Words, Words, Words: Review of Belvoir’s Hamlet
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the preeminent pieces of theatre from the western canon. Everyone knows the story so little introduction is needed. Nevertheless, to set the scene, the King of Denmark is murdered by his brother, Claudius, who then usurps the throne by marrying his widow, Gertrude. Subsequently, the ghost of the murdered King visits his son, Hamlet, telling him of the treachery that has passed, asking for revenge. Hamlet, after confirming the tale, sets about taking his vengeance, disguised behind a veil of madness. Debate still exists as to how affected or genuine his insanity is, and so is a matter for directorial interpretation. This brings us to Belvoir’s latest staging, under the guidance of Simon Stone.
Stone and set designer Ralph Myers offer us a sleek new setting: an empty stage with a grand piano and row of chairs pushed against the perimeter. The set is elegant in its simplicity; soprano Maximilian Riebl and pianist, Luke Byrne create a haunting atmosphere that never distracts from the action. The characters are dressed in modern day evening wear, falling just short of aristocratic. The first half features a stage which is hidden by soft, dim lighting, both seductive and dangerous. For the second half however, the dark carpet is removed, the black curtains drawn and a harsh light floods the stage. Whilst the first half of the production suggests concealment, the second half is completely exposed. There is nowhere for the characters to hide. Indeed, this bare and glaring world may also stand as a landscape of Hamlet’s troubled mind. An interesting idea and well executed; there are similarly thoughtful choices made throughout the production. However as the play wore on, the lack of coherence between the elements became evident.
A small example can be found in the choice to exchange the play within the play for a marionette show, the puppets being controlled by Hamlet. This was charming and well executed – a credit to Myers and puppet maker Bridget Dolan. This absolute delight was only marred by the fact that it was a vehicle for crude sex jokes. Here and elsewhere, the gimmick was achieved, but to the possible detriment of the play’s dramatic authenticity. To his credit however, Stone’s orchestration of Hamlet’s ghosts was inspired. First off, as the audience enters, Hamlet’s ghostly father sits quietly on stage, remaining so for the majority of the play. His ongoing presence is significant to Stone’s overall thematic focus on the father/son relationship. Hamlet’s father as a silent observer adds to the weight of expectation and internal conflict that torments the Prince. It is a haunting presence and a continual reminder of this conflicted duty. Whilst maybe limiting other possibilities for thematic scope, each production has to carve out a space for itself, and this one is perfectly legitimate.
Stone extends this choice to every victim, each appearing (having been killed off stage) with wounds still fresh. They linger for a moment before disappearing into the background. It was a confronting choice, and at times moving. And as Hamlet takes his revenge by turn he is himself further damned. This is also a sign of his slipping sanity. Yet, towards the play’s conclusion, Stone removed the definitive scene breaks, creating a visual montage of the deaths. The ghosts lost poignancy here, as the language was largely supplemented by action. Perhaps it was an effort to fast forward to the climax, surpassing slower textual revelations. If it were anything but Shakespeare, one might support the choice considering today’s highly visual audience. Unfortunately, it is Shakespeare and despite the number of nice staging and aesthetic choices, there is a feeling that little focus was placed on the words themselves. The players all grasped what their characters were saying, but for Shakespeare this is not enough: with every line an actor must speak with absolute understanding. For this production however, the actors appeared merely to recite. As a result it was difficult to connect with the piece or empathize with the characters. The interpretation risks falling apart when there is no proper consideration of how the language supports it.
Simply put, the production suffered from hyperactivity. Unsurprisingly, this spilled into the performances, and at times it affected their choices. Certainly, Toby Schmitz’s Hamlet was highly engaging. It was crisp, it was raw, and Schmitz is without doubt a seriously talented man. However, the choice to put Hamlet into ‘mad-acting’ overdrive (possibly a directorial choice in order to meet the production’s pace) meant that some of the greater emotional moments were lost or superficial. To take one example, the famous ‘To Be or Not to Be’ soliloquy lacked stillness. It lacked pause and introspection. In contemplating death, the actor, and ultimately the production, must come to a halt. That is the power of Shakespeare. Further, the choices about the character were unclear in performance. Did they decide that Hamlet was actually mad? If so, was he really in control of his revenge? If he was not mad, did he slowly become so? The questions are endless. Without making these choices, making them visible and making them harmonize with the overall vision, one cannot truly connect with the Tragedy that is Hamlet.
This could be said of the ensemble as a whole, though they all performed well. Emily Barclay’s Ophelia was pure and tragic; she was measured and resisted the urge to play to the melodrama. Anthony Phelan, Greg Stone and John Gaden (Hamlet’s father, Polonius and Claudius respectively) added a natural gravitas to the production, though Phelan was a touch soft in sections. Robyn Nevin made some wonderful and insightful choices in playing the Queen (Gertrude) as a drunk. Thomas Campbell and Nathan Lovejoy were also solid additions to the production. Once again however, the overwhelming majority of the cast appeared to be going through the motions, instead of engaging with the dialogue. Everywhere, there was a lack of textual engagement.
It is true, Simon Stone has made a number of very striking and effecting interpretative and staging choices, but the language has received little thought; thus his actors speak with limited engagement. They fail to connect with the language, and as a result the audience fails to connect in any meaningful way to the piece as a whole. In Shakespeare, the language will always be the star, that’s why it’s lasted 400 years and that’s why people still come out to see it. Clever staging can enhance this, but it can never compensate for weak dramaturgy. Yes, we want new and interesting interpretations, but not to the neglect of what makes the play great.