Reviewed by James Karas
In what play do you get the following: a countertenor who walks across the stage singing; a pianist who plays on a grand piano accompanying the countertenor and much of the dialogue; three ghosts and three people who die standing up: a puppet show?
If you stuck your hand up and yelled Hamlet you win a pair of tickets to the Belvoir St. Theatre production of that play in Sydney, Australia. “Production” may strike some people as somewhat of a misnomer and calling it an unrestrained ego trip for director Simon Stone may be closer to the mark.
The production does bear some relationship to Shakespeare’s play but it only serves as the basis for Stone to select scenes and characters that are suitable for his Hamlet. Anyone wishing to see a more familiar version of the play should give Belvoir Street a wide berth.
The lights go on a stage that is all black with black chairs lined up on the sides. We see a grand piano and a countertenor (Maximilian Riebl) walks on the stage singing Purcell’s O Solitude accompanied by pianist Luke Byrne.
We then see a man seated on a chair against the wall with a woman lying on a couple of chairs, her head on his lap. He says “Thrift, thrift, Ophelia! The funeral baked meats
did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” Those lines are spoken to Horatio in Shakespeare’s play and they are not the opening dialogue. They are in Stone’s version.
That sets the stage for this extraordinary emasculation of Shakespeare to suit the whim or vision of Stone. Hamlet has some 34 characters but Stone produces his version with eight actors who do some dubious doubling up and the two musicians.
Hamlet is played by Toby Schmitz as an intense young man who is mad from beginning to end. Stone has Schmitz perform with high emotional intensity and mental turmoil but within a very limited range. Shakespeare’s Hamlet goes through a number of emotional stages from contemplation to rage to despair to the final peace of death when all is silence. There is very little modulation in the Stone/Schmitz Hamlet.
That is unfortunate because Schmitz seems more than capable of presenting a much wider emotional range and a more complex Hamlet. He has a full-throated, rich voice that can handle much more than Stone’s version of the complex prince. He is on stage almost throughout the performance making only occasional brief exits.
John Gaden’s Claudius is a reserved patrician who rarely loses his cool. His evil is well-hidden but he seems to have had enough polish to seduce his brother’s wife and plan the murder and usurpation of the throne.
Robyn Nevin’s Gertrude, with her mop of blonde hair, lacks the sexual magnetism that would draw Claudius to her and to fratricide and the two seemed fairly business-like.
Emily Barclay played what was left of Ophelia quite well and she did get some latitude in her Mad Scene to show that she can act.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Shakespeare’s two fools, were rolled into one but not given a name. Nathan Lovejoy played the unnamed character with a straight face mostly as a foil for Hamlet and as messenger for the King.
Hamlet’s Ghost (Anthony Phelan) appears at the beginning of the play and in the Bedroom Scene in Shakespeare’s play. In this production he was on stage much of the time. He is a flesh and blood Ghost and is given some of the Gravedigger’s lines near the end. There is no indication that he is supposed to be the Gravedigger. He is the Ghost that introduces Yorick’s skull.
Hamlet shoots Polonius who ends up in a pool of blood. He gets up (Ghost No. 2) and the Rosencrantz/Guildenstern stand-in comes on with blood all over. Ophelia returns as Ghost No. 3 after she drowns. The King, Ophelia and Laertes , all have blood all over as the end approaches.
How do you handle the fencing scene at the end where Laertes, the King, the Queen and finally Hamlet die? No weapons are used and no movement. All ten actors stand on stage and recite their lines. The Queen, Laertes and the King die in turn, standing on their feet. Hamlet’s turn comes and he goes into spasmodic fits, screeching as he approaches the end. The spasms and the screeching stop abruptly and he says “the rest is silence.”
Hamlet by William Shakespeare continues until December 1, 2013 at the Belvoir St.Theatre, 25 Belvoir St. Surrey Hills, Sydney, Australia. www.belvoir.com.au/