If thou art truly a reviewer, I shall illuminate thy faults and strengths of this production bringing to light its manner just as the sunlights reveals the shadows once abandoned by fleeting nights.
And so begins the epic ‘tragedy’ that is this review. And like so many tragedies, this one finds it foundations on a fate already determined by the gods: even before attending Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet I had a hunch I’d be writing a pretty positive review of it just a few hours later. The company have a remarkable reputation for knowing how to stage the Bard’s work that often has the critics weeping with joy and wiping their eyes with the backs of their A+ review cards. The shortened version of this review goes something like this: Hamlet confirms the reputation of Bell Shakespeare and if you ever want to see one of Shakespeare’s best known plays grace the stage this is probably your best opportunity to do so.
Having only ever seen Hamlet once before, I went into Bell Shakespeare’s production with pretty much a blank slate. I was just a primary school kid back then and I had little idea as to what was going on with Hamlet and all his bitter family feuds. Why is this dude so depressed? What’s with that ghost? To be or not to be? What on earth does that actually mean? Is he talking about his costume? His pants? His wig? Shamelessly I read the ‘spark notes’ that the theatre company generously provided before the show started and it’s safe to say that even for new comers, Bell Shakespeare have staged ‘Hamlet’ in such a way that it’s relatively easy to follow along with and is by no means alienating.
Further more, Director Damien Ryan has chosen to modernise ‘Hamlet,’ beefing it up with I-Phones, listening equipment and video transmissions. This modernisation doesn’t distract from the text but rather feels quite natural and a clever extension of its theme of surveillance, calling you to reflect on what Hamlet says about our current times. Ultimately though this is the icing on the cake for the play, the real guts of its excellence lies in its outstanding performances. Of particular note is the man himself, Josh McConville, who is able to play Hamlet with a terrifying energy, shape shifting effortlessly through his many varied states of madness. McConville gives Hamlet a unique combination of both edge and humour that is occasionally charismatic, sometimes horrifying, often depressing but always engaging. Additionally, Matilda’s Ridgway’s performance as Ophelia is equally gripping and watching her character transition from cheery and love struck into a maddened victim of Hamlet is a real highlight of the production. While all the performances are noteworthy, Phillip Dodd’s turn as Polonius in particular is punctuated with a precision that brings his character to life, making him a pleasure to watch.
The set, while seemingly simplistic, is quite effective at staging the different scenes. There are no awkward, clunky transitions here, everything happens seamlessly and often you won’t even really notice these transitions take place. The terrific lighting always provides a dark, brooding mood that intensely captures the shadowy nature of the play itself. I could talk about the script, but it’s Shakespeare after all, so enough said. The only real criticism, is that running at 2 hours 40 minutes (including a twenty minute intermission) Hamlet is a large beast and I couldn’t help but feel there were some scenes that could still have been edited down more – one scene which is essentially an Italian play within a play for instance, seems a little laboured. This probably won’t bother some purists though but I did feel that the production lost a little momentum because of it.
Earlier, I mentioned how this review was a tragedy. I say this because just like Hamlet himself, this review is probably beginning to question the relevance of its own existence: What more words could I add, when all has already been said before?
Well, “the rest is silence.”