★★★★☆ A study of psychological pathology, this Hamlet chooses the personal over the political.

Sydney Opera House, Playhouse
October 29, 2015

Hamlet is often made to wear the news of the day, contorting its story of murderous coups and invading armies into a mirror for whatever geopolitical crisis is topical. Yet there is another tack that circumnavigates the simple blow-by-blow of the narrative to reach a more introspective territory. Director Damien Ryan’s production for Bell Shakespeare, finally reaching Sydney after a five month national tour, takes this path. This Hamlet focuses on the personal over the political without attempting to drape this play in any ill-fitting contemporary allegories or politicised metaphors. Instead this highly physical and often graphically unsettling account offers a brutal portrait of a gnarled and disordered mind.

Josh McConville as Hamlet

While this production avoids any overt cultural or historical pigeonholing, it is still rich in thought provoking detail that adds another simmering layer of cerebral insight. Alicia Clements’ design suggests we are in an ornate palace, at some point in the 20th Century. Splitting the stage in two with a lavish wall of darkened glass doors, the set is deliberately claustrophobic – the gilded prison of Denmark that Hamlet feels trapped by. Characters linger in the shadows, creep around dark corners or, in a particularly clever addition, listen in on wire taps. These clandestine observations, tinged with a flavour of Cold War espionage, pointedly infer that perhaps ignorance truly is bliss and that knowing too much can have mortal consequences.

In the title role Josh McConville immediately brings the tortured mind of this character to the fore. This isn’t so much a slow descent into madness as it is an existential kamikaze plunge through grief and straight into a manic psychosis. He pendulums between bi-polar moments of forced lucidity and fervent, unhinged rage, peppered with sneered, cynical scepticism. Yet the violent variety of McConville’s delivery reconciles the densely poetic quagmire that can sometimes weigh this dialogue down. There is no attempt to over-illustrate the most famous and philosophical soliloquies, keeping the text viscerally supercharged. These moments of intense gravity are tempered with an immature, sometimes downright crude vulgarity that strips Hamlet of any weighty pretension and shows how little self-restraint this deeply troubled man now has.

These moments of childish spite inject a welcome level of humour, yet there is often a sense that this bright, silly demeanour is just a charade put on by Hamlet, manipulating his friends to fit his purpose. He is almost irreverently mocking of the very fabric of the theatre, as he clownishly pokes fun at Polonius’s aside. Yet the paper-thin fourth wall is also used as a boundary between external action and internal decay. Ophelia peers over the edge of the stage, quietly threatening to hurl herself into the auditorium as if foreshadowing her eventual suicide. Hamlet too pushes against this border, exquisitely delivering the famed “To be, or not to be,” speech while teetering on the brink of the proscenium. When he finally does rip down the artifice of the stage and venture into the audience, his raging instability clearly shows his mental collapse is irreversible.

Overwhelmingly Ryan’s production is firmly centred on the fractured mind of McConville’s Hamlet, but the other characters are also brought expertly into focus. Philip Dodd’s smarmy, brown-nosing Polonius is especially strong, and Sean O’Shea’s calm, regal composure as Claudius is brilliantly cracked with moments of desperate cowardice or drunken regret as Hamlet’s vengeance slowly closes in. Most affecting of all is Doris Youane’s Gertrude, whose terrifying realisation that her son has been driven insane reveals a palpable note of guilt, implying her complicity in her husband’s murder.

Matilda Ridgway as Ophelia

This production isn’t without its faults however, and one notable misfire is surely the tone of the relationship between Matilda Ridgway’s Ophelia and her father. The pair seem strained and their interaction impersonal, so her extreme reaction to his death feels conspicuously unlikely. Consequently an impressively committed performance of Ophelia’s mental undoing falls short of the authenticity the rest of this production offers in spades.

And, as the play puts it, here in lies the rub. The art of this staging is not just found in the superb calibre of its performances, but in its probing and startlingly well observed exploration of psychological injury and the perilously thin veneer of social etiquette we use to hide the demons beneath. McConville’s thuggish, deranged Hamlet may only be a victim of his own broken mind, but the savagery of his methods blurs the morality of this character. By the end, surrounded by death, we’re left wondering if he didn’t deserve to die. 

Bell Shakespeare present Hamletat the Sydney Opera House Playhouse until December 6.

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