Friday, July 18, 2008

Bell Shakespeare's Hamlet

Last night we went to see the Bell Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet at the Arts Centre Playhouse. It was excellent. And after more than a year of being mentally immersed in the play on paper (and on screen), it was a pretty mindblowing experience to see it done so well on stage. I can't stop thinking about it, weighing its interpretations against my own, and interrogating both the performance and, perhaps even more vigorously, my reactions to it.

It was a very intimate edit of the play. The political dimension (including Fortinbras, Laertes' rebellion etc) was almost entirely excised and there were no "lords attendant" except for Osric. It was confined to a tight family drama, but this was plumbed very deeply, and was extremely satisfying.

Even without the political dimension (which I love for its widening of the story and added layer of menace, and which I'm not cutting in my book), Colin Moody's Claudius was the consummate politician. He was brilliant. To my mind, he was the best character in this production - impressive without being bombastic, subtle and smooth and even likeable at first - comb-over, pot belly and all. This makes his evil side all the more chilling as it emerges. He made me think of a capable, clever, charismatic politician whom we trust, but whom we discover - to our distress - has been corrupt all along. I actually wanted him to be as good a man as he initially seemed to be. He was such a real human being, with such an apparent mix of good and bad, that I actually felt sorry for him during his "O my offence is rank" soliloquy. It was a revelation to me, as I tend to imagine the King as much more of a straight baddie, seeing him from the outset through Hamlet's eyes.

As much as I liked Claudius - and liked him against my will - it was pretty hard for me to like Brendan Cowell's Hamlet. And this was also very confronting, because I am quite in love with the character, and also because I identify with him very strongly. Paul Gross's character in Slings & Arrows fulfilled all my Hamlet needs by tapping into those two things perfectly! But Brendan Cowell played him as a very modern spoiled brat pop star type. His cadences of speech were interesting, often suggesting rap rhythms and inflections - a sneering hip hop performance poet - and he tossed them off with physical gestures that called to mind baggy jeans and gangsta attitude, though often this was ironic. I half expected him to jeeringly call Rosencrantz and Guildenstern his homeboys.

Because I am so engaged with Hamlet-the-man at the moment, I initially found it very hard to adjust to a playing of the role that was so vastly different to any of my own imaginings. I had to keep reminding myself that this Hamlet need not be anything like my idea of Hamlet to be a good Hamlet. But I sometimes found it hard to lose myself in Brendan Cowell's super-sarcastic irritating prince. I found him engaging and believable and very funny, and I really appreciated the innovative, interesting, varied, unpredictable and energetic take on the role. But I didn't feel that his woes were my woes. I wasn't entirely with him, as I wanted to be. But then there were some special moments where he hit notes which resonated wonderfully with me. This happened most strongly during the "What a piece of work is a man" speech. The notes played directly into my heart, and I loved it. This is probably my favourite speech of the play, and I'm hard to please on it because I have Withnail's bitter tirade of it so powerfully in my head. But I loved Brendan Cowell's playing of it.

One of my other favourite parts is the first soliloquy - "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt". I didn't love Cowell's interpretation of this, though. At the beginning of the play I felt he was at the height of his petulance and already a bit over-antic, and this turned me off. But I warmed up to him very much in the second soliloquy, and I thought he was absolutely terrific in the "get thee to a nunnery" scene - a great balance of love, regret, fury, scorn, disgust - wounded and wounding all at once. This is a scene that I know I will find tricky to pace and modulate in my book - it has a number of buildups and peaks and I imagine that it's a really hard scene to play well. But he pulled it off wonderfully.

I could go on and on: exploring the differences in interpretation was completely engrossing for me. But I'll limit myself to one more general observation about this Hamlet. As the duel played out and the end drew near, I found myself wondering if Fortinbras was going to appear at the end. I almost hoped not, because I thought that his line about Hamlet, that "had he been put on he would have proved most royal" would be a big fat lie. This Hamlet didn't ever, to my mind, show even a hint that given the chance he would have been a great king. I wouldn't have entrusted my house to him for the weekend, let alone the kingdom of Denmark! So in the end, when Fortinbras did appear and spoke the line, I was left with the feeling that some important notes really were missing in this rendering of Hamlet. I don't think he should be an ideal prince, but I think he needs a suggestion of honour and dignity and princely capability, even if does get all jangled out of tune and harsh.

Hamlet's interactions with other characters were extremely entertaining, especially the hilarious (and endearing!) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - the poor sods - played by Tim Richards and Matthew Whittet. And with Polonius, who was played with the most wonderful comedy - seemingly effortlessly - by Barry Otto. I started to beam every time he fired up - it was like getting a series of lovely surprise bowls of cherries in the middle of your meal!

