The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0085 Friday, 26 February 2010
Date: February 24, 2010 10:48:01 PM EST
Subject: Review: La Boite Hamlet from Brisbane Australia
Hamlet - La Boite - Brisbane, Australia - a review by John Zuill
A good Hamlet is hard to perform and rare to see. So I recommend seeing La Boite's, playing now at the Roundhouse. Toby Schmitz is a cool, sleek sexy Hamlet in this accessible, practical version. Shakespeare greatest play is long, thematically complicated and holds such a broad collection of themes, ideas and emotions that it is famously staggering. But, the director, David Berthold, clearly understood that to present this theatrical elephant, you must some how make it dance as light as a bird. A production of this play that reminds us that it's a heavy, famous, profound work will bore everyone.
This production starts rather stodgily and the first five minutes were ominous. Hamlet seemed to be sawing away at the verse like a school lesson and the rest were following his lead. How happy I was about the time Horatio appears (not a conventional scene progression), when Mr. Schmitz let his vowels out and the poetry curled up in his Australian accent like a happy cat. Mr. Schmitz's Hamlet is modern as perhaps all good Hamlets have to be. He can drop Shakespeare's whip-crack irony casually in a speech or rage over what seems irrelevant or thunder out the iambic pentameter as it suites him. Here Hamlet is a trickster, a reluctant fraud, an angry soul protecting its dignity with all the weapons of guile. But then Mr. Schmitz can draw apart and play the wit like Oscar Wilde. Mr. Berthold has given him some jarring pauses, that Mr. Schmitz has the charisma to hold. The whole show is lightened by a cast wide sense of the play's humour. I saw a preview and the audience was full of students who burst into laughter in the middle of the plays most serious scenes. But this is right. Shakespeare's emotions move like light and change in a moment.
This Hamlet can wear a dress and seem virile or lust like a silly schoolgirl. He is a crowd of competing tendencies and only the strength of his spirit seems to keep him whole. In this version, the tragedy of the play is the way such a good person, who has so many talents and virtues is utterly defeated by the duplicity of the world and the moral complacency of the family. In the movies, Mel Gibson played the Dane as an individual, a particle of sanity in his maelstrom of a family. Kenneth Branagh played Hamlet as a frantic diplomat in his family of competing political interests. David Berthold reminded me that it's an intimate family play. Mr. Schmitz's most astute rendering of Hamlet is not in his soliloquies, which were not extraordinary, but in the group scenes in which the entire cast seems to rise together. This Hamlet's vanities and flaws clearly come from the house and family in which he grew up and he is not going to escape them. The scene of Hamlet and his mother was particularly effective. Hamlet usually "wins" this scene, as he takes a moral high ground. In Berthold's version, Gertrude is given a more sympathetic role and the result is pathetic and ambiguous, and embarrassing for both, which I think was an excellent choice and sets up the proceeding plot nicely.
The rest of the cast must follow Mr. Schmitz's lead. Where he shines, they do also. Old favorites do well mostly. Polonius is a little too caricatured for my taste but he got the jokes right and the same actor, after being killed by Hamlet did a fine gravedigger. Ophelia was sanely happy before she commits suicide. She was finally free of this messy house because she had chosen to leave it and life itself. By this time we half agree that this is an appropriate decision. Claudius in this modern version counters Hamlet's rebelliousness like a conniving bureaucrat holding onto power. His eyes seemed to go very wide on several occasions as he quietly senses the full depth of the offal into which he had swum. But perhaps this was in keeping with the humor of the production. As I said, I saw the preview, and then, the last sword fight seemed tentative. That makes sense in the story, but there was a slowness that seemed to hold up the course of events. The finale was gripping and shattering as it should be.
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