Bell Shakespeare present HAMLET by William Shakespeare, in the Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera House, 27 October - 5 December.
Belvoir Theatre gave Sydney its last Hamlet in Toby Schmitz, under the Direction of Simon Stone - 2013. Bell has given many Hamlets, the biggest offer being that of Brendan Cowell with Marion Potts steering the task, in a lavish production in the much larger Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House (SOH) - 2008. This production is another Bell Shakespeare offer with Josh McConville, directed by Damien Ryan, this being the Director, Mr Ryan's second offer to Sydney, having given guidance to Lindsay Farris in his SPORT FOR JOVE production for schools in 2012.
This production is playing in Sydney after a six month National Tour, showing in some 30 theatres (but not in Brisbane or Adelaide!). What we see on the Playhouse stage is a company of 10 actors owning well the play, delivering an edited version - approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, including a 20 minute interval - with clarity and great self-confidence, if not a tad too comfortably - the evenness of the playing, at this performance, from all, is such that other than Hamlet himself no-one truly 'pops' out of the well-honed ensemble to grip one's empathies.
The Design of the production by Alicia Clements is, then, perforce a design that must accommodate this massive tour for many venues and their spaces, and to be able to be erected swiftly and economically. Too, the Lighting Design by Matt Cox needs to be flexible and specialised. Both these artists have achieved that purpose. The Design has a glassed room of some 'antique'-golden provenance, into which we can see other rooms and activities - so surveillance is easily possible. In this production every conversation is recorded and stored under the auspices of the King's man, Polonius (Philip Dodd). Essentially, though, the play is thrust onto the apron edge of the stage and holds, in that shallow space, most of the action of the play, including a quite vivid rapier and dagger fight to conclude the story (Fight and Movement Director and Assistant Director, Nigel Poulton.) The Costume Design, also by Ms Clements is a visual mix of contemporary without too specific a time note - it works well.
This HAMLET is driven by the mercurial energy and intensity of Josh McConville, one of the young actors in Sydney hewing a niche in the audience's experience of an artist of an awe inspiring versatility: CYRANO DE BERGERAC, NOISES OFF, IN THE NEXT ROOM, THE BOYS, THE CALL.
Says Harold C. Goddard, a Shakespearean scholar:
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 as 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 possibly the most convincing example in existence of this truth. We can see the proof of this when one looks at the many records we have of past Hamlet's: from the legendary, of modern times, Gielgud, Olivier, Smoktunovsky, Burton, Branagh, David Tennant and, the one I most yearn to see Maxine Peake's - one does wish that one had seen a Hamlet from Judy Davis.
Every actor tackling this role, for it is so vast a task with so many facets of what it is to be a human, must reveal from within himself, his key identification of the personalised character, his own inner nature as well as the 'civilised' masks that he uses to survive in his times. Mr McConville shows us at first, a young man, a son, in a mournful dress of demoralised grief-shock at the death of his father and his mother's - Gertrude's (Doris Younane) - swift marriage to his uncle Claudius (Sean O'Shea) simmering with an anger of disbelief. Only, then, to be projected into a rage of managed madness, learning from his father's ghost of regicide, fratricide as being the well spring of these events, not the natural course of nature. Revengeful Rage directs every action and speech of this performance in guileful coverings of passion. Persistently, it glowers, internally, with fires of destruction with little relief of that 'tone' other than the gradual growing intensity of its manic direction - and it is a perceptible rise in temperature of the 'heat' graph that Mr McConville draws and delivers for us to read and experience. The arguments of the great speeches, the interactions between others, in this Hamlet's world, is barely tempered from one to the other under this mask (true or otherwise) of a madness.
It was of some interest to see the following weekend, the National Theatre Live broadcast of its recent production of HAMLET and watch Benedict Cumberbatch, too, carry, reveal himself in the container of the possibilities of Shakespeare's writing - this production plays for some 3 hours and 20 minutes, with a 20 minute interval, and so it has a little more range of opportunity than the Bell Shakespeare cutting. Interestingly, the rage of Cumberbatch (a contemporaneous rage) too, argues its way through the text, but with more pulling-off and putting-on of the mask of madness, to reveal a sophistication of thought and action - subtle shifts of thought and breath that permits the audience to enter Hamlet's dilemma more regularly and more easily - we come to share, more empathetically Hamlet's plight. There are thus some opportunities to see below Cumberbatch's actions, to see the dilemma of the human inside him, more than in Mr McConville's pell mell of volcanic colouring. However, the significant difference is the use of the Shakespearean poetry by Mr Cumberbatch who takes much care in his 'verse speaking' to achieve in speech the wit, the philosophy, of the man. We see the Wittenberg scholar as well as the athlete more, most clearly. Both men, McConville and Cumberbatch, reflect the rage of 'youth' but only one uses, fully, the possible potential of the language to reveal facets of the human animal in extremis.
