Hamlet’s soliloquies, rants and musings take on a new turn with the added dimension of a modern surveillance state. Who harbours the greater paranoia now, the grief-stricken prince or his hidden listeners?
Something may be rotten in the state of Denmark, but director Damien Ryan’s presentation of one of the great Shakespearean works is made fresh and immediate by Bell Shakespeare. At 3 hours long, including an interval, this is not the longest possible version but does take some stamina for both players and audience. While the performers make it look easy, vibrant and enjoyable, for the audience there are no end of pleasant diversions to make the time fly past.
Josh McConville as Hamlet brings out the complexities of the young man’s role. His grieving prince is outraged, baffled, intelligent, rejoices in an appreciation of the absurd, playful and devoted in his affections. McConville is a delight to watch, attracting the eye without being overly exuberant. He manages to seem lost and isolated fully front and centre stage, then draws the attention even as he wanders down into the side aisle along the stalls. McConville’s Hamlet is not malicious or cruel, but simply delights in mocking the slower wits about him, with Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all fair game to his acute observations.
Doris Younane depicts a maternal, human Gertrude, full of affection for her son and smitten by her new husband. There are few hard edges here, complementing Sean O’Shea’s Claudius, with his sharply costumed, perfectly poised, calculating kingship. While Younane plays a Gertrude constantly seeking happiness, even in the midst of betrayal, O’Shea allows his costume and stance to mirror the growing disarray of his plans and composure as events unfold.
The intense role of Ophelia is handled well by Matilda Ridgway, from the subtle shadings in her interactions with Hamlet, contrasting with her family moments as the dutiful daughter to Polonius and light-hearted sibling jesting with Laertes. Once Ridgway’s character has been established as more than a mere pawn in palace intrigues, a composed young woman in a chaotic world, Ophelia’s sudden descent into madness is not overplayed, taking the singing, change in costuming and demeanour to emphasise the marked changes in the content of her lines.
Ivan Donato plays a pacifying, melancholy Horatio with enduring patience. Michael Wahr switches remarkably between his roles of righteous Laertes and vacuous Guildenstern, both very successfully portrayed. Philip Dodd’s Polonius has just the right amount of eternal stickler busybody to strike a chord, while Robin Goldsworthy is remarkably versatile between his various roles. Julia Ohannessian and Catherine Terracini both make their roles effective, especially in their parts as the strolling players, Yorick and Daughters, who can actually act.
Ohannessian and Terracini also make an interesting gender switch of some roles possible and believable. While making Fortinbras a princess is the most notable change, they also switch gender roles of some palace guards and diplomats. Fortinbras (Terracini) first appears in a projected broadcast appearance, rallying her subjects, in Norwegian. While this may be appropriate given the geographic setting, it is an interesting decision in a play by the greatest playwright of the English language. Both during Fortinbras’ speech and the Italian-language performance of Hamlet’s slightly modified version of The Murder of Gonzago, projected English surtitles are used to ensure understanding – which may help in highlighting key points that might otherwise be lost through the density of Shakespearean verse to modern ears.
Designer Alicia Clements’ palatial set design uses screens to great effect, strategic lighting design by Matt Cox allowing division of action at different points, as well as being handy for occasional projections, which cunningly transform the palace into other locations, such as an airport departure terminal. Costuming works on several levels, with lighter-coloured garments showing up well behind the screens but its modern fashion sensibilities directly assisting audience comprehension of character development and not obfuscating with strict adherence to any historical or cultural theme. The vaguely mid-20th Century feel is familiar from endless repeats of television shows, and the crisp military uniforms, Polonius’ drab brown suit and the preppy outfits of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all act as sartorial shorthand to contemporary audiences.
Director Ryan particularly impresses with the use of modern surveillance devices. The concept extends past a gimmick to enhance Hamlet’s caution throughout, adds spice to Claudius’ suspicious nature as well as putting a further spin to Polonius being within fatal reach in Gertrude’s chambers.
An accessible and entertaining approach to Hamlet is welcome to students, enlivening a school text and making key moments memorable, as well as to lovers of theatrical performance, seeing a top level thoughtful rendition of a classic piece.
Bell Shakespeare presents
by William Shakespeare
Director Damien Ryan
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA | 174 William Street, Perth
Dates: 12 – 15 August 2015
Additional tour dates nationally