A fertile promontory: Sydney Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

Hamlet needs no introduction – as a play or as a character – yet each successive staging seems to require a justification, an explanation of its resonances and relevance. For director Steven Hopley, this explanation is simple: to be the first production staged on Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour, and what a treat this is. We are met near the Opera House by a small water taxi and ferried across to the island; the scene from Shakespeare in Love with Shakespeare crossing the Thames in a similar boat immediately comes to mind – “I’m a bit of a writer myself…” The sun sets over the city, we step onto the island, and we are in another place: Elsinore, Denmark. Here, now, then; always.
We are met at the jetty by two guards in red coats, ghosts from a much earlier time, who demand to know how goes there. From our midst comes the answerer, Horatio, and we are thrust into the middle of a world of secrecy, lies, madness, appearances, and two families whose fortunes and fates are inextricably intertwined. As the scenes progress, and we move from the jetty to the tower, the powder rooms, the forecourt and the promenade, we get a very real sense of Hamlet’s Elsinore, we become part of the play itself, observers and conspirators to confessions and murders, and it makes a normally ponderous play seem fresh, new, and exciting.

Despite its outdoor staging, this Hamlet maintains the company’s dedication to “producing simple and intimate performances of the canon, with a focus on actors, clarity and text.” Using a tailor-made edition of the text assembled from (‘good’ and ‘bad’) quartos and the standard folio text, Hopley has fashioned a Hamlet which is familiar but constantly surprises, as lines that we are unaccustomed to hearing creep in, scenes are rearranged, and moments are truncated or elucidated upon to extract maximum effect from the setting. It’s also a touchingly funny Hamlet, both in the text and the playing, and it’s something I’ve never really seen before.
The cast here, an ensemble of ten, are all strong, and carry their roles with dignity, grace and good humour, competing at times with wheeling seagulls, passing boats, and the noises of the harbour at night. There is a mercurial frustration to Hopley’s Hamlet which perhaps hampers his earlier scenes, making them more angry than they perhaps needed to be, but as the production opens out, and we move in and out of rooms and up and down the tower, Hopley works his all-too-human humour upon us, making light work of some of Shakespeare’s more dense passages, and underplaying several key moments beats in a refreshing take on the great Dane. There’s a tangibly dangerous fury to the final fight, and although the prince’s final moments seem overplayed, it’s a fitting finale to a character who refuses to live anywhere else but in that moment, and who has raged against the dying of the light from the very beginning. Richard Hilliar brings a firm and solid dignity to his Laertes, and there are touching moments to his scenes with his mad sister. As one of the Players, he brings a professional edge to a normally hammy role, and plays with grace. Peter-William Jamieson’s Horatio serves as our guide for much of the production, gently ushering us along, urging us to follow him, and it’s a simple yet touching decision which makes us feel welcome in this Elsinore; in many respects, Horatio here is one of us, the audience, just as we are perhaps him, witnessing these events, cradling the “sweet prince” to his rest. Benjamin Bonar brings a flourish to his Guildenstern and Osric, and a slightly scared edge to his Barnardo which makes for several entertaining moments, but his (brief) roles never feel less than human; as his (sometimes interchangeable) counterpart Rosencrantz, Clown and Marcellus, Brendan Taylor brings grace and humour to a normally coarse Gravedigger, and an eager determination to his Marcellus. Matt Stewart’s Ghost is stern and fiery, while his First Player is the consummate professional and is the first person I’ve seen who manages to make sense of this role within the context of the play. Lana Kershaw’s Ophelia unfortunately suffers a few cuts to her role, but her ‘nunnery scene’ with Hamlet is particularly poignant; as we leave the room, she sits on a bench sobbing, and you want to sit with her until she is alright again. Paul Russell’s Polonius lacked none of the character’s trademark superfluousness, dufferyness, or kind-hearted charm, and his asides to us and the court are particularly well-played. Emily Weare’s Gertrude seems a natural mother to Hamlet, but there is something about her which seems to come from a much younger woman, and it is refreshing to see Gertrude played as a very real person not just a character. Chris Miller’s Claudius has a natural charm which makes his crimes all the more harrowing; as he plays to the audience we get a glimpse of an awareness of his deeds, of a conscience that realizes he has gone too far, that it is too late to back out, and that Hamlet knows.
There are glimpses of a beautiful compassion here which I haven’t seen for a long time in Hamlet. Rather than feeling like a play that is being performed because ‘it is Hamlet, one of the greatest dramatic works in the Western canon,’ it feels alive, dangerous, and unpredictable, very much human, as well as being aware of being part of something bigger than we can “dream of in our philosophy.” There is much to like here, and a lot to admire, not to mention a welcome tendency to avoid a declamatory style of playing, and it works particular well that none of Hamlet’s big soliloquies are performed as set-pieces of bombastic barnstorming but rather become more personable and introspective moments of self-investigation. Even if some of the scenes feel slightly too long, the result of not wanting to be constantly moving around the island, it is still a strong and refreshingly revealing production which sets a high benchmark for future productions of the play. With an audience of just fifteen people performance and the season already sold-out, here’s hoping this Hamlet isn’t just a one-off production, but a constantly evolving piece to be revisited in consecutive years upon this “little patch of ground” in the middle of the harbour.

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