Saturday, April 9, 2022



Hamlet by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse April 7-16, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night April 8

Director – Peter Evans; Designer – Anna Tregloan; Lighting Designer – Benjamin Cisterne; Composer & Sound Designer – Max Lyandvert; Video Designer – Laura Turner; Movement, Intimacy and Fight Designer – Nigel Poulton; Voice & Text Coach – Jess Chambers; Dramaturg – James Evans

Cast: (alphabetical order)
Hamlet – Harriet Gordon-Anderson; Gertrude – Lucy Bell;
Rosencrantz / Marcellus – Jeremi Campese;
Player Queen / Second Gravedigger / Osric – Eleni Cassmatis;
Claudius – Ray Chong Nee; Laertes / Player – Jack Crumlin;
Ghost / Player King / Gravedigger – James Evans;
Guilderstern / Barnardo – Jane Mahady;
Polonius – Robert Menzies; Ophelia – Rose Riley;
Horatio – Jacob Warner

Hamlet as a child – Mirii Anderson

Photos by Brett Boardman 

The Royal Family

Prince Hamlet, Queen Gertrude,
Adviser Polonius, King Claudius

Ophelia and her father Polonius

“She made Hamlet comprehensible!”  This audience member’s response to Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet, played exquisitely by Harriet Gordon-Anderson, was as true of the character as it was of the play.  The audience as a whole thoroughly agreed, bringing the whole cast out three times for applause, each time led – with specially enthusiastic recognition – by Harriet.

Especially notable for me was her first appearance alone – playing the character as a male, by the way –  before the appearance of Horatio to tell Hamlet about seeing his father’s ghost.  Harriet’s ability to express to us wordlessly the deep despair that he is feeling was quite extraordinary.  I was reminded at once of the insightful recent novel, Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell [ reviewed on this blog Friday, 19 June 2020 ] which focussed on Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, that O’Farrell imagines as “Agnes”, since there are no trustworthy records.

Anne and William’s son, Hamnet (a name also commonly known as Hamlet in those times) died of the plague on 11 August 1596.  The play was probably written between 1599 and 1601.  It was first published in 1603, but “The title page of the 1603 quarto edition tells us that it has been played 'by his Highness' Servants in the City of London, as also in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere'.”  [ ].  In the novel, O’Farrell has Agnes go to London four years after Hamnet died to see her husband’s play Hamlet.  “She recognises the playhouse from her husband’s description: a round wooden place next to the river”.  When the play is under way “She watches, baffled.  She had expected something familiar, something about her son.”  

But “Suddenly, the actor on the stage says something about a dreaded sight, and a realisation creeps over her….She has her eye on that ghost: the height, that movement of the arm, hand upturned, a particular curl of the fingers, that roll of the shoulder….She knows exactly who is underneath that costume, that disguise.”

Harriet Gordon–Anderson plays for us Hamlet grieving for his dead father, King Hamlet – or a young sensitive actor playing Hamlet seeing his director, Master Shakespeare, as the Ghost, grieving for his dead son, Hamnet.  Whether or not Peter Evans and Harriet consciously rehearsed with this in mind, this is the depth of feeling that she created for us, and set us on the course of Hamlet’s story, explaining every detail of his thinking and behaviour – making the ‘mystery’ of Hamlet’s character an open book.

This Hamlet is a production close to Shakespeare’s heart.

There were only two aspects of  this production about which I was not so impressed.

Every other actor except one – even down to making clear the differences between Rosencrantz and Guilderstern; and a particularly truthful rendition of the often weakly played Polonius – got the characterisations right.  Rose Riley’s Ophelia, for example, showed how her breakdown was entirely understandable in the face of the machinations of King Hamlet’s brother Claudius, which led young Hamlet – who really did love her – to try to protect her, hoping she understood when he told her to escape by going to a nunnery.  Ophelia had strength in trying to maintain the truth of her feelings, but Hamlet’s unintentional killing of her father, left her nowhere to go.  Her songs were not recognised, even by Hamlet’s mother, as the indictments they were.  Her drowning was her only way of escape.

