Hamlet. Bell Shakespeare Company. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, May 24, 2003. Season ends June 7.
For comment on Bell Shakespeare's 2008 production of Hamlet, click here.
In his magnificent four-hour film of Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh tackles one of the thorniest issues of the play head-on. How is it that after the death of a King, a younger brother has taken the crown rather than the son and heir?
Branagh hints that young Hamlet is, in fact, bastard son of Claudius, the usurper, rather than the son of old King Hamlet. In which case Claudius would be the rightful heir...
Like Branagh's film, John Bell's stage production of Hamlet also plays up the similarities between Claudius and Prince Hamlet. They don't look alike (as Branagh and Derek Jacobi do) but conscience has made cowards of both.
When this production premiered in Sydney, Christopher Stollery played Claudius as a go-getting usurper, someone who patently deserved to be King, while Leon Ford played Hamlet as a young man beginning to doubt his own sanity. He wasn't going to murder his uncle just because a ghost told him to! He wanted proof.
Three months into the tour, both Claudius and the Prince are doing a whole lotta hand-wringing and not much else. Stollery is a little too low-key for my liking. Ford's navel-gazing, at least, sucks us into the very depths of his anguish and confusion. And, for all his gloom, Ford's Hamlet is a likable guy.
The cast, on the whole, has a good grasp of the language and speak it rather than reciting or declaiming it. The one great exception, regrettably, is Anna Torv as Ophelia. For audiences that can still remember Cate Blanchett's devastating Ophelia on the same stage, Torv's Ophelia is worse than disappointing.
Robert Alexander's Polonius, by contrast, is exemplary. Fast, clear, droll and glibly funny.
All up, this is an impressively clear and easy-to-follow production. It's great fun, too, believe it or not. It is also complex enough, and a strong enough reading, to capture the imagination of the Shakespeare aficionado.
This review was published in the Herald Sun on May 27, 2003.