Tickets to the MTC’s exquisite production of Hamlet starring Ewen Leslie are very hard to come by. Good news. The show has just been extended by three days. Better get in quick. If you miss out there, the MTC is also selling standing room tickets for $30 a pop. I saw the show from near the back of the theatre, and you get a fantastic view, so if you’re feeling slender of wallet and able of limb, go for it.
Ewen Leslie and Eryn Jean Norvill as Hamlet and Ophelia.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare, MTC, Sumner Theatre, directed by Simon Phillips, Until August 31.
There’s some interest in my opinion of the latest Hamlet at the MTC. (Ok, so a few random netizens, my mum, and my partner, who’s threatened me with the Lysistrata treatment if I don’t come up with the goods.) Sorry it’s taken so long, but I’ve cultivated a horror of writing for free.
One question, before I start the review proper: Are the critics of Simon Phillips’ Hamlet mad, or pretending to be mad? As a rule, I don’t read other people’s reviews before I write mine. I did this time, and I’m bemused by the fact that this production has attracted critical ambivalence from Elly Varrenti in The Age and outright scorn from Chris Boyd in The Australian.
I think they’re quite wrong, though true to their sense of the show, and no one can ask for more from a critic than that, can they? As a defence, the honestly held opinion might be all but a lay-down misere, but on a broader level, it seems to me that the role of the critic suffers for the negative connotation it carries in our culture. In Australia, ‘critic’ gives a strong sense of the adverse comment that invariably goes with the territory, and only the weakest echo of the word’s deeper meaning – that the task of the critic is an urgent one, critical. We end up cast as professional fault-finders, rather than free agents who, in our best light, can actually help to create beauty in a work of art.
Needless to say, this isn’t a state of affairs you want to internalise.
Not that any critic worth the name should refrain from delivering a spanking when it’s deserved. As the notoriously spank-happy Ken Tynan wrote in his diaries: “90% of a critic’s job is to demolish the bad to make way for the good.” Still, there’s a persuasive case that we ought only to nitpick when there’s nothing better to say. With word counts dwindling in newspaper reviews, we might usefully recall Joseph Addison’s dictum at the dawn of newspapers, just as pertinent in their twilight:
A true critic ought to dwell upon excellencies rather than imperfections, to discover … concealed beauties … and to communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation.
One wonders whether such egregiously bitchy and misleading hyperbole as “putting Pamela Rabe in killer heels is pretty much the extent of Simon Phillips’ interpretation of this play” is worthy of Chris Boyd’s observation. I wouldn’t have thought so. More troubling, neither Boyd nor Elly Varrenti at The Age wasted more than a sentence on Leslie’s performance as Hamlet. This might not be their fault (I’m aware of a reviewer’s exigencies: tight deadlines, disaffected subs taking a machete to one’s copy and whatnot), but it strikes me as unfortunate. “What’s Hamlet like?” is the question readers will most want answered.
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Perhaps the wisest response comes from Oscar Wilde’s funny and profound dialogue on arts criticism, The Critic as Artist, With Some Remarks on The Importance of Doing Nothing:
“If Hamlet has something of the definiteness of a work of art, he has also all the obscurity that belongs to life. There are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies.”
Wilde’s insight is a good touchstone for appreciating Simon Phillips’ Hamlet. Everything from Shaun Gurton’s design to Ewen Leslie’s performance as the Dane converges to form an utterly contemporary vision of the play that hovers unnervingly between definition and obscurity. On one level, it’s a brilliantly paced pop Hamlet with broad appeal, and on another, a distinctly existential Hamlet, echoing our current obsession with privacy against a backdrop of rampant corporatism and surveillance.
It’s an exquisite prison, this Denmark. Titanic glass panes reflect the sterile elegance of a corporate Elsinore. The effect is stunning. It’s as if the play’s characters have been trapped inside a huge revolving door, at the entry to a sinister multinational whose precise business they will never know. The corporate Hamlet is nothing new, of course, and nor is the interpretation of Hamlet as essentially a tragedy of surveillance, most influentially proposed by the Polish Shakespeare critic Jan Kott. But uniting the two suggestions is clever, and in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, timely.