I also loved the interaction between Hamlet and Gertrude. They didn't flog the whole Oedipal angle (what a relief), which makes it genuinely shocking when he pulls her legs apart and simulates raping her in the closet scene. I felt real revulsion in this scene - partly in sympathy with Hamlet and against Gertrude, but more in reaction to Hamlet and his ugly behaviour. The chemistry between them was excellent throughout the play and never overdone, and Gertrude had a terrific presence. She was a great complement to Claudius, and very subtly played. Marvin Rosenberg (author of the brilliant book The Masks of Hamlet) points out that Gertrude has very few lines in the play, and must use presence, gesture and physical expression to convey her character. I thought Heather Mitchell did this wonderfully. Not simpering or mentally weak, but kind and thoughtful and generous of spirit yet ultimately self-serving, self-justifying and flawed by a moral weakness.

By contrast, Ophelia (Laura Brent) was a rather pale presence. Big Squid, who had not seen the play before and knew the story only roughly, commented that she didn't have a very big part and asked if a lot of her scenes had been cut. But they hadn't - she just didn't impress as being very much there. This sidelining might have been intentional, but I like to think of Ophelia as a bit more central, being tugged in all directions by the men around her. In my book she is a "fuller" sort of character, wrestling with her own sexual desires and inhibitions. Instead of being so prim as to almost deny having a body, I see Ophelia as endowed with perky boobs and a round bottom, simultaneously pleased with her lovely young body and unsettled by all the attention it brings her, the desire it makes her feel and prohibitions and shame that attach to it. Even if Hamlet is 30, she is probably only about 16 in my mind, and subject to all its uncertainty and excitement. None of this was apparent to me in the buttoned-down Ophelia in this production - though there was some promising backchat in her dialogue with Laertes (I liked Laertes too) at the start, and her mad scene was good.

The Ghost, on the other hand, was very much there, though I did find it hard to get used to the fact that the characters who were meant to be transfixed by him didn't face him at all, but faced the audience instead. He was played with real scare-factor, like a decomposing zombie complete with horrible gumming mouth movements, by Russell Kiefel, who also played the Gravedigger and an Ambassador. And when he spoke to Hamlet, he was scary - not in a "whooooo! whoooo!" ghosty way either (none of the "wind in a chimney" that I've been aiming for), but with a harsh, loud, grating voice - with broad Aussie accent. Not only a ghost to fear, but a father to fear as well. There was even a touch of a certain law firm's Managing Partner caught in an angry moment! I had to fight the urge to stand up and cheer at the end of his speech. That was a real highlight of the play.

Another highlight was Horatio. He was perfect. Natural, intelligent, genuine, concerned, a deep thinker but sensible (not fussy) and loyal without being a "master's dog". He was a man you wanted to have as a friend. I did wonder why he was so attached to someone as relentless and annoying as Hamlet, but maybe Hamlet wasn't always like that. Maybe his "transformation" really was shocking and extreme, and back at Wittenberg he had some of Horatio's sense and sympathy and dignity. Or maybe Horatio is just a nicer, more tolerant and accepting person than I am!

All up - a wonderful production. I can't stop thinking about it. I give it loads and loads of stars!


Blair said...

Wonderful account of the production Nicki. I'm going on Tuesday (taking my Literature class), and I'm really looking forward to it. I'll be particularly interested in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as I'm teaching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead...

Nicki Greenberg said...

Ooh, I DEFINITELY want to chat with you about it once you've seen it so we can compare notes. R&G were just hysterical!

Greg G said...

How liked you the music?

Nicki Greenberg said...

The music was great, although during the play scene some of the instruments were so loud that you couldn't hear the words being sung, which was a shame.

Anonymous said...

Hello! I saw this last night and I loved it, it was absolutely brilliant. I couldn't really understand the singer however I did enjoy the melody. I agree I think Ophelia wasn't as out there as I imagined her to be and her part seemed very small when it was actually very important.

fabulous heretic said...

Your review was almost as long as the play!

Gordon said...

Yes. I saw that You-Know-Who who reviews for the Age went to see it and had similar-ish (but more waspish) things to say about Brendan Cowell as Hamlet.

Nicki Greenberg said...

Yes - and I must say I agreed with much of his assessment of Cowell's Hamlet, though I didn't agree at all with his views about R&G. And he didn't even MENTION Claudius! I was willing to give Brendan Cowell a bit more of the benefit of the doubt, despite my own misgivings, but ultimately I agree that some really important elements of Hamlet were missing. Super production though!!

Blair said...

I wrote down my thoughts on the play here:

I'm more negative than you are, Nicki, mainly on the Cowell issue, even though I enjoyed a lot of aspects of the play.

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