|Photo by Seiya Taguchi|
Commissioned by the Seymour Centre, the Sport For Jove Theatre under the direction of Damien Ryan have prepared and present a version of William Shakespeare's HAMLET with school audience's in mind. Mr Ryan has "...worked heavily in the Australian education sector, and bringing Shakespeare and theatre to young audiences is his life's passion." His production of ROMEO AND JULIET for Bell Shakespeare/ Sydney Opera House is at present on tour in Melbourne. His production of THE LIBERTINE at the Darlinghurst Theatre (2011), a triumph of theatre know-how.
In the York Theatre auditorium, that vast space of seating, on three sides of the stage, has been curtained off to attempt to create a more intimate atmosphere for the production. On the thrust stage space, a large variegated wooden "O" - made up of " 3,746 pieces of wood" (Set Design: Lucilla Smith), glowers in the hazed lighting (Lighting Design: Toby Knyvett). The acting company of nine, enter and begin: creating a cacophonic, incomprehensible flag swirling demonstration, dominated by hand held loud speaker NOISE, introducing us to a world of riot, or revolutionary chaos. Flags and smoke, NOISE. The staging impact is one of impression rather than of precision. The recent television images of the Arab Spring sprang to mind: Egypt and the fall of the Mubarak regime, in the city square, except here, the flags are different.
What followed next, was, in contrast, in theatrical scale, actors dressed in contemporary clothing, creating a world that is not so much of royal dimension but one of, perhaps, suburban domestic scale at, say, No.10 Downing Street in the informal family rooms - still, the centre of a kind of power - where at a kitchen dining table, the 'upstairs' family, Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet meet for breakfast, serviced by the 'downstairs' family, as maid, Ophelia; waiter, Laertes; and secretary, Polonius. Hamlet less than casually attired, slumps into the room. All of the participants attempt to ignore the antic disposition of the young Hamlet, as he sits in postured modes, exaggerated hands and fingers, inappropriately behaving and speaking at table, playing with the table wear. His dad is dead - odd, for he was in good health; his mother hastily remarried, to his uncle, Claudius - whore! ; and his Wittenberg Uni studies interrupted. So, his behaviour, maybe, acceptable, in the circumstances, eh?
Mr Ryan has up-dated his production into contemporary times and much is wittily flourished and accomplished for a young audience, with the use of allusions to contemporary spy equipment and the world of the Internet as a means of communication and information in this household of neurosis and sexual tensions and suspicions. The young audience love their cultural references, and are vastly titillated, when the Hamlet-celebrity comes and sits beside them in the audience to discuss, through shared soliloquy, his domestic and psychological predicaments.
Similarly, the central play-within-the-play, THE MURDER OF GONZALGO or THE MOUSETRAP, is most cleverly re-imagined by Mr Ryan in its presentation, where all the family are asked to perform the "doctored" text - a bit like family charades or a kind of karaoke, but, with a play text - Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius play tellingly, indeed. The power of the other worlds of the ghosts (HARRY POTTER and even TWILIGHT, make this a slam-dunk acceptance of reality for this generation audience, perhaps) and the 'magic' of the designated swordplay of the final act of the play are nicely balanced into a comfortable and never provocative scenario for the audience to have few qualms about accepting, a duel with swords and not guns?!!! It seemed that the audience I was seeing this performance with, probably studying the play text as part of their High School Certificate exams, was entirely engrossed and never de-railed from believing or accepting what they were offered. You can bring absolutely anything to the genius of Shakespeare and the play will light it up, far more than what you bring to illuminate the play.
The problem, of course, for the Sport For Jove Theatre is how do you reduce a four-and a-half-hour internationally acknowledged masterpiece (there are over 50 film versions of this play, originating from England to India to Ghana etc), into less than two hours ? What can William Shakespeare's HAMLET become when it is pre-scripted to be shown within those time boundaries? (It is rarely performed full length, by the way). What do we show in that time, that will facilitate a positive educational 'output' for these schools? What is the objective of the educational experience of studying HAMLET? I wonder. What do we have to keep? What has to go?
