Friday, March 14, 2003

Bell Shakespeare Company: Hamlet (Sydney, 2003)

Hamlet. Bell Shakespeare Company. Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 14, 2003. Sydney season ends April 17. Then Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart and regional centres.


For comment on Bell Shakespeare's 2008 production of Hamlet, click here.


John Bell's production of Hamlet is a revelation. Yet it is one of the simplest, most literal takes on this play of infinite variety.

Instead of portraying Hamlet as some mincing boy incapable of 'manly' action, Bell does something almost shockingly obvious. He demands that we consider things from Hamlet's perspective.

The young man has seen the ghost of his dead father, old king Hamlet, who demands that the boy "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder." The ghost accuses Claudius, the dead king's brother, of that murder. Claudius, in the meantime, has seized the throne from young Hamlet (the rightful heir) and married the widowed Gertrude, his own sister-in-law and Prince Hamlet's mother.

In John Bell's production, the prince wants proof of his uncle's guilt -- proof that the ghost is not some malevolent spirit tricking him into committing an evil deed -- before he murders a king.

If Hamlet were a ballet, Mats Ek would give us Hamlet the schizophrenic: I killed my uncle because the voices told me to. John Bell's version is backed up by several dormant passages of the play. It is -- no more and no less -- a close and intelligent reading of what is written.

So why does it feel so modern? So revolutionary? Perhaps it's like Samuel Johnson's Rasselas. It breaks convention. Once we're in a ghost story, once we have accepted the rules of engagement, having the sanity of those who see an apparition questioned is a shocking spoiler. And still is.

Yet, here, it is liberating. Here, it breaks the convention that Hamlet is a wuss. Intriguingly, we are still left with the "objective correlative" problem that TS Eliot characterised as the "artistic failure" of Hamlet the play. Put simply, Eliot argued that young Hamlet is "dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible because it is in excess of the facts as they appear."

And Bell's production doesn't dodge this. When we first see Hamlet, played by Leon Ford, he is seized up with emotion; catatonic with conflicting feelings; "blasted with ecstasy".

This is a brave move, theatrically, as it looks to audiences that the role is simply beyond the young actor. Even "to be or not to be", is sacrificed to the paralysis. Yet there is a hint in the mechanically chewed consonants of "too too solid flesh" in the first soliloquy that betrays the actor's technique and an overarching strategy.

By the time Ford gets to the "what a piece of work is man" speech, he has the glittering intensity of man suffering from an illness which is resolving itself into a mania.

He's definitely not insane as he accuses himself of unpacking his heart with words, like a whore. He's bitterly self-mocking. Likewise, his attack on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is scintillating and acute.

To make this a fair fight, and a satisfyingly complex ethical battle, Bell presents Claudius (Christopher Stollery) as a worthy king. A powerful usurper. A decisive and charismatic man. In the English court, say, he would be the rightful and unchallenged king. Why shouldn't he rob the crown and the still-desirable queen (Linda Cropper) from his whingeing brother and the eternal student son of his? Any Richard worth his lion heart would.

Neither is Polonius presented as a complete buffoon. Robert Alexander has an impressive and endearing gravity as the lord chamberlain whom Johnson characterised as "confident of his knowledge, proud of his eloquence and declining into dotage."

Anna Torv is an interesting choice as Ophelia. She is an actor thrillingly capable of conveying complex and shifting emotional states. Her Ophelia is a woman new to womanhood. A girl whose greenness is constantly belied by the assertiveness of her speech. And, when it comes to the crunch, in the "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown" speech, she is as disconnected and unfeeling as the prince in his opening scenes. But, here, it rings decidedly false.

Blemishes in this production are few. And rarely more than negligible. Apart from the mechanical flickering accompanying the first appearance of the ghost, lighting is magnificent. Laurence Eastwood and Peter Neufeldis create swathes and cubes and landscapes of light. Eastwood's set, too, is compact and effective. Alan John outdoes Michael Nyman in his tactful but compelling incidental music.

Here is a production to rival the very best Hamlets seen in Australia in a generation. It's up there with Armfield's for Belvoir (Roxburgh, Blanchett, Wenham, Rush) and Wherrett's for Nimrod with John Bell himself. Idea for idea, if not word for word, it eclipses the Old Vic's Hamlet (Derek Jacobi) and other significant touring productions.


This review was published in the Australian Financial Review on March 22, 2003.