Sunday, June 29, 2008


HAMLET presented by Bell Shakespeare at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre.

There will be quite a disquisition to follow, so stirred am I. But for those with a short concentration span or otherwise let me be brief. (“Brevity is the soul of wit”.) This production of HAMLET is a failure. A failure on almost on all counts. *(Well, not quite all.)

To quote a program note HAMLET “is arguably the greatest tragedy in the English language”, ”a masterpiece”. It maybe the pinnacle of English playwriting. It may be the greatest “poem” written in English. It presents for all the artists who collaborate on it, perhaps, the artistic equivalent of the feat of scaling Mount Everest. One needs to be prepared. One needs to be primed. One needs to be fit in every capacity as an artist. The Ballet World have SWAN LAKE to take the measure of all its artists. The Opera World may have Verdi’s DON CARLOS or Wagner’s DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN. The Symphonic Orchestra Beethoven’s NINTH SYMPHONY. A Company’s standing is measured by its achievement in the venture. So for the theatre stands HAMLET.

I felt that one artist in this Bell production met the requirements. Nick Schlieper. The lighting Design is peerless in its deployment and look. An artist of great skill and experience brings inspiration to the task of elucidating the play.

Secondarily, the Set Design (Fiona Crombie). On entering the theatre the set is visible and it prepared me to anticipate a great event. A huge open space surrounded by vast, tall grey walls. On one side a great outdoor crypt that is despoiled by leaking water that collected in a long rectangular trough. Another wall where the arches have been boarded up with long red-brown horizontal boards. The gaps between the horizontals allowing us to see narrowly through to the space behind, as if repairs or alterations had been begun then forgotten, neglected. A detailed tiled floor, once beautiful now worn. Decay and neglect. A long black metalled spiral staircase curls down from the height of the building, off centre in the space. Is this world off centre, and spiraling out of kilter? “There is something rotten in the State of Denmark” and it is elegantly made visible. The Furniture in the space is deliberately incongruous: an off cream armoire (later positioned to be used as the killing cupboard for the hidden Polonius): a glass case holding the sword armoury of the house, paltry in scale (it too is brought into the action). Chairs and tables are carried on and off. The Set is magnificent in creating atmosphere and atmospherics. However the Costume design (again Fiona Crombie) is relatively sparse and simplistic in its decisions. It seems one costume per character is the rule. It is pathetically strange to have Gertrude whether at a wedding celebration, in bed or at a funeral to be permanently in the same piece of clothing. Beautiful as it may be, it just has too many demands being made of it. Clearly this Elsinore is not only decaying it is broke. The Queen has no wardrobe. I can see no artistic reason for this choice. I guess there may have been a budgetary reason. So, maybe the Set Budget could have had trimming to assist the costume department? The other costumes are quasi contemporary and are suitable, just unimaginative and the decisions seem to be based on mostly pragmatic reasons rather than detailed consideration. A flaw, in respect to this work??

Next the Company has invited Sarah Blasko, an Aria winner (2006) for Best Pop Release, to write the score for this production. It is wonderfully ethereal and effective. The text of the songs are, however, just blurred vowel sounds with no consonant usage to help us hear words (if that is what was happening). Not once did the sung score elucidate its presence even with the assistance of a microphone. Style over substance. To have Sarah Blasko live on stage undoubtedly may have some “street cred“ for a young audience and may actually help the sale of some seats but it is hardly a useful tool for the play. Marketing over-riding artistic clarity??? A strange choice. It fails the project.

There is not one actor in this production that I think meets the challenge of this work either in readiness or execution. An exception may be young Laura Brent, a fledgling in the profession (playing her second professional engagement). There is integrity in her work and her short aria ”O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” is engagingly done. Her mad sequences later in the play enthrallingly and inventively played. (The musicality and clarity of her singing more interesting for an audience than Sarah Blasko’s.) (Placing her at the back of that deep setting was no help on the part of the Director. I was sitting close, whether the audience at the back could hear it at all is not guaranteed.

