Bell Shakespeare: Hamlet (Melbourne, 2008)
I had to pitch my reviews, way back when, to my editor in Sydney. I found myself in the ignominious position of having to tell RJ that I enjoyed the production but couldn't put my finger on why, precisely. He was inexplicably delighted by this confession and promptly commissioned the review. (If I can find it... and it's not too humiliating... I'll put it up somewhere.)
I had a vaguely similar reaction to the Bell production of Hamlet, Friday. Apart from Horatio (in the opening scenes) and Ophelia (in the latter half of the play) the acting was pretty bloody undistinguished. Hamlet (Brendan Cowell) in particular was constantly off the beat. I'm not (just) talking verse, here, I mean the beat of the meaning. Given that this production has already done five weeks at the opera house, this is as good as it gets...
If it had been the premiere performance, I would have assumed there was still a way to go. Having said that, the last Bell production of Hamlet, in 2003, was at its best at the Opera House when it opened. It was looser by the time it made it to Melbourne. (If you're keen, you can read my AFR review of the Sydney premiere and my Herald Sun review of the Melbourne season.)
The cuts to the play (more than an hour by my reckoning) were harsh. Inconsistent too. But, hey, I'm not a Nazi when it comes to the language, either. I don't mind 'porpentine' updated to 'porcupine'. I can live with it.
Other niggling little changes puzzed me, I have to say. I'm guessing that there must be some new scholarship justifying changing one of the most famous quotations in the history of the English language... Especially cos Brendan Cowell said the 'wrong' word so emphatically!
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,(Me niggling? Are you kidding?)
than are dreamt of in OUR philosophy.
But, hell, it was a pretty good night out. So, what? I liked the set? Sarah Blasko's songs? (The show opens with Blasko crooning one of Ophelia's mad little ditties.) The sound? The lights?
I did love the three-storey spiral staircase, corkscrewing from the sky, like a double helix of metal DNA. I liked the vertical crypt, OP. I thought the ghost was admirably gruesome.
I didn't mind the players being cut more or less completely... though this did really fuck the "the play's the thing" bit. At least they could have done it as a dumb show... Here, it's a barely comprehensible song -- Blasko in the wrong register -- with percussion provided by... a tap dancer. (LOL)
Cowell has an oily-haired charm, I guess. A bit Michael Hutchence. And he sticks resolutely to his blokey register, a la Gluteus Maximus from Spartacus. You know, what's his name... The bloke Sharon Stone took a shine to, professionally speaking. Mister Romper Stomper. (It's 4:39 as I type, I've got an excuse for vagueness.) [Crowe Magnon Russell, he remembers, belatedly.]
Barry Otto -- looking for all the world like Quentin Crisp -- is an overly effete Polonius. I'm sure he did what he was told, but the choice weakens the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were played as ridiculous halfwit clowns.
I had better stop now, before I talk myself out of liking the thing.
Hamlet. Bell Shakespeare. Directed by Marion Potts. Designed by Fiona Crombie. Lighting design by Nick Schlieper. Music composed and performed by Sarah Blasko. Sound design by Stefan Gregory. Playhouse, the Arts Centre, Melbourne, until August 2.