Theatre review: Hamlet
‘Complex’ is the most common description of Hamlet. And it is the best description of Simon Phillips’ splendid staging of the Shakespearen tragedy.
This sleek and beautiful production unfolds on a breath-taking and composite set in which Shaun Gurton uses an intertwining structure of stupendous glass walls that swerve and dis-join, slide and re-join to create manifold scenes and labyrinthine byways.
Glass as metaphor — see-through yet reflecting — fits the copious espionage and fascinating quality of endless mirroring famously intrinsic in the drama.
Nevertheless, Phillips’ conception is far from obscure or byzantine. While the decision to set his Hamlet in contemporary Denmark, complete with 21st century gizmos and designer furnishings (and clothes), no doubt makes this piece of high-brow theatre accessible, the actorly skills of the ensemble are what bring the story into focus and clarity.
The shape of the play vividly emerges as it follows Prince Hamlet’s (Ewen Leslie) quest to avenge his father’s death perpetrated — the ghost of the late King Hamlet tells him — by the Prince’s uncle, the late King’s brother, Claudius (John Adam), who has since usurped the throne and taken young Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude (Pamela Rabe), as his wife.
At the centre, Leslie gives a fine and moving reading of Hamlet. Opening with the renowned phrase of “To be, or not to be”, he wrestles with his vengeful mission and ruminates on the philosophy of death — suicidal death. Disillusioned by his mother’s infidelity, Hamlet turns cold towards Ophelia — the girl he loved — exhorting her to “Get thee to a nunnery”.
Phillips stages an electrifying play within the play: Nick Schlieper’s dazzling lights, Ian Macdonald’s thumping score, Esther Marie Hayes’ classy costumes and Andrew Hallsworth’s exquisite choreography combine in a stunning fireworks display of talent to enact a microcosmic tragedy.
Leslie illuminates Hamlet’s resolve to carry out his late father’s wishes: to seek revenge on Claudius but spare the Queen, for her conscience alone shall “prick and sting”. Shrugging off an easy prey that he would find in a praying Claudius — to deny him any chance of entry into heaven — Leslie is immensely earnest in imploring his character’s mother to “see the inmost part of you” and “throw away the worser part of it”.
While the production is efficient in highlighting the boundary between the dead and the living — officers’ astonishment at the ghostly sighting and Robert Menzies’ haunting portrayal of the sonorous apparition — it is Leslie’s stark fixation on an unseen being, triggering Rabe’s ghastly reaction, that is ultimately chilling.
Very rarely, Leslie seems susceptible to overplay. But his performance is striking in its emotional veracity. Excellent, too, are the performances of Grant Cartwright as Horatio, Tim Ross as Laertes, Garry McDonald as Polonius, Travis Cotton as Rosencrantz, Lachlan Woods as Guilderstern. And Eryn Jean Norvill’s Ophelia is ethereal throughout her dramatic journey. As Adam gives Claudius a treacherous charisma, Rabe leaves the audience debating about Gertrude’s morality.
The production spirals down to the final scene when revenge takes the lives of the seeker and the sought, as the seeker becomes the sought and the sought, the seeker.
Although Phillips has not shaded in the wider political narrative (involving Norway and Fortinbras), he demonstrates that political infighting is nothing but an internecine pursuit — a salutary lesson that ought to resonate from the boardroom to the bedroom.