Most of the Company are trained actors from well established schools. Some recently, some eons ago. But the vocal preparation for this task is not very evident. Now, in the Australian context, an actor is lucky to work on stage once a year and even more remotely to work consistently on texts of such demand. However, I believe it is partly the responsibility of the actor to keep that instrument in a prepared state. After all, these actors have been chosen by the Company because the Director believed that they had the skills of actors. That they could manage the requirements of the task. There is not a single voice of any musical flexibility (bar one) present on this stage. The responsibility of the contemporary actor who decides to work within this area of the theatre is to tell the story well, create memorable characters from the source material and, heavy though it be, to pass on the heritage of the English language to the next generation. The poetic structure and beauty of the musical construction of the sounds of English in the hands of a master poet: Shakespeare. It is the actor’s task. It is the Contemporary Actor’s responsibility.

The audience should have been breathless with the ordered revelation of the events in the play (no matter how many times they may have seen it) and exhilarated to see such people alive and expressive on stage struggling with their fates (with our fates for this play “was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature”) and finally to be enthralled by the richness and beauty of our own tongue/language. This barely happens in this production and only possibly because we had been primed in the study in the classroom or in our homes in anticipation of the witnessing of the Bell Production. Pity any who entered the experience without prior knowledge.

Presumably the Director, Marion Potts, has the actors she thought were best for the purpose. There is a voice coach (Carman Lysiak) credited but what was the Voice preparation? Let alone the speech work? Is the Coach full time? Is there time set aside for such work in the rehearsal? Once again our Companies seem to be niggardly in vital areas of their responsibilities (see my review of the STC’S: THE GREAT). For these instruments are not up to the skill demands required to do this job well. Here Marion Potts and the producing Company Bell Shakespeare need to take some care. It is as if Swan Lake were been performed by unprepared dancers.

Claudius (Colin Moody) appears as a bloated murderer/usurper with an unfitness magnified by a voice usage that is pinched and squeezed into a high baritone/low tenor register with little expressive range. The intelligence of the reading is hampered by the relative lack of vocal colour. Some times it seems to run out of breath support. Gertrude (Heather Mitchell) lacks vocal clarity and in her only aria/speech, “There is a willow grows askant the brook.” is barely audible. The Ghost (Russell Kiefel) uses a robotic Dalek (Dr Who) quality that seems strained in communication. Polonius (Barry Otto) sings his text within a fairly mannered repertoire of range. Chris Ryan, Joe Manning, Tim Richards, Matthew Whittet, Darren Weller and Paul Reichstein are similarly, generally careless about the rigour of skill necessary to do justice to this play. There is intelligent clarity of most of the speeches but it is often achieved by reducing the verse to prose abandoning the verse structure altogether. It appears that this is a skill too demanding to be attempted. Robbing Shakespeare of one of his great distinguishing gifts as a playwright. It is a bit like singing a Verdi score with fewer length of notes and to your own tune because of a lack of ability. The demands of the play reduced to the habits and restraints of the “creatives”.

Now we must come to Brendan Cowell’s performance of Hamlet. At the performance I attended Hamlet made an appearance that was startling for its physical energy. Any misgivings that I may have brought to the performance were unexpectedly swept away. I was in a palpable state of aesthetic arrest.This physically loose, unbridled mess of a boy with a shambolic look, it seemed already considerably deranged, charismatically took charge of the stage. Petulantly, whilst sitting on the stairs he demanded attention by deshoeing and throwing them to the ground. Naughty. Here was a naughty boy. Where was Mr Cowell and Ms Potts going to take us? Not far I’m afraid. The rest of the performance stayed in much the same physical place ignoring Hamlet’s own advice to the Players “Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand…” and further on “And let those that play your clowns speak (and in this case DO) no more than is set down for them--for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, THOUGH IN THE MEANTIME SOME NECESSARY QUESTION OF THE PLAY BE THEN TO BE CONSIDERED. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.” The deshoeing and dropping of the boot is just a naughty physical distraction and not an audacious character expression because it comes from a need to pull focus, to stress the action that vocally he is not able to deliver. There is some real visible effort from this actor as he strives for articular accuracy but his vocal quality is injured even from the first. Vocal registers, strings are missing in this actor’s equipment. Seemingly to compensate he uses volume. This use of energy was quite beguiling for a while but by the second act it was wearing thin and by interval it was as if you have been struck over and over again with the relentless violence of volume. A volume of noiseful effort. Now, there is sense in the line delivery for the most part but once again at the expense of the verse structure. Here is “a ROARING BOY” reducing the role to himself, hardly the Renaissance Prince that is written on the page and that we wait for great actors to expand into. Tragically the second half of the play on the night I saw it was marred by an actor under great vocal duress and it was impossible not to empathise for the actor and fear for what permanent damage he may be doing and anything that Hamlet may be doing or the play telling us is lost. The Gertrude Closet scene is a rabble of half vocalised noise. Heather Mitchell has nothing to build from; the return from England; the Yorick speeches; the Ophelia grief lost. It is quite a considerable relief when finally Hamlet utters “The rest is silence. “

