To be, or Not Toby: Belvoir’s Hamlet re-Daned

On 25th October, Belvoir announced that Toby Schmitz would be leaving the role of Hamlet early due to a scheduling conflict. Schmitz was to be replaced by Ewen Leslie, another of Simon Stone’s usual cast members. Like Schmitz, Leslie had previously played Hamlet, for Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, and would be stepping up to the mark from 19th November. Curious to see how recasting the titular role would affect the production, I went along. And it was actually better the second time around.

First and foremost, the most noticeable thing about Leslie’s Hamlet is the non-existence of the actor’s ego. Leslie, recently seen on-stage with Schmitz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Sydney Theatre Company, is every bit the actor Schmitz could be if he were to leave his popular image and ego aside. Gone are Schmitz’s annoying verbal groans and tics, his distracting face contortions and red-faced fury; gone, too, are his knowing winks at the audience, visibly milking Shakespeare’s (perhaps unintelligible) humour for all its worth. While these may all have enhanced the perception of Schmitz as one of the most popular actors in Sydney, they ultimately distracted from his performance and left a lot of the prince’s rapid-fire thoughts and “antic dispositions” unfathomable and impenetrable. What Leslie does, and does with ease, is to own the language and to feel at home in it. Like John Gaden’s performances in just about everything, you understand every line he says for the simple reason that he trusts Shakespeare’s words to tell the story over any imposed action.
To be fair, we do still have Hamlet’s groans and moans, but far from being physical tics and performance antics, they are the marks of indecision and frustration, the very existential unsurety that plagues the prince for most of the play’s first three acts. In the six weeks since the preview performances, Simon Stone’s Hamlet has become tighter, a better show. Sure, the first half still feels too long and the pacing before and after ‘The Mousetrap’ scene still seems sluggish, but there is a greater sense of clarity and consistency, and this could be because the production has matured, because the actors have grown into their roles, or it could be because of Ewen Leslie’s performance, I don’t know. 
By recasting the role of Hamlet, Belvoir sidestepped what could have been an otherwise unfortunate instance (any brief search through a newspaper’s search engine will elucidate upon a recent spate of such circumstances surrounding several recent Belvoir productions.) What is interesting though, are the opportunities it afforded the production. For instance, when Ophelia approaches Hamlet following ‘The Speech,’ she gives him letters he previously wrote to her. “I have remembrances of yours, that I have longed long to re-deliver,” Ophelia says. “I pray you, now receive them.” But Hamlet flatly denies the existence of such letters, until he reads them and announces, with some surprise, “I did love you once.” A knowing chuckle rippled through the audience, and it must’ve seemed like Hamlet was previously a different person when he sent those letters… A Time Lord, recently regenerated, if you will. There were several other instances, when the larger real-world events surrounding Ewen Leslie’s commencement of Danish duties seemed to break through the cracks of Shakespeare’s four-hundred-year-old words.
If there’s one thing Ewen Leslie does as Hamlet better than Toby Schmitz, it is be Hamlet. Whereas Schmitz seemed to be doing what Toby Schmitz did best (i.e. being Toby Schmitz), then Leslie was, simply, being Hamlet; an actor playing a role, without any of the trappings of public persona or star status. And the production benefits greatly from it. Leslie’s Hamlet feels more real, more dangerous, more mercurial and affected; seems funnier and cheekier than previously, more human.

Hamlet is, after all, the greatest (and, perhaps, longest) knock-knock joke in the world.

You can read my original review of Belvoir's Hamlet, with Toby Schmitz, here.

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