Left – Ewen Leslie. Cover – John Adam, Ewen Leslie and Pamela Rabe. Photos – Jeff Busby
Most of us will have first experienced Shakespeare in school and come to love him or, too often, hate him. Some of us will have studied his works at University and sifted through them with a fine tooth comb to find all the myriad references and tricks, images and themes, and hopefully to wonder at the magic of the poetry. And almost all of us will know phrases from Hamlet, which is one of the best known of all Shakespeare's plays. Who hasn't heard or used these phrases: The lady doth protest too much ...; Frailty thy name is woman; Something is rotten in the state of Denmark; Brevity is the soul of wit. Whether we know it or not most of us 'speak' Shakespeare but nowhere near as many have seen a performance and it is only in performance that the genius that is Shakespeare comes to life.
Melbourne Theatre Company's much anticipated production of Hamlet has just opened in Melbourne. Director Simon Phillips and actor Ewen Leslie garnered rave reviews for the 2010 production of Richard III, and rightly so; it was a tour de force, which remains in the visual and emotional memory. With Hamlet they are faced with bringing to life a very different character. Unlike the ambitious and hardened Richard, Hamlet is a young man, in his early 20s, who has just experienced the death of his father and the over hasty marriage of his mother to his uncle. Whilst grieving for his father and angry at his mother for what he understandably sees as her act of betrayal, Hamlet is at the same time passionately in love with Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain. Enter the ghost of his father who reveals to Hamlet that his brother, now King in his place and married to his wife, is guilty of his murder. He urges Hamlet revenge this murder most foul and Let not, the royal bed of Denmark be/ A couch for luxury and damned incest.
Whilst the action in Richard III is more external than internal, the opposite is true of Hamlet. We are presented with a young man, overwhelmed by a conflict of emotions which he doesn't necessarily understand. What should he do? How should he act? Can he trust the ghost? Can he, should he, kill his uncle? If so when? How?
Phillips has chosen to place Hamlet in today's world and immediately the lights go up we recognise that we are in a contemporary corporate world. The set is 'glass' and steel and the revolving stage works well to add energy and movement, whilst revealing offices and bedrooms, as well as back doors with garbage bins and, of course, the burial ground. There are computers and mobiles and listening devices, all used to good effect, carefully integrated into the action. The music, used sparsely and appropriately, is also of the time: Harlem Shuffle (Relf/Nelson) The Rolling Stones, Drinking Song (Webley) Jason Webley and Dirt in the Ground (Waits) Tom Waits.
Garry MacDonald makes a wonderful Polonius, alternately laughable and sympathetic. The scene where he tells Ophelia that she must distance herself from Hamlet's advances is a delight. When she dutifully hands him Hamlet's note, he fumbles for his glasses and unable to find them immediately launches into one of his typically wordy speeches. Such touches bring a real humanity to his character.
John Adam is strong as Claudius. We see his ruthless ambition and his lust for Gertrude is revealed in the way he handles her; he's clearly a drinker and a womaniser.
One of the hardest roles, or one that may easily be wishy-washy, is that of Ophelia. Not so here. Eryn Jean Norvill's Ophelia is a young, passionate woman, and no fool. The scene where her brother Laertes (Tim Ross) warns her against Hamlet and urges her to keep her virginity reveals the warmth, affection, playfulness and natural rivalry that exists between the siblings. In this exchange Ophelia makes sure that she gives as good as she gets.
In fact, what is really pleasing about this production is the depth of talent it displays. Everyone is comfortable with the language, delivering their lines with clarity and confidence.
And what about Ewen Leslie's Hamlet? He has so many hard acts to follow. Hamlet has been performed on stage and screen (small and large) so very many times by a host of notable actors, among them Lawrence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Innokenty Smoktunovsky (USSR 1964 – my favourite film version), Mel Gibson (1990) and David Tennant (2009).
Leslie's Hamlet is overall restrained, with momentary outbursts that reveal something of his inner angst. Each of the well known speeches comes across as fresh and meaningful, however, I found myself wanting less subtlety and more emotion; more light and shade in his performance – a greater contrast between sanity and assumed madness, not to mention real grief.
Hamlet is a play that offers much to an audience. It has all the ingredients of a good revenge tragedy: love, lust, anger, murder, ambition, and humour – not just in the set pieces with the players and gravediggers, but also in the word play within speeches. And the poetry is sublime.
For Shakespeare lovers it is always a privilege to witness a strong, professional production of his work and this is one that is certain to please and entertain even those who are unfamiliar with, or reticent to sample, the Bard's work. Treat yourself and extend that treat to purchasing a program which contains some really interesting background on both Shakespeare and Hamlet. You will be in for a great night of theatre.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by William Shakespeare
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: Sumner Theatre | MTC Theatre, 140 Southbank Blvd, Southbank
Dates: 19 July – 31 August, 2011
Duration: approx 2 hours and 55 minutes (incl 20-minute interval)
Bookings: 8688 0800 | www.mtc.com.au