Hamlet in hard times

Hamlet is the premier play of English-language theatre, not because it’s Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy but because any classical actor worth his salt has the chance to shine in it. The title role is so  open to interpretation that the actor can, if not quite play himself, at least exhibit his natural gifts without violating the characterisation.

So it was that Olivier’s first stage Hamlet was described by James Agate as the finest performance he had ever seen. Gielgud’s recordings suggest a Hamlet of lingering, meditative intensity and a wonderful glinting gift for high comedy. Scofield was pensive and uncertain, staring into an abyss. Richard Burton made the verse a weapon of his will and the comedy was like swordplay.

Derek Jacobi was the last big-time British actor to tour this country in the part, a couple of decades ago. But local Hamlets have cut their swathes: Robert Menzies, and more recently Richard Roxburgh, who had Cate Blanchett as his Ophelia and Geoffrey Rush as his Horatio.

Hamlet is not like Lear, in which only an actor or two every generation comes within cooee of the role. A new Hamlet need not worry about the looming memory of a Scofield or a Paul Robeson, a James Earl Jones or a Sean Connery. He can simply become one more bewildering element, in a play about the riddle of selfhood.

A histrionic prince who treats the world as his mirror and his rehearsal space, Hamlet has to imagine himself before he can find himself as an actor. The mask of the comedian and the mask of the magnetic actor, the prince of self-possession, derive their power from the fact that Hamlet is steeped in a desolation he cannot understand.

In his new production for the Bell Shakespeare Company, John Bell gives the role to Leon Ford—a young actor who plays the Prince as very young, looking like a homeboy, a nerd or some very contemporary incarnation of alienated youth.

You can’t object to the trappings of the conception. But Ford plays Hamlet as a kind of goblin boy, all cartoon hair and creepy, ethereal voice. In a slightly alarming way, the language is neither an approximation to standard English—the sort of high Australian Mel Gibson used —nor ordinary middle Australian. Instead, he uses a weird impacted voice that owes something to Bell’s own sub-Olivier mannerisms—the terrier-like barking and nipping round Shakespeare’s words—but nothing to his technique or mastery of the verse.

The upshot is a thwarted performance. It’s not naturalistic but it doesn’t have a mastery of traditional style either. Ford takes the idea of Shakespeare (or the precedent of Bell) as the pretext for playing Hamlet as an oddball, contemporary gargoyle. Parts of it are done well. Ford can hurl out Hamlet’s quips and give them a flattened, cagey nerviness that translates their savagery into a contemporary vocal idiom. But the overall effect is of a funny little cartoon, at once artless and self-conscious.

Christopher Stollery, in his day a distinctive Hamlet for Bell, plays Claudius with a nasal Australian drawl that cuts against the verse. He looks like a nightclub owner, but very self-possessed, and the performance has a natural authority of its own.

On the other hand, Linda Cropper has the right kind of Shakespearean manner as the Queen, but fails to make much of the part. There is not enough presence, in this somewhat thankless role, to get Cropper over the hurdle of the Queen’s vapid early statements, and she doesn’t make enough of the closet scene to compensate. Nor does Bell’s direction do much to help her.

Robert Alexander as Polonius makes rather more of this prime ham role. The natural fall of the lines is preserved and he belts out the jokes more or less effectively. It is a sound traditional characterisation, but without much to hone or highlight it.

Ophelia, in Anna Torv’s interpretation, falls between two stools. She intones drama schoolishly—which can be a relief in a Bell production, where everything can sound like Brecht in alliance with the more desperate side of Kings Cross. But although she is a ‘traditional’ Ophelia, it’s not the tradition of speaking the verse ‘on the note’—and finding the character through that. This is a porcelain cliché imperfectly executed.

I’m not sure if one should be bemused or relieved that a man of Bille Brown’s talents is to be found as the Ghost, the First Player and the Gravedigger. He is less of a delight than he might be because his Marlovian Ghost, in a blanket of stage smoke, has something Gilbert and Sullivan-like about it. His Player is artfully painted but has all its skill underlined by the craftsman, and his Gravedigger is a matter of what the Gravedigger can do for Bille Brown rather than what Bille Brown can do for the Gravedigger.

This production has been overpraised in ways that suggest a lot of people no longer ‘get’ Shakespeare or have forgotten the kinds of directorial and acting skills that are required. John Bell should concentrate on equipping his younger actors with a mastery of Shakespeare’s language. He might also pull back his old hands so they are not simply hoist on the petard of their own technique.

The production does have a certain clarity of outline. It gets from A to B without fuss. The young audience in whose company I saw it greeted it with intelligent enthusiasm—laughing at the jokes, rather than inappropriately—in a way that put most first-night establishment audiences to shame. 

Peter Craven is the editor of Quarterly Essay and Best Australian Essays.



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