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Theatre Review: Hamlet - Montague Basement at PACT, Sydney (Performances until December 5th)

Annually and without fail, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” sees a flavoursome reworking on a Sydney stage. Big or small, there is one. 2013 saw Belvoir Resident Director Simon Stone’s stripped and minimalistic rendition of the tragedy executed with a wealth of experience – Toby Schmitz playing the titular role, Robyn Nevin as Gertrude, John Gaden as Claudius, Emily Barclay as Ophelia and a series of contemporaries filling the gaps. 2014 saw a variety of drama students presenting on stage, notably Sydney University’s analytically complex reworking. 2015 brings new challenges in Sydney, two Hamlets running rampant on the same nights, with creatives exploring different thematic concerns.

There is no doubt in saying Hamlet is a multifaceted work, and easily The Bard’s longest. Currently, Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet clocks in at over three hours, and Montague Basement’s “drastically streamlined” reworking sits at ninety minutes. This play has been done dozens of times in recent years, and in order to keep it as fresh for audiences to endure and enjoy, constant revamps and enhancements need to happen, and director/designer Saro Lusty-Cavallari and Producer Imogen Gardam do just that.

The would-be cast of over three-dozen is stripped to a mere five, fruitfully revolving Hamlet, his madness, his love and his sorrows. The politics of ownership, inheritance and governance are dismissed, allowing the play to focus solely on Shakespeare’s inner workings. To effectively slice through the lyric extensions of the text, it is only Claudius, Horatio, Ophelia and Polonius that accompany the spiralling Dane on stage, with significant portions of dialogue being stricken and particular references modified and catered for the lack of dramatis personae.

This production certainly weeds out all of the unnecessary material unrelated to Hamlet’s eventual demise. The man behind the Dane, Christian Byers, dominates the stage for a vast majority of the performance, with elements of Lulu Howes’s Ophelia and Robert Boddington’s Claudius guiding the path to the eventual fate of all involved.

Lusty-Cavallari examines a very contemporary approach to set design, and is one of the show’s highlights. The stage is sprawled with posters and papers, a mess of existence, reflective of a pacing Byers. The walls are riddled with a set of box televisions, stacked by an array of VHS tapes. Lamps riddle the outer ring of the performance space, and a central lighting deck above encapsulates blue hues in times of woe.

The production’s exploration and use of technological ideas come to a great advantage during scenes like Hamlet’s visitation from his Father’s Ghost, as the dimly lit room becomes electrified with a caricature plastered from wall to wall. Pre-recorded material fills voids of missing characters as a series of previous productions of Hamlet including David Tennant’s 2009 BBC/RSC triumph open the show and excerpts from Disney’s “The Lion King” allow for a perfect execution of The Players’ ‘Mousetrap’ scene.

As innovative and creative as this performance is, it is equally demanding. Without prior understanding or experience with this text, audience members may possibly lose themselves in this thoughtful reworking. Montague Basement have successfully narrowed their concerns down to the Dane with an analytical approach to the renowned 16th century work.

This performance runs through to the end of the week and finishes on Saturday, December 5 at PACT centre in Erskineville. For tickets and more details: http://www.montaguebasement.com/hamlet

This reviewer attended the opening night performance on December 1st