But, I’m afraid, Ray Chong Nee’s King Claudius was a too simplistic presentation of a character, manipulative and psychopathic in the extreme.  The lack of sublety of his approach showed up in scenes where he ordered people about bluntly, when this character in reality could always make himself appear to be doing his underlings a favour.  The one scene, though, where the character failed entirely was where he pretends even to himself that making a show of praying to God can turn around a situation which even he is beginning realise is getting out of his control.  His prayers are no more than an attempt to manipulate God himself.  But Ray’s presentation of this scene was confusing to the audience because it was obvious that Claudius could not really be genuine but it was played as if we were meant to think that perhaps he was.  

My criticism here derives from the fact that this play – certainly for Shakespeare considering the politics of his era, even apart from the mourning for his son’s death at the whim of the plague (after some 400 years since it first appeared in England) – that this play is a deep philosophical study of the nature of reality.  This is what makes Hamlet continue to be staged century after century.  Shakespeare clearly understood, if you think about all his plays, that God is not an answer.  In fact, God rarely gets a mention except in this one scene in Hamlet.  And then Hamlet himself realises that to kill Claudius while in ‘prayer’ is not good enough.  He is only justified at the very end of the play when everyone knows that Claudius, the ultimate manipulator, has poisoned everyone literally in their drinks.

Finally, I found the use of video, apparently of the Queen Gertrude family with her children when young, in happy times at the beach – I suppose in summer instead of the winter of discontent in Denmark’s snow when the play’s action takes place – this occasional video on different screens at different times became a mere distraction.  

Though I guess the contrast was meant to be a comment, if not a message about how family life can break down, it was simply not clear why it was being shown.  There were no understandable links made to the script for the children playing in the water, or the mother enjoying her role with the children on a beach.  Playing in modern dress may have made the designer and director look for a modern context for the play, but this play doesn’t need it.

Setting the stage so that it was clear to us (thinking in Brechtian terms) that we were watching actors today performing a script written by Shakespeare 400 years ago made it perfectly clear to us that ‘the play’s the thing’.  The pine forest all in snow was enough to place the action in a fictitious ‘Denmark’; the removable furniture and props were cleverly staged; and the action moving in our imaginations from inside to outside locations, was enough to symbolise the drama and let our thoughts and feelings develop as Shakespeare surely wanted.

My carping on these couple of points must not be taken too much to heart.  All theatre is about taking magnificent risks.  Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 2002 is a major and significant achievement, precisely because “She made Hamlet comprehensible” beyond, I think, those dependent on male actors playing the part.  

Harriet Gordon-Anderson took us out of conventional expectations and showed us William Shakespeare’s originality and depth of humanity, rare in his own time and place and equally necessary in the world today.  

The Final Scene

Ophelia and her father Polonius are dead.
Osric manages the duel between
Ophelia's brother Laertes and Hamlet.
Hamlet's mother watches, afraid for her son.
Her husband, Claudius, has secretly poisoned
Laertes' sword point and the drink meant for Hamlet.
Gertrude, unawares, drinks to her son's success with his poisoned wine. 
Laertes poisons Hamlet, who in turn stabs Laertes with his own poisoned sword.
Before he dies Hamlet forces his uncle to drink his own poison.

Because the original four-hour-long script was cut to take out the international warfare involving Norway, Denmark and further afield, in favour of the close family drama, Horatio – played exactly right by Jacob Warner – doesn’t get, in this production, to make his final absolutely pertinent speech near the end of the original text, where Young Fortinbras arrives “with conquest come from Poland”.  Shakespeare said through Horatio to Shakespeare's Royal Highness:

“But let this same be presently perform’d,
Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more perchance,
On plots and errors, happen.”

Can we hope that the Claudius of our present time, perhaps a certain Vladimir who hopes to come with conquest of Ukraine, can be taught the lesson or made to drink his own poison.

Let’s just hope as William must have done, even as Queen Elizabeth – who herself had survived her father’s murderous family and political life – perhaps saw Hamlet before she died in 1603, just as his play was published, and the new King James arrived from Scotland.

Hamlet really is an amazing play.