BWW REVIEW: Revenge, Deception, And Self-Centered Ambitions Circle In The Snow Of Denmark In Bell Shakespeare's HAMLET
Wednesday 4th March 2020, 7:30pm, Playhouse Sydney Opera House
Director Peter Evans seeks to create an interpretation of William Shakespeare's HAMLET for a modern world to start Bell Shakespeare's 2020 season. In a society where personal objectives over a greater good and care for others seems to prevailing, a story of personal revenge plots taking precedence over the state of a country seems somewhat fitting but any other intention to give the work a new spin seems to be lost.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, most commonly known as HAMLET is one of Shakespeare's most popular works and the story, and many people will know at least something of the story of grief stricken Prince Hamlet's visitations from the murdered monarch who wants his son to avenge his death. The fictional tale based on Scandinavian legend weaves power plays, love, loyalty, deception, family, and friendship with mental health and murder plots in the royal household while the rule of a country seems to be left forgotten.
Evans has chosen to have Harriet Gordon-Anderson take on the Prince of the Danes but instead gender swapping the role and turning Hamlet into a Princess, he has opted to have Gordon-Anderson present the work as a 'pants role' similar to the previous Bell Shakespeare treatment of RICHARD III in 2017. Given HAMLET, as with many of Shakespeare's works, is male heavy in its character list, Evans has also opted to have Jane Mahady present the roles of Guildenstern, Reynaldo and Barnardo and Aanisa Vylet present the Player Queen, Second Gravedigger and Osric.
Designer Anna Tregloan connects the work to its Danish setting with a Trompe-l'œil backdrop of a pine forest and a blindingly white sky leading down to a white carpeted stage to represent the snow that has also fallen on the trees and persistently falls throughout the production as if someone wanted to make sure they've definitely got their money's worth out of the snow machines. A basic house shaped metal prism dominates the center of the stage with an assortment of mid-20th century Danish furniture within the 'walls' of the 'building'. Along with the furniture, the costuming, particularly Gertrude and Ophelia's dresses help anchor the work in the early 1960's. The design feels odd with the building frame soon becoming redundant as its boundaries are ignored and characters wander in and out of the 'room' and snow falls into the space. A small raised walk at the rear of the stage feels like an afterthought, as if there was a last-minute desire for vertical variety that needed to be accommodated. When backed by such a light background and white stage, Benjamin Cisterne's lighting design creates a blurred glare if viewed from too far back in the theatre and the choice to have the first scene play out with the characters having a discussion in darkness proves incredibly disconnecting.
As Hamlet, Harriet Gordon-Anderson gives the troubled Prince a lovely complexity and a particularly delightful vibrancy, spirit and wonderful swordfight but Evans restrains her from allowing her to infuse much of a feminine and therefore new twist on the character, leaving it to simply be a female playing an male role. James Lugton ensures that Hamlet's uncle Claudius, the man who murdered King Hamlet, is suitably unlikable and calculating. Robert Menzies presents a captivating and comic Polonius and Tony Cogin gives the Ghost of King Hamlet suitable gravitas and mystery. Unfortunately, the two traditionally female roles of Hamlet's mother Gertrude and his love interest Ophelia are lack depth and connection and therefore Lisa McCune and Sophie Wilde respectively fail to make the women at all likable and don't garner the sympathy expected. McCune's rigidity and forced expression, which is incongruent with the rest of the performers who add their own voice to their characters, is further at odds with Evans' attempt to display happy family memories with video projections of a young Hamlet and his mother playing at a beach.
While there is a prevailing sense of selfishness from most of the characters which is fitting at a time when supermarkets have turned into war zones and potential carriers of the current medical emergency are opting to ignore instructions to stay home and a fracture seems to be appearing in the English monarchy, there is little new revealed in this presentation of HAMLET. Hopefully as the season progresses issues with performer projection which renders dialogue often unintelligible at the rear of the Playhouse Theatre will be managed to help make the production easier to connect with.
Photos: Brett Boardman