Our main stages have had their share of monumental design that dwarfs the performers. At its worst, it’s wasteful window-dressing. Not here. Shaun Gurton’s spectacular set is integrated into and informs the acting. Lines are sometimes delivered as the scene revolves, dissipating into the air, generating a thriller-like sense of momentum. The performances seem to embody the revolving door metaphor. Retaining Wilde’s ‘obscurity that belongs to life’, they’re suggestive rather than definitive – assuming a flickering, winnowed and ephemeral theatricality; respecting the heart of each character’s mystery, rather than plucking it out.
Ewen Leslie’s physically stylised performance as Richard III last year attracted rave reviews. I admired it without being blown away, so I didn’t expect to be haunted by his Hamlet. I was. It’s an excellent sparrow’s Hamlet: cynical, impulsive and painfully shy, with the last quality intriguingly dominant.
Leslie is a wonderful stage technician, and his Hamlet is built on a foundation of forensically skilled body language. We first spy him cringing into a couch, as a well-groomed Claudius (John Adam) speechifies with all the sincerity that attends corporate functions – Hamlet, the boy who doesn’t want to be watched, can’t bear to watch.
Leslie encodes Hamlet’s performance anxiety by compulsively turning upstage. It’s a motif repeatedly employed to texture his soliloquies, and builds a creeping sense of encroachment, complicity in the violation of his privacy. We’re made subliminally aware that we’re destined to watch Hamlet’s worst moments, when it’s the last thing he wants. This becomes a potent thread in his tragedy. There’s more than a hint that this Hamlet resents us, the voyeuristic audience, as much as anything.
All of which makes Leslie compulsively watchable, though it’s not the whole picture. In solitude, his Hamlet seethes with emotion, from the calculated intensity of contemplating suicide to the soft exhalation of the Yorick speech, delivered with an unsentimental, resigned clarity. In company, Hamlet’s panicked extroversion is characteristic of the pathologically shy; heavily underscored in his spurning Ophelia (Eryn Jean Norvill), and his assault on Gertrude (Pamela Rabe).
Typically, the supporting roles in Hamlet are directed toward just that: holding the Prince aloft. This production is no exception, with recessed but distilled performances. Adam’s attractive, well-spoken Claudius is a classic CEO, more chilling for being so superficially sympathetic. He’s particularly compelling in his half-hearted attempt to spin the one thing he knows he can’t – his soul.
Rabe’s Gertrude cuts a chic, imposing figure. It’s a husky, low-key portrayal, but effective – the degree of Gertrude’s culpability in her husband’s murder remains wreathed in mystery. As Polonius, Garry McDonald is blinkered, avuncular and officious – you keep expecting shades of Norman Gunston, but it’s a subtle comic performance, understated and droll without being laughable. And Robert Menzies is a dire apparition as the murdered King, his reverberate verse equal to his spectral costume.
A slight blonde girl in pale florals against all the suits and military uniforms, Eryn Jean Norvill’s Ophelia looks out of place. The visual incongruity bleeds into the performance, lending an otherworldly quality to Ophelia’s mad scene: her broken thoughts flit and glitter like shards of coloured glass in the eye of a bird. Grant Cartwright makes a crisp, silver-spooned Horatio (though it’s odd he’s been given Fortinbras’ lines at the end), and Tim Ross’s Laertes has an easygoing gallantry that darkens to rage, culminating in the final, handily choreographed fencing match.
Simon Phillips is one of a handful of theatre directors in Australia who can manage everything from blockbuster musicals to intimate ensemble drama. He has his peccadilloes: he’s known for his obsession with revolving stages, and a little piece of Priscilla seems to have lodged itself in his soul. Yet he’s adept at turning his weaknesses into strengths. Only Phillips could get away with doing Hamlet’s dumbshow in strobe-riddled, hard-trance-inspired drag – and probably, only Phillips would think of it.
Such flourishes don’t always work: the riffs of rock music don’t seem germane to the enigmatic atmosphere, but they’re a tiny irritant. You only notice because the overall effect of this production is so engaging and sedulously constructed.
Phillips has achieved a rare feat: his Hamlet works as clever and accessible popular entertainment, rocketing along without a single dead moment, but it also breathes deeply of the zeitgeist, embracing a cogent critical reading that holds a mirror to our over-capitalised, privacy-poor culture, shows us how it corrodes trust, and makes us think about our own small involvement in it. It’s a breathtaking show, and a highlight of Phillips’ career. When you compare it to other recent Hamlets here – especially Brendan Cowell’s ill-fated turn at Bell Shakespeare – it’s one you’d be insane to miss.