I have seen many Shakespearean plays but for some reason Hamlet has evaded me. This changed when I witnessed Bell Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet, directed by Peter Evans. Not only did I finally get to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but I also found myself witnessing a modernised production that is brilliant in so many ways.
The story of Hamlet follows the young Prince of Denmark stricken with grief from the death of his father. We don’t see the death occur though. Instead, we meet Hamlet at a time where his father is already dead and buried. His mother Gertrud has remarried, wife to none other than her late husband’s brother, now king, Claudius. I know, I know. It’s kind of gross and honestly, Hamlet doesn’t like it much either. If anything, he’s the one that hates it the most.
Hamlet suspects his uncle (or I guess, stepfather now – still gross) is behind his father’s death, and while he’s right on the money, his erratic behaviour, although true to himself, doesn’t do him any favours in his mission for vengeance. On top of all this, Hamlet is also haunted by his father’s ghost.
Although the original tale is set between 1599 and 1601, Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set in the 1960s. The visuals by Designer Anna Tregloan reflect the era with minimalistic but chic décor and styling, right down to the colourful mod dresses and the white fluffy shag pile carpet.
Upon entering the venue and making my way to my seat, I noticed the trees in the background, and the pre-show videos that flash like an old school projector upon the forest wall, displaying a young child bonding with a mother by the beach – an intended vision of a young Hamlet during happier times.
In the middle of the set there is a rectangular rug beneath a frame made to create the illusion of a glass house. Within the frame, there are three chairs, a metal bar cart, and two doors. When I looked away from the set for a moment and looked back up, I found Jacob Warner’s character Horatio sitting on the left-hand side of the stage, staring off into the distance, and dressed in clear 60s fashion.
The use of confetti to create the illusion of snow is genius. It is even more a clever feat when you notice that when the confetti falls and lands upon the shag pile carpet, it blends in completely. You don’t even notice there are piles of it until the cast shift or kick it around. Throughout the production, the snow falls hard, fast, or not at all, and is practically an additional character of the show.
The biggest change in this new production, however, is that Hamlet, although a male character, is played by a female. I loved this directorial choice. Hamlet is filled with misogynistic lines and undertones, and having a female actress play a male character just made everything said by Hamlet hit differently. While it is still uncomfortable, it made me look past the sensitive topics and helped me focus more on Hamlet’s suffering and the overall journey instead. It also helped that Harriet Gordon-Anderson is so phenomenal as Hamlet, I became lost in the character, completely captivated by her portrayal of the young, troubled prince – to the point that gender did not matter.
The cast of Peter Evans’ version of Hamlet stars the already mentioned Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet, Lucy Bell as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, Ray Chong Nee as Claudius, Robert Menzies as Polonius, Rose Riley as Ophelia, Jacob Warner as Horatio, Jeremi Campese as Rosencrantz/Marcellus, Jane Mahady as Guildenstern/Banardo, Jack Crumlin as Laertes/Player, Eleni Cassimatis as Player Queen/Second Gravedigger/Osric, and last but not least, James Evans as Ghost/Player King/Gravedigger, who is also the Associate Director at Bell Shakespeare as well as the dramaturg of the production (super talented human).
While the cast are all solid in their individual performances, I must confess that I loved Robert Menzies’ Polonius, who often breaks the fourth wall and has most of the surprisingly funny moments in an otherwise, serious story. I also loved Rose Riley’s tender portrayal of Ophelia, the perfect combination of grace, love, and despair. Lastly, I must mention that I love how in the end, Horatio is back where he started.
This production was my first exposure to Hamlet. Throughout the play, Hamlet is described as ‘mad’. But is Hamlet crazy mad, or livid mad? Honestly, given the situation and his circumstances, with the guidance of this production, I don’t see why he can’t be both.
Not only was finally hearing the iconic monologue of “To be or not to be” an absolute delight despite the overall tone of the story, but the fight choreography by Nigel Poulton performed by Gordon-Anderson and Crumlin in the final act, sabre fencing style (genius choice by the way), is bloody fantastic and possibly the highlight of the experience for me, simply because I did not expect it, it was perfect, and I loved every minute of it.
Overall, Peter Evans’ take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet is brilliant, and I feel both honoured and blessed to have witnessed this modern retelling of this epic story. Every directorial decision and choice that has been made, has made this production of Hamlet a brave, bold and moving masterpiece.
Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet is now on at Art Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio until the 14th of May and is also part of Visit Victoria’s Art After Dark event.
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Photography by Brett Boardman.