The results of such necessities of commercial or 'educational' demands we have witnessed in the Disney versions of say Victor Hugo's NOTRE-DAME OF PARIS, or, even recently, in Sydney, in the adaptation for the musical theatre, of Boris Pasternak's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO- a kind of dumbing down. The employment of contemporary writers of other writers famous titles and works: THE WILD DUCK, STRANGE INTERLUDE, for instance? Dumb-downs to numb-downs some may think. May provoke!! Has the Seymour Centre and Sport For Jove Theatre reduced the Shakespearean mighty energies, perforce of the contemporary corporation demands of education, and encouraged a battering and truncation of HAMLET to a slight caricature of itself? Sad, but, true? Is it true that something, however, is better than nothing? Some educators, even in the theatre institutions itself have come to regard the words on the page as "incidentals" to the creating of performance - not the labour of the writer as artist! A mere starting point! Even to education. Form (style) becoming more important than content. Staggering, really, when this blow torch of stupidity is applied to the Classical repertoire.
Sport For Jove have expertly summarised this play down to the main events of the story - all the famous bits occur - true, sometimes truncated, but still there - and the new circumstances, the settings, make it more or less accessible for the audience to comprehend. And, still, surrounding the events in this production, are most of the famous speeches or cleverly edited versions of them ("To be or not to be" etc. , still, is all there!) But what makes this play great are not the events but the philosophy that is fashioned by Shakespeare in a great language poem of debate and discussion. Has too much of the reason for why this play is still central to our cultural identity, despite recent tiresome academic argy-barging (i.e Harold Bloom's opening essay: Shakespeare's Universalities in "SHAKESPEARE. THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN"  ), been edited out?
I think so.
Although, I am not altogether certain.
For, for me, the biggest obstacle, to knowing this, was the performance of Lindsay Farris as Hamlet.The poetry of the play is jettisoned by this actor and substituted with emotional indulgences. Mr Farris has all the outward qualities to make a good Hamlet. He has presence, he has comprehensive intelligence, he has sensitivities and he has a voice. He has some sense of craft, of the instrument usage to achieve communication, of pitch, pace and volume variation and uses it (although his (ex)plosive "P's" seem to belong to an elocutionist rather than Hamlet - way, way way over the top). Despite all of these gifts, Mr Farris' inclination is to "feel" his way through the intellectual disquisitions of Hamlet reducing them to an incomprehensible, generalized animal howl. Where, Mr Farris ought to be applying his intelligence to 'think' his way through the disquisitions, to deliver to the audience the information in the line, as an expression of ideas and observations of what it is to be a human under duress, a Prince of Denmark as well, he growls and bellows (see photograph in program) with an obliterating whirlwind of emotion, the sense of the writing. Tearing a passion to tatters! - Instead of the famous quote "Words, words, words." this could read in this production/performance as "Noise, noise, noise."
Where is the wit of Hamlet, that in its marvellous cogitations is a perfect intelligence of much and many kinds of the humours of being a man? The laughter from this audience, in Mr Farris' performance, mostly came from broad physical comedy and audacious physical rudeness to the others, rather than in the intricate and thrilling illumination of the sophistication of the human mind that Shakespeare as written for him to elucidate for us. Mr Farris tends to display the resultant emotional state of the character rather than the reasons for it, provided in the writing. It is most 'robustious'. He asks us to sit back and admire his virtuosic emotional ranting rather than inviting us to the internalized puzzling searches for sanities and justifications of the great complicated travail of being consciously alive in this universe. For, "HAMLET (the play) is scarcely the revenge tragedy that it only pretends to be. It is, rather, theatre of the world ... Hamlet as written appears too immense a consciousness for HAMLET (the play), a revenge tragedy does not afford the scope for the leading Western representation of an intellectual," . This Hamlet by Mr Farris is just a revenge tragedy, he is a dwarf to Shakespeare's written giant. Mr Farris' Hamlet is that of a wounded emotional spoilt boy, who acts out, and causes the death of many others besides his own. His graveyard scene with the body of Ophelia an embarrassment of "(S)he does protest too much." That he ultimately, deliberately, murders in the final scene, in a frenzy of pique, is hardly less than expected. A bad tempered pique. A Gen Y Hamlet of entitlement to revenge for himself, his condition. It is a severe reduction of the greatness of the writing, and the character of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Hamlet has three times as many lines as any other character, even so, with this editing, probably, that would still be the mathematics, and, so, if the actor/Hamlet has lost verbal control and cat-a-whelped, caterwauled, the speaking of the text in shouts of emotional abuse, it is very difficult for the other actors to give good or sophisticated readings to their scenes. They must play with what is happening, and this Hamlet is crazed, indeed - pretending madness, at a heightened pitch. So, the usually reliable and often stellar Danielle King as Gertrude has some difficulty to bring any real sense or truth or point of view to the famous 'closet scene" with Hamlet. Her sonnet/grievance of Ophelia's death is lost, in the helter skelter about her. James Lugton as Claudius, also seems uneasy, and most unlike his usual clear and accurate self, during the course of the play. Even his 'prayer scene' a disjointed affair.
