Sunday, August 16, 2015

Theatre: Hamlet (★★★★½)

Matilda Ridgeway and Josh McConville
By William Shakespeare 
Bell Shakespeare
Director Damien Ryan
Designer Alicia Clements
Lighting designer Mat Cox
Featuring Josh McConville, Matilda Ridgway, Sean O’Shea, Doris Younane, Ivan Donato, Michael Wahr, Philip Dodd, Robin Goldsworthy, Julia Ohannessian and Catherine Terracini
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
Until August 16

The Prince is on a roll. There are all-night queues for Benedict Cumberbatch’s West End stand, and Bell Shakespeare’s short season at the Heath Ledger is a sell-out.
As it should be.
This Hamlet, with its clear and intelligent direction by Damian Ryan, should completely satisfy both aficionados and newcomers to the greatest of plays.
If that’s too bold a claim for the play, there’s no doubting its hero is the first of drama’s characters. He utterly dominates his play, physically and intellectually. He speaks a third of its 4,000 odd lines; it needs no secondary plots or truly independent second lives.
Shakespeare has invested more emotion, more intelligence, more rage, and even more humour, in Hamlet than any of his characters. Hamlet needs no Falstaff or Iago to support or oppose him; he is his own wit, and his own antagonist.
The proposition that Hamlet’s fatal flaw is procrastination has always been weak and unbecoming for such a man, and this production wisely gives it little purchase. Hamlet’s weakness, the enemy that both terrifies and attracts him, is death. And in a play where everyone dies, he achieves an apotheosis unmatched in theatre.
At the court of his uncle Claudius (Sean O’Shea) and his wife, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, (Doris Younane), he stands bent almost into an upturned L, the very model of a broken man. His first words are snide, opaque, careful, but soon, alone, all his grief, disgust, loathing and self-loathing rupture: “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt”.
So begins a 21/2 hour-long torrent of words that leaves you battered, like a fighter on the ropes; it’s the greatest examination of the language and its meaning we have.
Josh McConville takes us on Hamlet’s dark journey from his first words to his last – an inspired innovation, “Woo Hoo!”, alongside “…the rest is silence”. He is muscular and physically dangerous, mordant, humorous, carefully polite and heedlessly savage at once. It’s a mighty performance, and a wise one. He reveals his character to us with great clarity and accuracy, and lets us learn Hamlet, the man and the play, through him.
In a seasoned and talented cast, Philip Dodd’s Polonius is priggish, stuck-up, and perhaps a better man than he’s often given credit for, and Matilda Ridgway’s Ophelia is sad and frantic, sliding away beyond saving into Hamlet’s deadly vortex. Katherine Terracini and Julia Ohannessian’s Player King and Queen deliver The Mousetrap as Commedia dell’Arte, in glorious stage Italian; they demonstrate convincingly why Hamlet, the greatest of all player kings, admits only actors as his peers.
Alicia Clements brings home a design of shades and secret places for a court of intrigue and constant surveillance. It’s unobtrusive but pointed, and impressively complete for a touring set.
I have it on good authority that George Brandis, a lover and a student of the play, believes there is no point to an arts education beyond Hamlet. I guess we’ll be seeing more of it in the coming years.
I doubt, however richly he funds them, any will be better than this.

This review appeared in The West Australian 15.8.15  

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