sunday afternoon to what we knew would be 3 hours of one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays.

So, when the lights came up (after a tense and well executed opening of total darkness and terrifying sound design that made me sure there was a malevolent ghost right next to my seat) it was a bit of a disappointment to see Hamlet dressed as an “emo”, with the skinniest of skinny jeans and the kind of floppy, asymmetrical fringe that made me want to run up on stage and brush it out of his eyes.

It’s a clunky stereotype from director David Berthold, one that could have meant doom for the production, but Schmitz overcomes it and is magnificent as Hamlet, realistically playing the petulant teenager (complete with tantrums and acidic sarcasm) who descends into the madness of vengeance as a young man. He visibly grows and changes as the show goes on, and really does succeed in making his Hamlet into a modern man.

Clunky is the word I would also use for much of the stage design by Greg Clarke. As a regular audience member of La Boite’s simple “in-the-round” theatre, I always feel panicky when the set gets too complicated and in this case it was a little too clever for its own good.

The basic setting with its gothic patterned floor and dirty walls is excellent, perfectly reflecting the mood of a castle and a family filled with dark, dark secrets and on the brink of collapse. But when that set starts opening up, dropping down and closing up in various places, the changes are often slow and awkward, drawing our focus away from the action and making me desperately hope nothing was going to go wrong.

The inclusion of iPods and mobile phones also feels a bit forced. The actors carry them around on stage, but they are never used to any great effect and seem only to symbolise just how “modern” the play has become. The gratuitous nudity is also clunky and unnecessary, serving only to shock rather than extend the story.

Having said all that, there are moments of beauty and gripping horror in this retelling. Eugene Gilfedder as the gruesome, silently screaming ghost was breathtaking, and Trevor Stuart is heartbreakingly bumbling as Polonius and hilariously macabre as the gravedigger. Gemma Yates-Round’s Ophelia is beautiful and she also manages to overcome the inevitable “little girl lost” stereotype to truthfully play a heartbroken teenage girl.

The second act is full of water, and it’s never really clear why (is it about cleansing the castle of all wrong? Are the characters drowning in their own madness?). All that splashing about presents a fairly big hazard to the actors, and an ingenious and well-choreographed little clean-up scene bought laughter to the audience. Sure, it has nothing to do with the play, it’s just OH&S, but it was cute. 

Sound was a slight problem on the afternoon I was there, with much of it being simply too loud for such a small space. The song sung by Steve Toulmin as the leader of the troupe of roaming actors during “the play within the play” is the perfect example. The singing is wonderful, but if the microphone is turned to maximum then I can’t help dreading the next powerful note. Toulmin also did the sound design for the whole show, and it is magnificent. The rolling drums and whispering voices (coupled with David Walters’ excellent lighting design) were nothing short of eerie, and those sounds are my strongest memory of the show.  

With a mix of the brilliant and the perhaps not so brilliant, Hamlet is a relatively good start to La Boite’s year, and the sexy ad campaign is helping it to be one of those shows that everyone is talking about, and hopefully seeing.

Just don’t expect the wet t-shirt to make an appearance.

La Boite presents
by William Shakespeare

Director David Berthold

Venue: Roundhouse Theatre, Kelvin Grove Urban Village
Dates: 6 February – 14 March
Times: Tues-Wed 6.30pm, Thu-Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5pm + selected mid-week matinees (see website for details)
Tickets: from $25
Bookings: (07) 3007 8600 | www.laboite.com.au

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