Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 27 – Dec 6, 2015
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Philip Dodd, Ivan Donato, Robin Goldsworthy, Josh McConville, Julia Ohannessian, Sean O’Shea, Matilda Ridgway, Catherine Terracini, Michael Wahr, Doris Younane
Images by Daniel Boud
Director Damien Ryan’s rendition of Hamlet takes place in mid-20th century Denmark, with surveillance technology, airport last call announcements, and broadcasts of royal weddings. The prince is deeply upset by the death of his father, and by his mother’s very quick remarriage, but within this modern context, his very well known nervous breakdown seems to also involve the pressures of nobility as we understand them today. Our memory of Diana, Princess of Wales persevere, and the way she had been spoken off as having gone out of control, serves as a parallel to this Hamlet.
Ryan’s ideas are refreshing and plentiful. They can be meaningful, or merely ornamental, but his work is invariably engaging. In our age of collective attention deficit disorder, the production’s ability to retain our interest for over 3 hours is remarkable. Every scene is energetic, whether poignant, comedic, or transitory, Ryan finds a way to deliver entertainment and a quality of intrigue regardless of the text’s intentions. This is excellent directing, that has given rise to a show that can captivate even the most cursory of Shakespeare’s fans. Visual design contributes significantly to its pleasures. Alicia Clements’ versatile set produces dimensions on the stage with minimal fuss, and lighting designer Matt Cox’s nightmarish atmosphere administers a mesmerising effect that takes charge of our gaze.
In its efforts at bringing a newness to Hamlet, it might be argued that some dramatic tensions are unfortunately lost from the plot. The significant subdual of King Claudius’ villainy, along with the decision to play Queen Gertrude as an innocent, might be politically correct moves, but they take away from the power struggles that provide a certain spiciness to the admittedly clichéd foundations, especially in its first half. Nevertheless, the sophisticated and measured performances of the entire cast are enjoyable, and thankfully, easy to follow.
Josh McConville’s interpretation of the title role is a dynamically ranging one that exhibits a daring freedom eager to explore and experiment. McConville is powerful with all that he presents, playing comedy and tragedy equally well, but the distinction between both can appear too drastic. We understand the subject of madness involved, but it is debatable whether consistency of character can be improved in his expression of Hamlet’s state of mind. Ophelia is played by Matilda Ridgway, who shakes off the personality’s obligatory tweeness over the course of the play and puts on an impressive display of sorrow and rage in her concluding moments, for some of the most passionate and compelling scenes of the production. Philip Dodd is memorable and disarmingly funny in his parts as Polonius and Gravedigger. The actor’s confident and nuanced comic timing is a necessary element that helps with the show’s buoyancy, effectively preventing any monotony from setting in.
Revenge speaks to our base desires. A hallmark of advanced societies is the rejection of capital punishment, yet stories about vengeance resonate with no trouble at all. In Hamlet, revenge is a cancer that destroys from within. Its effects are contrary to the emotions that guide it. When enacted, the only ones who win are those from the outside, uninvolved in the eye for eye narrative. It is a profound lesson, one that is deeply, and appropriately for this text, Christian. To forgive and forget is an ideal that is unthinkable for many, but probably the only alternative to our prince’s tragic demise.