Thursday, October 15, 2015

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Photos by Daniel Boud

Hamlet by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare directed by Damien Ryan, at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse October 13-24, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 14

Designed by Alicia Clements; Design Assistant – Elizabeth Gadsby; Lighting – Matt Cox; Composer and Sound – Steve Francis; Fight and Movement and Assistant Director – Nigel Poulton.

Hamlet – Scott Sheridan (understudy for Josh McConville)    Ophelia – Matilda Ridgway
Claudius/Ghost – Sean O’Shea                Gertrude – Doris Younane
Horatio – Ivan Donato            Laertes/Franciso/Guilderstern – Michael Wahr
Polonius/Gravedigger/Norwegian Captain – Philip Dodd
Reynaldo/Rosencrantz/Osric/Gravedigger – Robin Goldsworthy
Marcellus/Voltemand/Player Queen – Julia Ohannessian
Bernardo/Cornelia/Player King/Fortinbras – Catherine Terracini

There are many ways to go with Hamlet – brooding, pusillanimous, unable to take action, unsympatico are common approaches.  But not this Hamlet by Scott Sheridan, who has stood in magnificently for the injured Josh McConville.

This Hamlet is a study of how the personal is political, and how the political destroys the personal.  Literally, as all the key players are dead by the end of the play.  In the play’s the thing speech at the end of the first half, we are suitably warned that Hamlet may catch the conscience of all of us.  And indeed, as Horatio says, so shall you hear of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, of accidental judgements, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, and, in this upshot, purposes mistook fall’n on the inventors’ heads.

In any audience, in Shakespeare’s dreadful time of autocratic rule as much as in today’s rule by even the best examples of representative democracy, who can say they are completely innocent of every one of these kinds of acts?  Accidental judgements with unintended consequences are, I suppose, probably unavoidable, even if we have not personally been caught up in worse policy decisions.  A Canberra audience with a good smattering of government officials might well want to exclaim, as King Claudius does, Give me some light: away! when the players hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature.

But this Hamlet is a study in action.  Sheridan captures the energy of the intellectual Hamlet.  He is not constrained by weakness but by the strength of his questioning, of his demand to know and understand the truth.  As anyone would do, he seeks out information, he tries to set up situations to test what he thinks may be true, and he makes, among his worst accidental judgements, the decision to save Ophelia even from himself – with the most horrific of unintended consequences.

The result of Damien Ryan’s directorial approach is a production of Hamlet in which there is such high definition and clarity of meaning that I find myself struggling to remember any previous performance of this play.  Every character, even the infamous Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, is sharply drawn by their clear intentions, reactions and responses.  Every actor deserved the three curtain calls, while the extra applause for Scott Sheridan was not just for his willingness to stand in for such a part at such short notice, but for the consistency which he gave to such an inconsistent character.

We felt for Matilda Ridgway’s Ophelia, treated so abominably by her father and so apparently incomprehensibly by Hamlet.  Though we understood Philip Dodd’s Polonius’ position as intelligence gatherer for his political master, it was hard to accept how he played that role against his own bright and upbeat daughter, against his very proper son Laertes (played precisely by Michael Wahr) at university in Paris, and of course against the very prince who by all rights should have been King Hamlet of Denmark, with Queen Ophelia by his side.

So there it is: how politics and subterfuge destroys the personal.  And proof that the play is the thing that is the mirror up to nature.  Shakespeare’s subtlety and complexity is matched by the quality of the acting, in a set design, lighting design and sound design which works perfectly.  Voice, spoken and in song, is especially intriguing for its modern Australian natural cadences – a touch which opens up early 17th Century Shakespeare to our culture in the 21st.

Try not to miss Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet while it is here in Canberra, but otherwise make sure you see it in Sydney, October 27 to December 6 at the Opera House Playhouse.

Matilda Ridgway as Ophelia - bright and upbeat

Robin Goldsworthy as Reynaldo and Philip Dodd as Polonius
- intelligence gathering

Matilda Ridgway (Ophelia) sees
Doris Younane (Gertrude) and Sean O'Shea (King Claudius)

Josh McConville as Hamlet, Sean O'Shea as King Claudius
And am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?

Matilda Ridgway (Ophelia) and Josh McConville (Hamlet)
You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate
our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not.

Josh McConville as Hamlet
Now, mother, what's the matter?

Catherine Terracini as Bernardo, Matilda Ridgway as Ophelia
Ivan Donato as Horatio, Michael Wahr as Laertes, Doris Younane as Gertrude
There's rosemary, that's for remembrance

Robin Goldsworthy as Gravedigger, Ivan Donato as Horatio,
Philip Dodd as Gravedigger, Josh McConville as Hamlet
This same skull, sir, was Yorick's skull, the king's jester.