I do believe the responsibility of the creative team in any production, to an audience, and especially from the ACTOR, no matter the Director's (auteur!) 'bent', is to create a CHARACTER, to tell the STORY, and reveal the LANGUAGE and its effects. The audience ought to have a sense of the 'beauty' of the vocabulary (in the broadest possible sense) and the'musical' thrill of the writer's language and it's constructed 'poetic' usage. It is that, in my estimation, that demarcates the great playwrights from the lesser writers, their ability to make their prose - what sounds and appears as naturalistic conversation - into 'poetry', into 'music' e.g. Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, David Hare, Andrew Bovell, Lachlan Philpott, to name a few of our regularly seen writers. Shaw and definitely Shakespeare - two writers that are often present in the Sydney repertory - require it for the complete pleasure of their plays (playing) to be elucidated.
Alas, to my ear, it is rarely produced on our Sydney stages by our actors - and it is not just voice skills - the technique of voice production, that I am regarding - it is, also, more importantly, the speech skills. This is surely why they call themselves part of the Acting Profession - profession, they are paid for their skills, yes? - that they have Craft Skills, that they can in a 'second nature'-embodied memory fitness utilise - and if playing for BELL SHAKESPEARE (or any other Professional theatre company in Sydney) - at a very high order, not just that of a backyard fantasist: in their dreams and aspirations. It is the ACTOR's responsibility to keep the Instrument Prepared for Practise, so that the intuition and interrogation of the 'play' script - theatre or television/film/radio - can be imaginatively and remarkably revealed reliably. "10% inspiration, 90% perspiration". Is that an Olivier quotation? 'Genius' plus hard work. It is the Actor's responsibility, whether the Director is asking for it or not. Most Directors don't know, what to ask for (or know how to ask for it, if they do), but have believed that you know your responsibilities and has cast you because he believes you can deliver with ease - as much as he expects that his Lighting Designer knows more than how to flick the switch on, to get electricity, to illuminate the production, the play.
The compare between the National Theatre Live broadcasts - and they are not just National Theatre productions - and what we hear in Sydney is startling and a cause of 'despair', for me. It is what an artist such as Audra McDonald illustrated for us, immaculately, a few weeks ago in her Broadway Concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra - her ability to create a character, tell a story and reveal the glories of the language of her lyricists, with apparently effortless ease.
Undoubtedly, the clarity of the Bell Shakespeare HAMLET is in the delivery of a sense of the 'events' of the play but there is little pleasure of the use of the language in a word by word construct of rhythm and the other rhetorical devices used by the writer, for the arguments of the speeches that the characters, through the writer's work, are utilising to achieve their needs, objectives, in pursuance of their 'story', and tell us who they are. The contrast between Mr McConville's and Mr Cumberbatch's solutions and techniques are easily heard. For me, both are equal in personalised identification with the role and in their preparedness to reveal themSELVES, in Shakespeare's challenge of playing Hamlet, but only one of them uses their vocal instrument with thought filled choices to communicate, culturally, to their audience with real versatility. Cumberbatch, Mark Rylance, Audra McDonald do. The Australian artists that do? Ah, yes, Judy Davis, watch and listen to her work in THE DRESSMAKER; Essie Davis in THE BABADOOK. And on stage? .... perhaps, John Bell - his Falstaff and the recent Shablesky In IVANOV triumphs of technical skill.
It is distressing to watch, and worse, hear, Matilda Ridgeway 'mangle' her text as Ophelia during and after her interview with Hamlet, (Act III Sc I - concluding with the famous "O, what a noble mind is here overthrown ...") obscuring the sense of it, the poetry of it, with a 'robustious passion' that tears the clarity of what she is saying with emotional overplaying, her 'very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say the whirlwind of passion' never finding the 'temperance that may give it smoothness' of intelligible hearing - she manages to give us only a 'gist' of the word's sensitivities - with no reveal of the beauty of the 'sonnet'-language being explicated - and we are, instead, shown what to watch, emotional (snotty) externalisations, merely, accompanied by sound blurrings of language. If some some judicious vocal 'choice' had been employed it would have allowed us to endow her Ophelia imaginatively with her dilemmas - in other words, by not demonstrating her emotional insights but revealing through her comprehension and usage of the language, Ophelia's state. And her performance becomes more confounding, for in the later famous 'mad scene', Ms Ridgeway employs restraint of emotional outpouring and gives a fairly moving rendition of a notoriously difficult section of the play. It is as if she had been saving her 'disciplines' for this Big episode rather than employing them throughout the 'plotting' of her character's whole journey.
