Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Hamlet, Bell Shakespeare, July 20, 2008 ***

By William Shakespeare, Bell Shakespeare
Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, July 20 to Aug 2, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 20, 2008
Stars: 3

Brendan Cowell’s Hamlet is certainly an unexpected, but not always successful, interpretation of Shakespeare’s young prince, whose mind is addled by grief and revenge. There is no choice but to compare former, famous Hamlets with this contemporary young man.

The grieving young Hamlet is shocked when, just two months after his father’s death, his mother, Gertrude (Heather Mitchell), marries Claudius (Colin Moody), the dead King Hamlet’s brother. Hamlet is driven to distraction when the Ghost of his father (Russell Kiefel) reveals that Claudius murdered him to gain the crown – and his wife.

Cowell’s Hamlet is scruffy, obnoxious, rowdy, sullen and impulsive, looking as if he has taken recreational drugs and been awake for a week. He is most effective and compelling when his Hamlet is in his extroverted moments, rollicking with his university pals, Rosencrantz (Tim Richards) and Guildenstern (Matthew Whittet),  ranting at his mother or Ophelia (Laura Brent) and fencing with Laertes (Chris Ryan).

This Hamlet is disrespectful, confused, privileged and lacking in impulse control. He has a wicked sense of humour and an attractive, bad-boy persona that is recognisable as a modern young man with scattered energy and too much time on his hands. This Hamlet will appeal to a younger audience that is new to the play.

The weaknesses are in Cowell’s interpretation of Hamlet’s introspective soliloquys. His mood shifts are not convincing, he seems disconnected from the text, his voice is uncontrolled and lacking resonance. Much of Hamlet’s philosophising is lost in the whirlwind performance.

Barry Otto, as old Polonius, steals the show without overplaying the role. He finds humour and truth in the loyal, doddering, over-talking Polonius who tries to please everyone.  Mitchell’s Gertrude is dignified and layered. Cowell’s scene with her is strong and passionate.

The crucial Players’ scene has no dramatic impact because it is sung rather than enacted, and Claudius’s reaction to it - “Give me some air” - is totally lost.

The sparse design (Fiona Crombie) of stony walls is broken only by a narrow moat on one side through which the gaping ghost splashes and, on the other, a spiral staircase upon which Hamlet muses.

Colin Moody is a smug and dangerous Claudius while Richards and Whittet play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as clowns. Jo Manning is composed and capable as Horatio.

Marion Potts’ production is an unusual and entertaining ride but it lacks the balance of passion, poetry and subtlety that can make a truly great Hamlet.

By Kate Herbert

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