Belvoir, Sydney, until 1 December
While the actual Prince of Denmark was charming Sydney crowds during his visit to mark the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Opera House, down at Belvoir Toby Schmitz has been giving a jaw-dropping performance as his fictional kinsman. Simon Stone, the brilliant young director who earlier this year directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, has now given us a spare, taut, intense, minimalist interpretation of Hamlet.
The stage is dominated by a grand piano; the drama takes place against a pianissimo accompaniment of baroque airs. At critical intervals, a counter-tenor glides among the actors. The effect is to heighten the dramatic tension by enveloping the characters in a constant atmosphere of subtle menace. This aural background displaces any elaborate stage design, giving the actors the greatest freedom to explore their parts unaccompanied by paraphernalia of time and place.
Schmitz is not the understated, introspective Hamlet so commonly favoured by interpreters of the role. Quite the reverse. His is a Hamlet whose anguish frequently explodes into hysteria — even, on a couple of occasions, climaxing in a primal scream — who wears his emotions on his doublet: a Hamlet for Gen Y.
Compelling though Schmitz’s performance is, nothing in the play matches Robyn Nevin’s Gertrude. When first we see her, she is a louche, frumpy courtesan. A wine goblet does not leave her hand for the whole of the first two acts. Then, in a crescendo following the killing of Polonius, the full weight of the moral calamity in which she is ensnared seems to dawn upon her for the first time. Nevin’s performance is riveting, as we watch her cascade through the several stages of awareness, guilt, horror, panic and collapse.
John Gaden is a formal, emotionally buttoned-down Claudius: it is never quite clear whether he makes the transition from calculation to guilt. Anthony Phelan, as the ghost, is appropriately minatory but not particularly supernatural.
It is an aspect of the genius of Simon Stone’s realisation of the script that the characters — whether dead or alive — are mostly in one another’s presence throughout. The psychological burden on Hamlet is heightened by the mute presence not merely of the ghost, but of the slain. In the final act, he is surrounded by no fewer than four voiceless shades.
One clever device is the presentation of the play-within-the-play scene as a puppet show; Schmitz’s dexterity as a puppeteer extends to the execution by puppet-Claudius and puppet-Gertrude of some memorably lewd acts. And — as with any good Shakespearean tragedy — there is no shortage of blood.
This is a cleverly conceived, skilfully accomplished, emotionally demanding Hamlet. It will further enhance the growing reputation of both Stone and Schmitz, while reminding us of just how good Robyn Nevin can be. It is a shame that Toby Schmitz is quitting the production before its run is finished to fulfil an overseas engagement; it will be interesting to see if his replacement can carry the part so well.
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George Brandis is the federal Minister for the Arts and Attorney-General.
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