Hamlet @ Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, 2013Tragedy

  • Penny Gay

Hamlet, Belvoir St, Sydney, Australia, 16 October 2013.

Sydney Hamlet 2013

Hamlet (Toby Schmitz), Gertrude (Robyn Nevin) and Old Hamlet (Anthony Phelan). Photo by Brett Boardman.

Australian theatrical royalty abounds in this new production at the Belvoir St Theatre, one of Sydney’s most loved theatrical spaces. Robyn Nevin and John Gaden as Gertrude and Claudius bring a lifetime’s experience of the stage and complete ease with the language of classical drama. So too Greg Stone as a Polonius both funny and touching in his fatherly concern and incipient senility. Toby Schmitz is a popular young prince of the stage – his major performances this year began with Private Lives and included Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, co-starring with his old friend, the multi-talented Tim Minchin.

There are only four other cast members: Ophelia (Emily Barclay), Ros/Guil (Nathan Lovejoy), Old Hamlet (Anthony Phelan), and Laertes (Tom Campbell). There is also a counter-tenor (Maximilian Riebl), in full concert tails, who walks across the stage singing snatches of well-known Purcell and Handel arias, almost always following or preceding a ghost – a member of the cast covered in blood. A pianist (Luke Byrne), also in concert tails, is on stage the whole time, providing discreet piano accompaniment to the dream-like proceedings. The effect is puzzling, beautiful, other-worldly and anti-realist; it finally makes emotional and narrative sense – the ground bass accompanying Purcell’s Lament seems to go on for ever, until as Hamlet dies, the whole cast sing ‘When I am laid in earth’, with its heart-wrenching climax, ‘Remember me!’.

The text is radically cut, and some lines are reassigned to the remaining characters or placed in different contexts. There is no doubling. Ros/Guil has a few of Horatio’s lines and an earlier appearance in the narrative, but there is no Horatio, no friend Hamlet can trust to tell his story. Instead Old Hamlet has many of his lines (including, finally, ‘Good night, sweet prince’), and also a few of those of the philosophical Gravedigger. Thus it is Hamlet’s father who has the role of his constant companion – and his grief personified. The play starts with a clearly disturbed Hamlet sitting on one side of Belvoir’s iconic diamond-shaped stage, his father sitting on the other, watching sombrely, as the audience comes into the theatre. A blackout leads to a short vignette of Ophelia lying in Hamlet’s lap, using the words between Horatio and Hamlet about his father’s death. The father and son embrace passionately, but exchange almost nothing of the various dialogues demanding revenge. This relationship provides from the start a thought-provoking, highly-focused lens on the play.

The traditional opening is cut entirely; the opening of play’s story is a radically short version of the court scene, 1.2. Gertrude, clearly disturbed like her son, has taken refuge in alcohol, and is more obviously attached to her son (kissing him frequently) than to her new husband. Claudius is cool but visibly somewhat anxious, a consummate politician used to delivering smooth public rhetoric which hides his real thoughts. Schmitz, despite (or sometimes, because of) his loud groanings and twitches, seems to be new-minting his lines in a modern psychologically realist mode. This concurs with Simon Stone’s direction to all the actors, indicated in his program interview: ‘my directorial instinct is just: do I recognise this behaviour? Does this behaviour intrigue me? Does it feel human? Does it feel truthful?’

Logically, then, the play is set in an affluent western contemporary society – not noticeably Australian, apart from the cast’s accents – with modern elegant but unobtrusive costumes (by Mel Page) and a set (by Ralph Myers) of black and white – no furniture but chairs and the piano. In the first half, up to Polonius’s death, there are heavy floor-length black curtains on the two stage sides of the Belvoir diamond; in the second half, all is brilliant white (floor and walls), so as to emphasise the blood which increasingly appears as more people die and become ghosts who inhabit the stage, watching. As the audience enters for the second half, we see Polonius lying in a pool of blood at front centre. Nonchalantly, he stands up and becomes the second ghost to be on stage almost continuously, at first to watch over his daughter – in a touching parallel to Old Hamlet’s care for his son –  and ultimately to observe the tragic story playing out.

Hamlet is horrified as the deaths mount, seemingly as a result of his extreme grief. The mordant wit that just kept him afloat in the first half dissipates in the much shorter second half. ‘The Mousetrap’ is a sleazy puppet show on a 19th-century-style street cart, brilliantly manipulated by one man – Hamlet. In this reading of the play it is the high point of his angry wit and inventiveness in a doom-laden situation. As the Sydney Time Out critic commented: ‘Hamlet is almost always on stage, in the wings, observing and over-hearing scenes in which he has no part; hyper aware, preternaturally apprised of what is happening around him, he is a man paralysed by an excess of information and over-analysis.’ His ‘paralysis’, however, manifests in Schmitz’s trademark physical flexibility and his natural clowning tendencies, which produce what several reviewers called unintended comic effects in the midst of the increasing horrors. My own view is that the director allowed these effects to stay as a reminder of the black comedy often associated with revenge drama – a counter to the potentially over-earnest naturalism Stone based his vision of the play on. It will be worth a re-visit to the production to see what Schmitz’s replacement Ewen Leslie (an admired 2011 Hamlet in Melbourne) does with this role, given that it is built so specifically on Schmitz’s charismatic talents. (Schmitz has withdrawn from the last two weeks of the run as he is shooting a television role [in Black Sails] in South Africa.)

The heavy cuts and reassignment of lines upset some purists (though given the history of Hamlet on stage, what’s surprising?). The story was still remarkably coherent in its focus on Hamlet’s grief. The only problem with this redaction was the ending – of course, there was no Fortinbras or Horatio, but there was even no Osric: the duel and subsequent deaths were played out almost ritualistically, with all the actors in a circle, using only their lines as weapons. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Jason Blake experienced it as ‘a cacophonous psychodrama’. Those who were due to die at the end of the play came on for the last scene already covered in blood – doomed; perhaps, as Blake said, because the scene ‘seemed to take place in Hamlet’s dying brain’ – which would pick up on the production’s Expressionist tendencies. But would an audience less familiar with the play know that the foil and the drink were poisoned? Possibly in this interpretation it is unnecessary to know such details. Elisabeth Meister in ArtsHub sums up: ‘Despite the cuts, everything you need is there. At the same time, it’s impossible to shake the curious feeling that you’re watching something that’s very much like Hamlet yet isn’t quite Hamlet. And that is precisely what gives this play an immediacy and directness that “classic” Hamlets can lack, making the characters more relatable and familiar and rendering a very modern, radical re-imagining.’ Belvoir’s audience – accustomed to left-field but rigorously thought-out productions of the classics – loved it.

Penny Gay

Author: Penny Gay

Penny Gay is Professor Emerita in English and Drama at the University of Sydney. Her major research interest is in performance history, in particular contemporary revivals of Shakespeare and other classics. Her publications include As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women (1994), The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies (2008), Teaching Shakespeare Beyond the Centre: Australasian Perspectives (edited with LE Semler and Kate Flaherty, 2013), and Jane Austen and the Theatre (2002). Her academic journal articles have appeared in US, UK and Australian publications, and she has written programme notes for theatre companies including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Opera Australia, and the Sydney Theatre Company. She is our Associate Editor for Australia.