Bell Shakespeare: Hamlet

I don’t care what anyone says, good Shakespeare should come alive on the stage, it should buzz, it should whirr, it should sing. It most certainly shouldn’t be a historical document that we wheel out, shake the cobwebs off and mount productions of purely to make ourselves feel like we are perpetuating a culture of ‘real theatre’. “So, what,” (I wondered aloud to myself in typical Shakespearean fashion) “was this much-hyped production ofHamlet featuring Brendan Cowell as the big man to be, or not to be then, eh?”Well, it is with complete and unreserved enthusiasm that I say it’s pretty damn fine indeed. Hamlet most certainly is alive and kicking in Cowell’s incarnation as a prince who truly “rocks” (in the rockstar sense) as a very modern royal. In fact, he’s the kind of prince who wouldn’t be out of place on a boozy bender with the Windsor lads William and Harry – perhaps with Paris Hilton along for the ride! But this is praise, (just in case you mistook it for something else) for this is entirely what director Marion Potts wants us to see in the character. Hamlet is lost. Sure, he’s got cash, prestige and plenty of privileges, but there’s a sense here that he’s overindulged and until the moment where the apparition of his dead father appears and asks him to avenge his murder he’s a man (barely) without a mission. Thus, the ghost sets him on a course that will end in disaster, but will surely teach him a lot about life and himself along the way.By stripping away the emphasis on politics in this version Potts has allowed us to focus much more readily onHamlet’s inner journey, and this goes a long way towards helping us understand him. Cowell works tirelessly in this department to make Shakespeare’s prose hum. Every word is clear and full of true meaning and coupled with his moments of child-like whimsy this performance is a delight to behold.

Also truly sublime is the choice of Sarah Blasko as composer. Her musical accompaniments add a layer of melancholy rapture to the performance which goes to the heart of Hamlet’s grief, anger and loss. Ingeniously,Blasko is incorporated into the production itself as one of the players, which creates a seamless quality to her musical interludes.

Meanwhile, Colin Moody’s Claudius is a revelation. His soliloquies go a long way towards creating an empathetic window into the soul of a character that has so often come across as one dimensional in previous productions.

Barry Otto is simply scrumptious as Polonius, whose playful verbosity succeeds in boring the characters on stage, while he charms the audience off it, which is precisely the way that Shakespeare intended it.

Gertrude (Heather Mitchell) plays a trophy-wife style of queen who seems to be making the most of a bad situation. While Rosencrantz (Tim Richards) and Guildenstern (Matthew Whittet) provide beautifully timed comic relief that really does make the audience laugh out loud at their antics.

If I had to pick the weakest link, I’d say that it’s Ophelia (Laura Brent). Unfortunately, her interactions with and aboutHamlet don’t really make us believe that she is in love with him, which leaves a rather gaping hole in the love-story side of things. And while her mad turn in act IV is suitably kooky it’s too late for us to make the leap.

The set design (Fiona Crombie) is highly functional, yet stirring and poetic. And Nick Schlieper’s lighting design – particularly when Russell Kiefel’s spooky, night-of-the-living-dead ghost glides onto the stage – is highly effective.

If we could give stars for theatre (and this is such a star-studded production that I don’t see why we can’t) I’d be giving it four and a half – and Brendan Cowell really does deserve every single one of them.

Bell Shakespeare presents
By William Shakespeare

Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 6 June – 12 July 2008
Bookings: Sydney Opera House Box Office 02 9250 7777


This review first appeared on Australian Stage

Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands

Last year, director and choreographer extraordinaire Matthew Bourne brought us a revolutionary revamp of the timeless ballet Swan Lake. The piece, which featured male swans bounding around the stage in a bold display of athletic machismo, breathed new life into the classic and was lauded by critics as a must-see, once-in-a-lifetime event. Now, Bourneis back with a new take on Tim Burton’s twisted cult cinematic fairytale Edward Scissorhands.It’s a lovingly crafted adaptation on the poignant themes of difference, loneliness and isolation which are embodied with such tender and touching nuance by Edward (Dominic North, on the night I attended), the boy who is ‘born’ with scissors for hands. Like Pinocchio or Frankenstein before him Edward is the creation of an eccentric father figure who yearns for a ‘real’ boy. In Bourne’s version Edward stumbles into 1950s suburbia and is found and adopted by the Boggs family, who seek to offer him a fresh start, complete with a new preppy-style wardrobe to go with the stitched up values that he must learn to observe. But Edward thrives nonetheless and brings his own brand of magic to the place in the form of fantastical topiary creations and cutting-edge hairstyles all rendered magnificently through the use of his unique snippy appendages.Bourne’s talent for harnessing the subtlety in minuscule gestures provides this piece with a powerful visual narrative. Bereft of dialogue we must rely on movement, costuming (Lez Brotherston) and facial expressions alone to learn the attitudes of the characters and follow the story, and this is achieved to great effect here. From the greasers, to the 1950s housewives and cheerleaders each dancer captures the stereotypes with a vivid fluidity which is energising to watch.The set design (Lez Brotherston) is sumptuous and Burtonesque. There’s an effective use of screens that add a dreamlike dimension to the space, and the large whimsical topiary creations inspire pure and unadulterated childlike wonder.

Fans of the original flick’s memorable score by Danny Elfman will be enchanted by Terry Davies new arrangements on the familiar themes. And Paul Groothuis’ sound design – when coupled with the poetic flourishes of Edward’s scissor-like hands – create surprising moments of emotional connection for an audience who seemed to hang on the edge of their seats like kids entranced at a school holiday pantomime.

This is a slick, well-executed production, but the first act is by far the strongest. This is largely because the story elements are well thought through here. As we enter the second act it seems that large dancing set pieces take predominance over the narrative, and the romance between Edward (Dominic North) and Kim (Noi Tolmer) seems to come more as an after thought, rather than the unifying principle around which the action takes place. But still, there is plenty for Tim Burton diehards to enjoy, and lovers of contemporary dance will delight in the scope of genres that are incorporated into this fun flight of fancy.

This article first appeared in Australian Stage