The Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of what is often referred to as “Shakespeare’s most famous play of all time”, Hamlet, on the 9th of August at the MTC building was of varying quality. While the play’s much loved plot was easily recognisable, with the expected eerie arrival of the Ghost of Denmark, Hamlet’s deliberation over whether or not to kill Claudius, his feigned madness whilst doing so, the tragic deaths of Polonius and Ophelia, and the grand duelling finale, the intention of the play seemed at times to be confused. The time period to which it had been recontextualised, for instance, seemed by the lights to be mid-20th century Soviet Bloc, and the helmets used by the guards also reinforced this image. However, the play made extensive use of technology, even including a laptop twice, and other than the military uniforms the clothing was entirely modern. The director apparently wished the audience to consider their own lives while watching theatre, and the use of a glass set reflected this, but there was little else to support this message in the play. The decision to dress Claudius in a low-key black business suit in contrast to the rest of the cast perhaps showed that he wished to convey the idea that “evil and dictatorship comes in many guises.” This I was unable to determine. However, it is easy to see from these contrasts in ideas that the play seemed to lack direction in some areas.
One predicable element of the play, however, was the quality of actors. The entire cast were quite effective in their given roles, and played the parts with entertaining new takes, such as the slightly younger than expected but by no means less entertaining Polonius. In fact, it would not be untrue to say that Polonius was the best role in the production. While not necessarily an incredible actor in his own right, Garry McDonald’s secretarial approach to Polonius was entertainingly different to the traditional self-important advisor that he has been represented as in the past. His dabbling hand actions and regular adjustment of his glasses, along with occasional stutters in his speech, led to a character that had none of the self-importance that one would expect from Polonius.
Also, the acting of Claudius by John Adam was exceptional. His constant frowning and careful, guarded movements gave the impression of a deep unease, and supported well his line “god sees all”-O gained a sense that he was aware of this and was almost paranoid throughout the show, a feeling which gradually intensified, and was released admirably in the scene with the dumb show and the performance by the players.
The costuming, however, was good and bad in equal measures. The use of Hamlet’s costume to show his madness was very effective, in particular the instant transition with his hair from groomed to unkempt, and the versatile use of black jeans as formal trousers and casual dress.
Claudius’ clothing, however, did not fit the impressions that I gained about his character at all, it looked western and he looked like a reasonable, pleasant leader, as opposed to the unstable right-wing dictatorial figure that one would expect him to be given the setting and the unease of his character. He only looked like a ruler in the end scene, but he was still more of a Chief of staff or an Officer in a military wing, not a ruler as such (he needed more medals or other stereotypical compensatory attire).
The re-contextualisation of the Ghost of Hamlet to be “clad in armour” by wearing modern practical military fatigues (since camouflage is armour in modern warfare) was clever attention to detail, if subtle.
The use of Audio-Visual effects was well-tempered in that it never distracted from the acting. It was also useful in identification of the characters-for example, Robert Menzies’ “ghost of Hamlet” was immediately recognisable not because of his painted face but due to the eerie blue lighting change and the swirling mist from the smoke machine that surrounded him. Also, the use of sound effects was very effective in holding audience attention, such as the mobile phone ringing in one scene, and also in providing some levels of familiarity for the younger age bracket, such as the use of a modern stereo by the players.
Overall, this performance of Hamlet seemed a little confused as to its artistic direction, and there was perhaps a little more co-ordination needed between the members of the creative team. However, it was doubtless very entertaining, and the extensive use of props, sounds, lighting and the visually engaging nature of the revolve stage held the audience’s attention with ease.