The first play that Bell Shakespeare ever performed was Hamlet. Staged in a circus tent in the Sydney Showgrounds in January 1991, the production was directed by John Bell with John Polson as Hamlet, and played in repertoire with The Merchant of Venice.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Bell Shakespeare is opening its 2020 season with a new production of Hamlet, directed by the company’s current Artistic Director Peter Evans. It’s the seventh time Bell Shakespeare has staged the play (or the 10th including the Education Program) with Christopher Stollery, Leon Ford, Brendan Cowell and Josh McConville among those playing Denmark’s “sweet prince”.

Harriet Gordon-Anderson. Photograph © Brett Boardman

This time, Harriet Gordon-Anderson takes on the title role, and turns in a dazzling performance. It’s not the first time, by any means, that a female actor has played Hamlet, but it’s an inspired piece of casting. Gordon-Anderson doesn’t play the character as a woman, nor does she throw in macho mannerisms. She simply is Hamlet. Her short hair, black trousers and black polo neck jumper give her something of an androgynous look anyway, and in next to no time you think of her only as the son of Gertrude and King Hamlet. At the same time, perhaps there is a subtle underpinning to the production as the result of her casting, relating to the way men and women tend to deal differently with emotion.

Evans sets the play in 1960s Denmark, which makes for a stylish looking aesthetic. Anna Tregloan has designed a beautiful, wintry set, with snowy fir trees painted onto a backdrop, a white shag pile carpet suggesting the frozen ground, and the metal frame of what looks like a glass house in the centre of the stage to suggest the royal family’s living room. Inside that frame are a rug, modish chairs and a drinks trolley. Snow falls for much of the production, slowly layering the carpet and dusting the furniture and actors.

Jeremi Campese, Harriet Gordon-Anderson and Jane Mahady. Photograph © Brett Boardman

The costumes are 60s chic, creating a glamorous look for the women. Gertrude (Lisa McCune) looks elegant in a pale blue dress with matching shoes. Ophelia (Sophie Wilde) wears a yellow and white mini-dress with white tights and headband, and Guildenstern – also played by a female actor (Jane Mahady) – wears a green dress and white tights.

Video imagery is screened now and then on the back walls – primarily featuring nostalgic home footage of Hamlet as a young boy playing at the seaside with Gertrude, as well as images of Hamlet and Ophelia together. When images of Gertrude playing with her young son roll at the end as Hamlet’s death approaches, the joy from those lost times brings a lump to the throat.

Evans directs a beautifully paced, eloquent production, with lighting by Benjamin Cisterne, and sound design by Max Lyandvert. The storytelling is exceptionally clear, and each of the well-chosen cast is comfortable with the poetry. Gordon-Anderson uses the language with consummate ease. Hamlet has to utter lines that are so famous they can sometimes sound almost trite, but Gordon-Anderson makes everything sound fresh and highly intelligible, drawing you into the workings of the character’s mind through his complex soliloquies. She delivers the “to be, or not to be” speech sitting on the edge of the stage, and makes it sound spontaneous.

This Hamlet is far from mad. He is grieving, angry, quick-witted, touchingly youthful, devastated at his mother’s betrayal of his father, and determined to avenge his father’s murder. Keenly aware of what is transpiring, after the revelations from his father’s ghost, he quickly sees through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and plays with them by using slightly manic, sometimes sardonic humour to unsettle them. At the same time Gordon-Anderson makes Hamlet’s love for Ophelia abundantly plain with a telling expression to the audience, before the “get thee to a nunnery” scene.

Harriet Gordon-Anderson and Sophie Wilde. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Lisa McCune is a sympathetic, sensuous Gertrude, who clearly desires her new husband. She and James Lugton, as Claudius, are constantly touching each other, gently holding hands, while he often puts his arm around her protectively. Yet she is devoted to her son. In an early scene, when Claudius is berating Hamlet, McCune gently touches Lugton’s chest with her head as if to say, ‘that’s enough’. There is genuine chemistry between the two, so Gertrude’s horror when she finally realises the truth of the situation feels intense and palpable.

Lugton is a persuasive Claudius, and the scene when he faces his ruthless behaviour and kneels to pray is surprisingly moving. Sophie Wilde is very sweet as the young, naïve Ophelia. Initially wide-eyed and unable to stop smiling when she tells Polonius about Hamlet’s love for her, her subsequent despair is poignant, while Robert Menzies is a hoot as the verbose, bumbling Polonius.

There are also excellent performances by Jack Crumlin as the decent, dashing Laertes, driven to fury by the murder of his father, Jeremi Campese and Jane Mahady as the rather vapid, easily manipulated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, James Evans as the solid Horatio, Tony Cogin as the Ghost, Player King and Gravedigger, and Aanisa Vylet as the Player Queen and second gravedigger. It’s a tight ensemble who all complement each other.

There are some lovely touches in the staging. We watch the scene in which Polonius is killed by Hamlet from behind the arras, so that it is Hamlet and Gertrude who are hidden from view rather than Polonius – a clever way to refashion something very familiar.

Jack Crumlin and Harriet Gordon-Anderson. Photograph © Brett Boardman

The play-within-a-play is the only slight misstep, with the players performing as if in a pretentious experimental theatre work, moving in slow motion and deploying exaggerated, mannered gestures. It’s actually very funny but it does distract from Claudius’s reaction.

The final scene (with fight direction by Nigel Poulton) has you holding your breath. The duel between Laertes and Hamlet, and the body count that ensues, can often come across as somewhat ludicrous, provoking laughter from the audience. Here it is highly charged. Evans dispenses with the arrival of Fortinbras. Instead, the curtain comes down as Hamlet says: “the rest is silence”. A much more powerful way to end the play.

This is one of the best Bell Shakespeare productions I have seen for a long time, probably the best since Kate Mulvany starred in Richard 3. You find yourself watching a famous play with fresh eyes. Don’t miss it.

Hamlet plays at the Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 5, the Canberra Theatre Centre, April 9 – 18, and Arts Centre Melbourne, April 23 – May 10


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