Sunday 29 October 2023

HAMLET: Theatre Review

WHAT: Hamlet
WHEN: 20 October - 4 November 2023
WHERE: Mycellium Studios
WRITTEN BY: William Shakespeare
DIRECTED BY: Nicholas Opolski
DESIGNED BY: Leah Downey
COMPOSITION BY: Chris Collins and Michael Fenemore
LIGHTING BY: Liam Mitchinson
PERFORMED BY: Claire Baldwin, Megan Davis, Anthony Edward, Gilbert Gauci, Ryan Fahlbusch, Michael Fenemore, Charlee Liddell, Rouzbeh Nadjar, Don Nicholson, Anastasia Sidorova, and Alayne Wright
AV BY: Regan Wood
STAGE MANAGED BY: Eleni Rogers

Charlee Liddell and Michael Fenemore - photo by Bernie Phelan

I can't believe I am saying this, but I have finally seen a production of Hamlet I quite enjoyed. Staged in the cold depths of the Mycellium Studios carpark, the concrete finishes, low roof, and echoing chamber really suits this play because it becomes viscerally understandable how these people are so enmeshed in each others lives and how believable it is that they can feed on each other in frenzies of paranoia. This particular iteration of what must surely be the most over-performed play in Western history is presented by AVID Theatre.

So first, let's deal with the elephant in the room. You all must have figured out by now that I am not a fan of staging the plays of William Shakespeare in a modern Australia. This a two-fold issue for me. The first is that I think bringing a play alive on stage gives it power and efficacy, and Shakespeare's plays are full of misogyny, racism, and cultural appropriation. This does not mean I want Shakespeare cancelled. I am very happy for his writings to be studied as a point of academia, just not staged and presented as part of a canon. 

Secondly, to stage a Shakespearean play in modern times usually requires a lot of editing and 'adapting' to make it meaningful and link it in to current conversations. In my opinion as a playwright myself, I believe once you do this, you are not presenting Shakespeare's work at all. Instead you are passing off something you have plagiarised and selling it as an authentic product to get people to see the story you want to tell, but which you don't believe people would actually pay to see. You might be right, but that doesn't make it right.

Director Nicholas Opolski's Hamlet is surprisingly close to Shakespeare's original. Whilst there are probably edits all through the text (or perhaps not), the glaring removal is all reference to Fortinbras. It may have been deemed irrelevant but by removing it the logic of the play is damaged. The King (a wonderful video (Regan Wood) cameo by Opolski) died a month ago, yet all the young lads who came for the funeral are still here to see wooing and the wedding of Claudius (Anthony Edward) and Gertrude (Alayne Wright) rather than returning to their studies and other activities. Why? And the guards are tense and on watch. If this is a time of peace, why?

Regardless, young Hamlet's existential crisis is the meat of the play and Michael Fenemore does a good job with the complexities of the character even if he is too old for the role. Yes, I know, it has been done so many times before. In fact, it is rare for Hamlet to be cast age appropriately which is a shame because so much of what Hamlet is and does only makes sense if he is a rash, over-energised, over-sexed teenager with no life skills. It is also a whole lot of creepy when paired which whatever young innocent is cast as Ophelia (in this case, Charlee Liddell). You may just be starting to understand some of the problems of staging Shakespeare in modern times around about now ;)

This production of Hamlet has all of Hamlet's peers (except Laertes (Ryan Fahlbusch)) cast as sexy, long-legged, long-haired brunettes. This had the potential to be an act of genius, particularly with a younger Hamlet, but the restraint in this area leaves the show in a sadly PG state although it still does titillate the imagination. Two of my favourite performances in this Hamlet are from Liddell who creates her Ophelia with the lightest of brush strokes, and Claire Baldwin who is an energetic Horatio and a grumpy young Rosencrantz full of attitude.

My other favourite is Don Nicholson as Polonius. What a scurvy knave this ass is indeed! I would have liked a touch more oil in the performance but he balances between evil and comic very nicely indeed.

All of the mistrust, machinations, and bloodshed take place in a cold, concrete cemetery. These people are the ghosts of people long dead buried, told in the burial ground in which they have lain for centuries. The thrones and furnishings are tombstones in the mausoleum of treachery. Designer Leah Downey has created the world of this play with, again, the lightest of touches, but everything is exactly what it needs to be, and the cast manage the scene changes with no break in pace, keeping the world alive. I don't love the costumes as much, but there is a certain logic to most of them. I was not convinced by the Japanese flavour of Claudius' great coat or Gertrude's Kimono dressing gown.

The sound is minimal, but when it is used the compositional bites created by Fenemore and Chris Collins are powerful and raise the stakes every time. Liam Mitchison's lighting is literal, but creates great atmosphere in such a snow cold, white space. I mentioned the ghost of the King earlier, but it is worth saying I really love how this was done here.

There is so much to love in this production of Hamlet which continued to surprise me all the way through. I found that I did not mind sitting through over two and a half hours for this show at all. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes is well staged thanks to the help of fight director Lyndall Grant

The other thing I enjoyed was how much of the text was revealed, particularly in a space so inherently reverberative. I understood every word in every line except for Edwards. He needs to slow down and speak slightly softer. In this space over-projecting is the worst thing you can do to be heard. It had previously passed me by unnoticed that Shakespeare used the word 'goop' for example. 

It had also never before occurred to me to question who wrote the love-letter to Ophelia. I don't know if it was a deliberate intention by Opolski, but I got a thrill of surprise when the new idea occurred to me. I had several of these small little 'wait, what?' moments which are part of what made this production so enjoyable and intriguing to watch.

I suppose that one of the points of restaging shows is not only to let it reach new audiences, but also to perhaps reveal new nuances and unrealised ideas along the way. Most productions of Shakespeare tend to rest on tradition or gnaw away so roughly at the original there are not even all the bones left on the carcass. AVID Theatre's Hamlet has found a sweet spot between the two. If you must go and see a Shakespeare, this production of Hamlet is the one to go and see.

4 Stars

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