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Theatre Review: Hamlet - Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth (touring Nationally until 6th December)

Of all of Shakespeare’s works, Hamlet is perhaps his most oft-performed and perhaps most recognised (of the tragedies at least). Indeed as I write this review; a version of the play with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the titular anti-hero is in previews and dominating news headlines back in the UK and beyond.

Hamlet is also my favourite of Shakespeare’s work, thanks in part having to study it back in school; and whilst I may not be quite as familiar with the text as I once was, I still have a pretty good handle on it, and always try and make an effort to see it performed. Being my favourite of the plays, I’m always slightly worried that I’m going to find myself sitting through a terrible performance, as I once did with Much Ado About Nothing.

Yet Bell Shakespeare has, given their name, pedigree when it comes to the presentation of Shakespeare’s work. And whilst I found myself disagreeing with a handful of artistic choices, this interpretation, directed by Damien Ryan does nothing to damage that reputation.

There are few other plays where one character so heavily dominates. Hamlet is nearly every scene; and really his is the only story. As such Hamlet is perhaps every actors dream role, but also one that is also incredibly testing and demands much of the actor. Josh McConville for me proved more than capable of tackling the role. I found he delivered Hamlet’s soliloquies in a way that I hadn’t heard them before; giving emphasis to some parts more than others, and inflecting them with a certain rhythm and cadence that whilst not radically changing meaning, offered a different glimpse at the characters thoughts and machinations.

I felt too than McConville handled Hamlet’s “antic disposition” well, never falling into “over acting” which can occasionally happen. Instead he was more impish and playful, adding emphasis to any lewdness or euphemism, and with anger barely contained underneath the surface. Indeed McConville filled Hamlet with a rage that I have not seen before, or at least not to that extent. Hamlet’s arguments with Ophelia and Gertrude in the second half of the play were forceful, confronting and increasingly violent. McConville’s Hamlet made for compelling and captivating viewing, in fact he demanded your attention; even briefly moving into the audience at one point.

For me none of the rest of the cast really stood out in comparison, which is perhaps the problem when one character so dominates the story. Of them I feel like Matilda Ridgway as Ophelia was the most impressive; I particularly appreciated the way she handled the characters descent into madness; however brief a moment it was. Ivan Donato brought an emotional quality to Horatio that I’ve never seen before, and I’m still a little on the fence on how I feel about it. There were moments when it felt all a little bit overwrought.

One of the things that irked me with this interpretation of Hamlet was the re-gendering of one or two of the characters. Now I have no issue with male’s characters being changed to female characters or vice versa if it’s to make a point, or to explore an idea or challenge something. But here it felt like they changed the gender of characters, and certain aspects of the text, purely because there were more women cast than men. It almost felt like to me that the creative team behind the play couldn’t trust us, the audience, to realise it was a woman playing a man and just go with it; there certainly didn’t seem to be any thematic reason behind the changes, especially given that the characters were fairly minor. Likewise the fact that these were minor characters should suggest it shouldn’t really bother me, but it does. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the play overall it’s just one of those minor niggles that you can’t quite let go of.

One aspect of the interpretation I did like was the emphasis on the spying and subterfuge; and the idea of a cold war existing between Denmark and Norway. I did feel, however, that this fell a bit by the wayside in the second act; and was almost forgotten about. Likewise I understand that setting the play in the near modern age allowed them to play around with ideas of bugs and surveillance, but I felt like that veneer of contemporariness dropped at times during the play; or the near contemporary setting jarred with elements of Shakespeare’s text.

Finally I have to say I found myself impressed by Alicia Clements set design; the veneer of a European palace. It proved to be quite a versatile set, doubling as an airport and other external locations. I felt too that the design of the façade also gave added emphasis to the idea of Denmark being a prison; it was an imposing looking frontage that was both grand, but also dour. I also found myself impressed by the costume design as well; this may very well be the first time I’ve seen Hamlet presented with costuming that actually feels Scandinavian! (Though Guildenstern looked every bit the Italian playboy) I especially liked that they dressed Ophelia in a dress covered in flowers; it was a nice touch.

Despite my minor qualms this was a fine production of Hamlet and one that is well worth seeing as it tours around the country (though be quick, the entire Perth season was sold out); if only just to see Josh McConville’s wonderful and captivating depiction of the titular anti-hero.

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The reviewer attended the Opening Night performance of Hamlet at Perth's Heath Ledger Theatre on 12th August. It continues to tour around the country with the remaining dates below:

Hamlet National Tour 2015
21–22 August - Newcastle Civic Theatre
24 August - Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford
26–27 August - Glasshouse, Port Macquarie
29–31 August - NORPA, Lismore
2 September - Empire Theatre, Toowoomba
4 September - Pilbeam Theatre, Rockhampton
7 September - Mackay Entertainment and Convention Centre
9 September - Riverway Arts Centre, Townsville
12–14 September - Darwin Entertainment Centre
17 September - Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs
22 September - Princess Theatre, Launceston
24–26 September - Theatre Royal, Hobart
West Gippsland Arts Centre, Warragul
29 September - West Gippsland Arts Centre, Warragul
1 October - The Capital, Bendigo
3 October - Lighthouse Theatre, Warrnambool
6 October - Frankston Arts Centre
8 October - Griffith Regional Theatre
10 October - Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre
13-24th October - Canberra Theatre Centre
27th October - 6th December - Sydney Opera House