John Turnbull, who has little direct textual interaction with Mr Farris, gives the most interesting performance. Here, we have an actor wittily and insightfully reveal a true specimen of the human, bringing the light of his intelligence rather than the blare of his emotions to the revelations possible in the writing of Shakespeare. Mr Farris should take notes. Eloise Winestock brings some even keel to the usual thankless task of Ophelia, although, the famous 'mad scene with herbs' eluded her, as it does most others, I have seen, as well. Christopher Stalley, especially as Laertes, had a lofty quality of honour and goodness.
This production for schools is not bad. It just does not well serve the playwright and the reputation of this greatest of plays. The emotion of the play supersedes and dominates the intelligence, of this great text, and, unfortunately it is not enough to make it great.
It does, however, bring a young audience to the theatre. The audience I saw it with enjoyed themselves in a respectful composure of generalized awe and excitement. It just could just be more. A bigger experience. The time constriction is deleterious, we should give another hour to the text, for in the invention of the director there is real theatrical intelligence. At the moment, however, it manages to only bring illumination to the most rudimentary structures of the play within an accessible contemporary landscape. The poetry, the greater part of Shakespeare's achievement, is baffled.
I have seen many productions of HAMLET. It is the play, it is the role, that all aspire too. I recommend the Richard Burton performance (1964). The Russian Grigori Kozinstev (1964) Hamlet and the new and recent David Tennant version (2009) is also exciting. You can read my reaction to the Brendan Cowell performance for Bell Shakespeare or even, a performance by Mr Ryan himself, several years ago.
"There is no mystery in a looking glass until someone looks into it. Then, though it remains the same glass, it presents a different face to each man. who holds it in front of him. The same is true of a work of art. It has no proper existence as art until someone is reflected in it - and no two will ever be reflected in the same way. However much we all see in common in such a work, at the centre we behold a fragment of our own soul, and the greater the art the greater the fragment. HAMLET is perhaps the most convincing of this truth. ...HAMLET criticism seems destined, then, to go on being what it has always been: a sustained difference of opinion." – Harold C. Goddard 
See Diana Simmonds' review of the show in Stage Noise for another point of view,of this production, indeed, very different from my own.
Advice from Hamlet to certain players:
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue : but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do you saw the air too much with your hands, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul, to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow, tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who, for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise: I could have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor : suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end is, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as, 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and the body of the time his form and pressure. Now, this overdone or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must, in your allowance, o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, - and heard others praise, and that highly, - not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men, and not them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.All actors take note.
...And let those that play your clowns speak 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 villanous, and shows a most pitiable ambition in the fool that uses it."
- Harold Bloom, Shakespeare. The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, 1998.
- Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare. The University of Chicago Press, 1951.
- Norrie Epstein, The Friendly Shakespeare, Penguin Books, 1993.
- Ben Crystal, Shakespeare on Toast, Icon Books, 2008.
I'm glad you found so much to enjoy in this show. I found it amazing, and was fortunate to hear Damien Ryan speak over the weekend where he put forward some ideas about the play you might be interested in.
He talked about the Player’s speeches as being part of the core of the play - the recurring theme of revenging sons who are forced to pause. Hamlet, famously takes his time to avenge his father, Laertes jumps enthusiastically to revenge but is manipulated by Claudius to pause, Fortinbras waits 30 years to extact his revenge and Pyrrus avenges his father’s death by slaughtering the King of Illium after a momentary pause as a the fall of Troy’s famed walls ‘takes prisoner’ his ear.
