Featuring as it does all the blood, familial conflict, madness and battles for succession of your average Game of Thrones episode, the time is ripe for Hamlet to rise again. Though Sport for Jove’s staging and costumes are more Marrickville than medieval, more Inner West than Westeros, this production makes the story of the mad Dane as accessible and engaging as George R.R. Martin.
From the very beginning, this adaptation commands attention, opening with a bombastic speech from Claudius (James Lugton), lit by brilliant white lights as a giant Danish flag waves behind him. Though the reverb obscured the text of the speech, the effect was undiminished – this is a display of power, a king addressing his people in a time of crisis. Lugton’s was a monarch in a more modern vein, somewhere between thundering preacher and furious businessman (an impression his Wall Street-ish double-breasted suit only reinforced). Like the rest of this production, this speech favoured power over subtlety and the result was striking.
Clothing wasn’t the only modern choice, with mobile phones and digital cameras popping up throughout. It can be a risky move, to put 21st century technology alongside the 17th century dialogue, but director Damien Ryan has achieved a beautiful, natural integration. Polonius (John Turnbull), ever the spymaster, now plants bugs in centrepieces and books to record Hamlet’s conversations. This small detail plays beautifully into Hamlet’s mental collapse, as he becomes paranoid, searching Gertrude’s chambers for Polonius’s hidden microphones in Act III.
Polonius’s snooping even stoops to the very contemporary crime of phone-hacking. On a message left by Hamlet on Ophelia’s voicemail, the earnest monologue is punctuated by a throwaway, “this is Hamlet, by the way”, which had the audience roaring with laughter for some minutes.
To overlook the rest of the cast would be unfair: Eloise Winestock’s Ophelia is beautifully complex. Her exchange with Laertes, as he’s about to set sail for France, is a wonderful moment of irreverence and innuendo, gesturing to her “chaste treasures” and mocking Laertes’ hypocritical concern for her virtue. Takaya Honda’s Horatio is the only sane and honest man in Elsinore and he shines in a role that could be easily overshadowed in such a bombastic production. George Banders is functional as Marcellus but steals his scenes as Rosencrantz, whose hippie mannerisms were hilarious when set against Hamlet’s deep seriousness. Last but not least is Christopher Tompkinson, whose performance as the ghost of Hamlet’s father was bone chilling from the set of his shoulders and his steely eyes, it was clear that this spirit meant vengeance and little else.
It’s Lindsay Farris’s Hamlet that steals the show, though. From his first appearance, at the breakfast table with Claudius and Gertrude (Danielle King), Farris moves with a certain tension. At first, it can be dismissed as the air of a teenager filled with righteous fury at his mother’s hasty re-marriage. Over the play’s course, though, that curious firmness of jaw and the wild eyes become more pronounced as Hamlet’s madness begins to take hold. As he leaps, seethes and schemes, we start to see that he has become an unreliable narrator – did his uncle conspire to murder his brother, or is this the figment of a disturbed mind? Farris does a superb job of capturing this ambiguity, convincing the audience that, if nothing else, Hamlet firmly believes this to be true.
His scenes with Gertrude, particularly in the play’s final Act, see both actors shine: Farris, delusional and violent, struggling to save his mother and King, the mother torn up by the mental collapse of her son. During the final battle with Laertes (Christopher Stalley) when Hamlet seems almost lucid, King’s manic need to believe that her son is well once more is almost palpable. That maternal delusion plays into her death and brings to light the plot against Hamlet. Which leads to a beautifully restrained performance by Farris, as he kills Claudius for his treachery and ends his own life.
For many, Shakespeare has the dull and dreary air of a high school English classroom, where the dusty texts are analysed and pored over. It’s adaptations like this one that are necessary to prove that there is bright blood at the heart of Hamlet, made and performed with a presence and vitality that the play deserves. Its concepts are simple and the staging simpler yet but every component, from the actors on stage to the players unseen, show this mighty play for the classic it is.