By Darby Turnbull
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet both the character and the text naturally blur binaries; between gender expression, sanity, the supernatural, morality, even the age of the title character is hotly debated. This latest production by Bell Shakespeare embraces the fluidity of identity in an intimate and personal iteration starring Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet and setting it in the 1960’s on the cusp of a huge shift in cultural and social norms.
Peter Evans’ adaption has well and truly sanded the plays edges; gone is the impending invasion of Norway, political court intrigue and religious resonance and has become a taut, compelling domestic drama about two families and their immediate social circles in crisis. These are all rational people with deep affection for each other whose ordered lives are invaded by regicide, murder, incest, suicide, madness and supernatural forces. The dynamics are subtle, nuanced and sophisticated. Evans’ staging and rapport between the cast results in one of the most naturally funny Hamlet’s I’ve ever seen, each actor possesses a droll wit as if Shakespeare’s text had been dropped into an Edward Albee or Harold Pinter play. It’s a true ensemble production, Hamlet providing a projection for the deep recesses of the other characters souls. Harriet Gordon-Anderson is superb as Hamlet; the sheer size and resonance of the role doesn’t mean that she pulls focus; hers is a Hamlet that can own the room with a wry aside or a diffident raise of the eyebrows and as such is the ‘sanest’, most possessed Dane I’ve ever seen. It’s a brilliant insight, even though she is playing the role as male there’s bitter comedy in a feminine bodied person being labelled as ‘mad’ by their refusal to comply with rigid social codes demanded of them. Her embodiment of his grief is one of poignant vastitude, as if his very chemistry is realigning itself with each new trauma. It’s the privilege of seeing this in the Fairfax Studio that you get to witness such nuanced work up close.
It’s refreshing to see a production that doesn’t rely on overwrought histrionics to wring some humour out of the text. This take provides for some fascinating and rich character reinterpretations as well as natural casualties. Robert Menzies astoundingly does what I thought improbable; actually made me emotionally connect with Polonius. He shows a genial, albeit flawed man who deeply loves both his children and the complexity of being a single parent trying to be both a maternal and paternal figure. Of course, there are deep cuts to get him there but it’s worth it to see a different shade to the character and see it reflected in Laertes and Ophelia.
Likewise, Jeremi Campese and Jane Mahady make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern charismatic and sensitive individuals motivated by a deep a love and concern for their friend. Mahady is profoundly moving in her empathetic portrayal of watching a friend suffer and being powerless to do anything. They made me yearn to see them both take on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
These three radical reinterpretations of these characters means that their eventual fates are not expendable and are given the tragic weight that’s often missing from other productions.
Unfortunately, due to the cuts the character of Horatio has become all but expendable. Jacob Warner is a compassionate and commanding presence but there’s little sense of the comradery and trust that is sacred between him and Hamlet. The declarations of affection are rushed and offhand and he’s even denied his beautiful final lines ‘Now cracks a noble heart, goodnight sweet prince and flights of angels sing thee to thou rest…’
Productions do have to work overtime to give the characters of Gertrude (Lucy Bell) and Ophelia (Rose Riley) some kind of agency given how underwritten their motives and centuries of ugly misogyny that predate it. Often it falls to the actors playing them to bring depths of subtext or the production to make radical choices to give them more prominence. Lucy Bell was the first performer my eyes were drawn to in the opening tableau; she has an arresting stage presence and conveyed a deep-seated guilt and doubt that contained multitudes but for the rest of the production she’s given little more to do than express concern and regret. Can she sense the presence of the ghost? Was she complicit in her husband’s murder, does she know the cup is poisoned when she drinks it, how and why does she witness Ophelia’s death? These are not insights that this production is able to offer and such despite the intensity of her presence Bell has little room to let the character flourish. Riley fares a little better as Ophelia with the edits and some clever staging. Riley (as she has in everything I’ve seen her do) radiates shrewd insight and intelligence which is essential for a role that has to spend so much time reacting.
Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship is revelatory, Riley and Gordon-Anderson convey two intellectual kindred spirits who have a shared delight in rhetoric. I’m undoubtedly projecting but for the first time I saw Hamlet as asexual, his sex repulsion less to do with a deep-seated misogyny then existing somewhere on the ace spectrum, I saw someone who expresses their affection via language and Ophelia’s attempts to pursue something more physical as the first fracture in their connection.
Her descent into grief induced psychosis is less convincing which is more to do with the text than the performance, Riley’s performance has been so assured and grounded thus far that when it comes to her disintegration it doesn’t register with as much tragic potency as it could given there just isn’t the time or space to really explore what this breakdown means for her.
Ray Chong Nee, possessing a voice like moulted burgundy, spends the first half as a benign, almost inconspicuous Claudius before coming into his own after the intermission with a deeply felt portrait of a man wracked by conscience before snapping back into a grim tactician. Jack Crumlin as Laertes has the difficult task of briefly establishing his character before disappearing for 2/3 of the play and return as one of its most active participants. He’s a worthy foil of Anderson’s Hamlet, possessing a similar level of charisma, sensitivity and the ability to show his feelings; the irony being his grief is given space and validation through Claudius’ opportunism.
Rounding out the cast are James Evans who brings an abundance of seasoned thespian energy in his role as the Player King and gentle command as King Hamlet’s ghost.
Finally, Eleni Cassimatis brings a quiet empathy and tenderness in her supporting roles as the Player Queen and Osric.
Anna Tregloan has designed a production truly worthy of a glossy photobook in her creation of a European Chalet in the snow decorated with sparse sixties furniture and a stylish collection of costumes, each and every one I coveted. In between each scene, family home movies are projected onto the set, beautifully designed by Laura Taylor. Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting emphasises the cold starkness of Elisinore with warm tones for the privileged occupants inside. Max Lyandvert’s composition and sound design eloquently evoke the feeling of a period thriller.
This production wont’ be for everyone, especially those with clear notions about the text beforehand, personally I appreciated the opportunity to peruse the fresh insights provided though the rigorous cutting and refocusing of certain dynamics. Not least it’s the opportunity to see an ensemble of players excelling at their craft, led by an unmissable edition to Hamlet canon in Harriet Gordon-Anderson.