That Hamlet specifically asks for this speech is important in showing his need for a model in acting out his revenge however he is, as usual, somewhat distracted by his obsession with the women in his life and after the Pyrrus story he asks for a story about a wife who demonstrates great grief at the death of her husband. The connection to Gertrude is pretty clear.
As for the ‘Who’s there’ scene it is still there – it’s after the opening speech by Claudius [moved and given a ‘who’s there’ line of it’s own] – The scene, like the rest of the play is pretty heavily edited.
And Kevin, perhaps you may be pleased to know that I think the ‘noise’ you experienced at opening has been dealt with. At least that’s my assumption I can’t reconcile your description with my experience of the play. So I guess Mr Ryan agreed with you on that one.
I also thought there was more nuance in the lead performance than either of you seem to imply, I guess that’s a matter of taste, but as you both acknowledge, the show is primarily focused on young people and the response from the students all three of us saw was wrapped attention and enthusiasm for the experience.
PS Ophelia – blew my mind. I thought she was devastatingly powerful in her mad scenes.
I am in absolute agreement with you on this. I was so impressed by Damien Ryan's production and direction of The Libertine last year that I wrote to the Herald, as its critic had failed to include it amongst the year's best, to say that it was the best production that I saw in 2011. A director needs to have command of the dramatic (in the text) as well as of the theatrical (in the production); Mr Ryan showed both - in spades, doubled - in that other production. But in this Hamlet he shows his interest in the theatrical, very much at the expense of the dramatic. It is an idiosyncratic cut: if you are going to cut almost half of the text, why include so much of the players and Hecuba? why? for the theatre of it, not its drama. And, though pleasingly inventive and enjoyable (as it often is not), it was a diversion.
This is without doubt an accomplished production, perhaps over-directed as to detailed business where one would have liked him to attend to the text, the characterization, the life of the drama (Eric Bentley's excellent phrase), the concerns of the piece. This is the second production of Hamlet in two years that cuts scene I/i to 'Who's there?'. This is to suggest that Shakespeare did not know what he was about: you cut the first scene of any of his plays at the peril of the whole. And Hamlet's scene i must be ranked one of the greatest first scenes ever written: I don't know of a greater. If, as some have argued, the play is about identity, I cannot agree - or at least agree to the centrality of that concept; it is, after all, not Hamlet's query. And to end the play with the echoing of 'Who's there?', is to twist in a cheap and rather ugly way what we are to take from the play. It is a 'clever' touch that does Mr Ryan no credit.
What I miss from most Australian productions of this and others of Shakespeare is the world of the play: the place of King, Prince, courtier, church, state. The play is called Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and should not be played round the kitchen table of the evening soap as if Hamlet, Neighbour. Of course the idea of kingship is at odds with our egalitarianism, but let us not bring him down to our size. The other thing I miss from most Australian productions is the speaking of the verse: not 'beautifully', as too many English actors do, merely making sounds, but both intelligently and intelligibly, on the one hand (as it was here, for the most part), and with an ear for its music and imagery, on the other (which, generally, as it was not). Shakespeare wrote prose when he wanted to (eg the speech to the players quoted in your review); his dramatic poetry is one of the flowers of our civilization. And it should seldom, if ever, be shouted; there is too much shouting in this production. Even on the opening night I feared that Mr Farris would lose his voice; I wonder how it is faring. He is certainly talented, but his voice needs training.
So this production - deft, engrossing (its audience on the opening night, mainly schoolchildren in parties, a notoriously difficult audience to play, was gripped and wonderfully attentive during the almost-two uninterrupted hours of the traffic), inventive as I have said, of a professional standard, and enjoyable as far as it went - was a disappointment to me, a considerable disappointment. I understand that Mr Ryan has abandoned the security of school-teaching for a riskier life in the theatre (a shift I made myself in my mid-30s, so I have some sympathy for him). I hope he does not think that, because the young Turks, the self-regarding German Expressionists, are breathing down his neck, that he has to 'do
something' with a play, has to put his stamp on it. As I said in my Herald letter, his production of The Libertine - while both remaining faithful to and illuminating the text - had his stamp all over it. It may be that Shakespeare is not his forte: on this showing, decidedly not, though I expect the production will be generally admired - if not by you and me. I should add that I heard very good things of his schools production of Romeo and Juliet for Bell, which I unfortunately did not see.
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