Hamlet: the Revenger Who Must

Bell Shakespeare at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse

(Full disclosure: I was engaged to write the Teachers’ Resource Kit for this.)

(Another note: I have been liberal with discussion of staging details, because the production is about to close, so this piece stands more usefully as a record than a review. So be cautious if spoilers concern you.)

Woman in white shirt and floral skirt grabs the arm of man in black coat.

Josh McConville and Doris Younane

I am grateful to this production for reminding me that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. When I interviewed the Director, Damien Ryan, while he was in pre-production he made a point of Hamlet’s immediate desire to hear the story of a successful revenging son, when he asks the Player King to do the speech about Pyhrrus: “He says, ‘tell me the story about the revenger who could.'” Ryan’s perceptiveness on this point has ended up colouring the whole, which gives it a compelling, driving sense. Hamlet’s first soliloquy, where he desires to evaporate and noiselessly cease, marks a contrast to the man he becomes after he is tasked with revenge by his father, when he is immediately re-energised. His delays in finishing the job in this version appear to stem less from reluctance than from an inability to confine his vengeful impulses to his assigned target.

Sean O’Shea is a painfully vulnerable ghost. Not the distant authoritarian, but a father with whom Hamlet probably had an affectionate relationship. Doris Younane’s Gertrude is neither damaged nor silly, but a warm, sensible woman who is simply not ready to retire from the world, and bewildered by why this should ruin her relationship with her adored son. Like so many men, Hamlet has no clue that all the freedom of presence and influence that he has in the court is only due to his masculinity. His mother and girlfriend, if they don’t want to disappear, have no choice but to find ways to stay useful to the men around them.

The difference between the two Kings is all in Hamlet’s head here, demonstrated both through the doubling of the roles by the same actor, and through the scene comparing portraits of the brothers, where Hamlet uses a teeny tiny miniature of his father, too small to see anything much, and a grotesque puppet of the murderer from his little play to represent his uncle. No moderating reality allowed here.

The entire supporting cast is excellent, making each player seem the centre of their own story. I was completely beguiled by David Whitney’s take on Polonius, rejecting the wily, bearded manipulator favoured by most recent productions in favour of an amusing career civil servant keen to do his job well. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – the line belongs to Hamlet, but might serve better as Polonius’s motto than any of his own homilies. He is amoral and pragmatic rather than either gullible or villainous. There is some clever extended business with his role as the ears of the King. “Surveillance state” Hamlets have become a cliché to the point of silliness (if everyone is watched all the time, how does Hamlet have the opportunity to kill Claudius at prayer?), but it is not taken to that point here. Rather, spying is used to underline the ongoing chain of betrayals. We were shown Marcellus and Bernardo destroying bugs way back before they revealed news of the ghost. This gives Hamlet the idea to look for one when he confronts Ophelia, making her laugh, appalled, when he even checks her for a wire. When her father reveals that the bug was there all along, in the bible he gave her to read, we feel her disgust. Having Hamlet finish off Polonius by strangling him with the curtain, rather than one quick stab, added a whole layer of reckless idiocy to his character that worked well for Josh McConville, especially in juxtaposition with Ivan Donato’s sweet, normal Horatio. I’m a bit over Hamlets we are supposed to forgive and indulge because of their attractiveness, and ready for someone more ordinary I can like and dislike at different moments. I was moved in a way I have not been before by the way Hamlet did not grab the poisoned chalice out of Horatio’s hand, but had to plead from a distance, already too close to death to move. This left Horatio standing, having to make the choice himself to live, as his friend begged.

After an excess of empty-space sets and black or white boxes it was a pleasure to see a clever, intricate set of cut-out screens, used in all its sections, in all kinds of ways. This is more-or-less Ryan’s directorial trademark: if it’s on the stage, make it do some work.

This production runs only to the end of the week, but chase down a ticket if you can, to walk away with a fresh, vigorous feeling about a play we find too easy to treat as known.

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