As to my perceived 'evenness' of the playing by most of the rest of the company, it seemed to me that after such a long time playing over this incredibly demanding tour, that they have a, relative, comfort of what they are saying and doing, and lack the urgency of real life consequences, of the 'in the moment', telling. The truthfulness of the final speech from Claudius in the Prayer scene was the tenor of the playing on the night I attended: "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: words without thoughts never to heaven go." Words without urgent thoughts will never command our attention with a heaven-felt belief - one sat back and watched, progressively, deeper and further back, the familiar story unreel in the Playhouse in the SOH. This was in a palpable contrast to the viewing of the National Theatre Live performance, the week following in a cinema! Sydney Theatre productions can now be appreciated actively alongside the International best, almost on a bi-weekly schedule. The Bell performances that were an exception to this general observation was the moving portrait of Horatio, by Ivan Donato, and the clarity of action and text by Michael Wahr in his work on Laertes and his Guildenstern.
This Bell Shakespeare HAMLET is a generalised success of clarity within the limits of the requirements of a touring company for the Arts in this country. For instance, imagine the olympian fitness that Mr McConville must deliver in just sheer physical/technical demands to play Hamlet, sometimes 8 times a week for 6 months, that BELL has made of him! For, although the lines vary with each production, Hamlet has more lines than any other Shakespearean character: "Hamlet, 1,530; Claudius, 524; Polonius, 338; Horatio, 265; Laertes, 185".  A Gold Medal for Josh McConville should be struck! 1. for Artistic Achievement, and 2. for Olympian Endurance. His work load has been heroic.
The contrast of resources, observable, between the Bell Shakespeare and the National Theatre, for their productions of Shakespeare's HAMLET, is a clarifying lesson as to the relative values that the Australian culture and its leaders place on the Arts. Mr Baird, the Premier of NSW, presents us with the option for another Sports Stadium in Sydney - despite the commitments and deliveries we made for the Olympic Games stadiums in 2000 - and so, is yet, another reason for one to despair. As Art's Funding and/or the paucity of it from Government policy is a topic of much concern, as usual, today, it is clear that the Sports Voter is a more important and influential one over and above the Arts Voter, that statistically has, continually, made a very large contribution to the working of this city, state, country, and not just in terms of 'filthy lucre' but in a healthy Social Capital outcome.
How could BELL SHAKESPEARE or the SPORT FOR JOVE company, or any of our other Arts' Companies/Institutions benefit with the Premier's 'sportsman's' concerns been focused on their Cultural efforts and needs with a more visionary and responsible support? I guess fear and ridicule from the tabloid press or 'shock jocks' is still a great barrier to winning an election - remember those recurrent headlines and hullabaloos throughout the 1960's-70's about the construction of that Big White Elephant down on Bennelong Point? I DO! Or about Gough Whitlam's Federal Government purchase of Jackson Pollock's white elephant known as BLUE POLES? I DO!
On the other hand, I cannot recall a protest of the funding of the Sports Institute in Canberra to individual athletes to compete in the Commonwealth or Olympic Games, can you? Nor any inquiry as to why we have not much succeeded? Oops, forgot about the other international cheats! That's why, I suppose? I, suppose. Oh, well, I'm just 'pissin' in the wind, as usual. Oi, Oi, Oi!
"When such a spacious mirror's set before him
He needs must see himself." - Antony and Cleopatra.
So shall we all, the whole nation, in times to come, I guess. Where is the vision of a Premier Cahill? Without him, no Sydney Opera House, would have been built. Imagine, Sydney without this International Architectural Icon! Even - ever - more, a culture poor, Provincial Capitol of the world. 'Build it and they will come', and they are, from all over the world (Cameras at the go!) - it's just that there is nothing of real CONSISTENT quality to fill its Halls/Theatres - SSO and ACO, excuse me, and, oh, I forgot, the SOH's sponsored vaudeville/burlesque/circus shows are doing ok. I reckon, just a little more consistent muscular nudity/sex appeal, please. Pretty please, or we won't go again. "Does Hamlet have any nudity?" Hmmmm!
- Harold C. Goddard, 1951, THE MEANING OF SHAKESPEARE, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.
- Norrie epstein, 1993, FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE, Penguin Books USA Inc. A Winokur/Boates Book.