Sunday, April 10, 2022

Hamlet - Bell Shakespeare

 Review by John Lombard

There’s something hygge in the state of Denmark…

Shakespeare’s play of ghosts, revenge, and spiritual torment isn’t normally associated with coziness, but here director Peter Evans casts the royal castle of Hamlet as a cramped but stylish chalet, with convivial family cheer contrasted against the blinding-white, devouring snow outside.

Hamlet (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) is the snake in this garden, unhinged by a demand from the ghost of his father the King that the prince avenge the spirit’s murder by killing the new King, Claudius (Ray Chong Nee).

Harriet Gordon-Anderson gives a take-no-prisoners performance of compelling anguish and intensity, with nimble menace and dizzying alacrity. Actors playing Hamlet often need to decide how far the prince is mad or pretending to be mad. Here there is no question that Hamlet is berserk with grief and anger.

In contrast, Ray Chong Nee’s Claudius is aloof. Bell Shakespeare's 2015 production of Hamlet, directed by Damien Ryan, was fascinated by the subtle politics of the play, which invigorated Claudius as a savvy political operator. Evans explores every nuance of Hamlet’s agony, but by downplaying royal intrigue reduces Claudius to a half-hearted opportunist and gormless stepdad.

The other cast give excellent performances, but undermine our sympathy for Hamlet. Robert Menzies is sublime as Polonius, winning affection for the character with a doddering fatherly attentiveness. Jack Crumlin gives a splendid, charismatic performance as Polonius’ high-spirited son Laertes, and Rose Riley is beguiling as the sensible daughter Ophelia. Lucy Bell as Gertrude navigates a difficult role well, convincing in extremes of dazed happiness and harrowing grief. For the harm Hamlet visits on these likable characters, he feels more like the villain than a tragic hero.

Ikea-influenced minimalist set design by David Thomas, including a stage-wide plush white carpet, created a feeling of fashionable comfort. Costumes by Sara Koljin had a spritely 60s aesthetic, with good use of vibrant colour in contrast with Hamlet’s mournful blacks.

Gordon-Anderson’s magnificent performance is a whirlpool that draws the other characters into tragedy, but Hamlet’s destructive mania means we never have their sympathy. With no compassion for the prince's cruel fate, the tragedy at the end of the play feels clinical. Notably, the script cuts Hamlet’s poignant epitaph in favour of a bleak finish.

Overuse of a falling snow effect was counterproductive, making the play feel like the inside of a snowglobe, and with flakes often clinging to costumes in awkward spots.

This production of Hamlet has a striking aesthetic and memorable performances, but in striving for intensity finds frigidity.