The director Marion Potts in a recent magazine article tells us why she cast Brendan Cowell: “There’s a sense of danger about him; he is very smart; I think it is a combination of being quite brave as an actor, but also quite sensitive. It means he’s not at all afraid of locking horns with some of the deeper emotions that Hamlet has to grapple with.” Now I would say based on the performance I attended that all this is true. But the next question Ms Potts should have asked is “Does he have the technical capacity to express all of those things night after night for a very long season in Sydney and Melbourne?” Based on my observation I would have to say “No, he does not. Why then did the Director and the Bell Shakespeare Company then take this risk? Is it based on the commercial cred that the Celebrity /Arts journalists have given Brendan Cowell“ BRENDAN COWELL ON BOOZE, BAD BEHAVIOUR AND LIFE IN THE SPOTLIGHT” ?? Here is an actor of some credibility but also a marketable, attractive package. In all the publicity material, and there has been three long and extensive articles in the last month just in the Sydney Morning Herald (even spin doctoring that ‘BRENDAN COWELL is a MAN FOR ALL SEASONS”.) the Bell Company has certainly got, as they say in the business, Bang for their Buck. But in all three articles in the Herald the journalists have all stressed that Mr Cowell has had no training and had never even played in Shakespeare before. Just why did the Bell Company feel that this was a good choice for the leading Shakespeare Company to take such a great risk? His first Shakespeare is HAMLET for the Bell Shakespeare Company!!!!! To risk it’s innate artistic mission in giving Australia the best Hamlet of our generation. The risk was taken but many people were surprised and hoped for the best. Marion Potts is finally responsible for this casting that the ability to cast well is the great gift of the good director.

Why did Brendan Cowell take such a risk? Certainly it would be a great temptation to be offered HAMLET at the Bell Company. Bur Mr Cowell has intelligence and a sense of possibilities. His sensitivity has raged against what he has thought was mediocre in the theatre industry. Hamlet is like running the Marathon at the Olympics. Did he really think that the physical and vocal training of 5 months would be enough? Brendan Cowell in one article was associated with the Hamlets of Gielgud, Olivier and Burton!!! Now this was not Mr Cowells’ doing but expectations are made to be high when ranked with such actors. And comparisons can be odious. Bravo for trying but some better consideration should have been made. Yes, I agree with Mr Cowell in the Herald (May 24-25), you can act. But within your range. LOVE MY WAY. NOISE.

What other contribution has Marion Potts made to this production? There is a palpable presence of expectancy about the atmospheres of her work with the Designers. But I simply do not know what Ms Potts and her Hamlet were trying to do with interpretation of the text. We have all seen many, many Hamlets and we go again to see what the steering artists have to say for our times. In this case there is no clarity of purpose. We have not been lucky with our Hamlets in Sydney. Now with our Hedda Gabler’s we have had much to debate. At least Glenda Jackson, Judy Davis and Cate Blanchett. Each a Hedda to be reckoned with. Now those were artistic adventures. An event of import and much discussion with Actors that were up to the challenge. In fact don’t you think that if you want Bang for Buck commercially that the casting of Ms Davis or Ms Blanchett as Hamlet might be worth a risk?

In the interval I was talking to seasoned front of House Staff at the Drama Theatre. Their well seasoned advice was for the Bell Company to keep this production but recast Leon Ford. He was a great Hamlet in a not so good production for Bell, so they said. Maybe he is the understudy the company may need.

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Now playing until July 12
Bookings through
Sydney Opera House: (61 2) 9250 7777

Melbourne season at The Playhouse, The Arts Centre
Jul 16-Aug 2, 2008
Bookings through
Ticketmaster: 136100

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What do you mean by 'we haven't been lucky with our Hamlet's in Sydney'? Did you not appreciate the Roxburgh and Sims Hamlets? What didn't you like about them?