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December 2, 2015

Hamlet – the play, the character; the phenomenon – needs no introduction. In Sydney this year alone, we have been offered at least four productions in one form or another, and this is the third I have seen. In many respects, Montague Basement’s production is the strongest – and certainly the boldest – but it could be bolder, more daring; more Hamletian.

Directed by Saro Lusty-Cavallari, this Hamlet is “surrounded by technologies as old as [himself]:” hundreds of VHS tapes and several old televisions dot the space, hinting at both the endless surveillance we are so used to seeing in the Hamlet story, but also his need for a father (figure), someone he can only truly find through stories; stories which he has grown up with, stories which make sense of the events in his life. Using a heavily edited text, Lusty-Cavallari has trimmed the normally three-plus hours of Hamlet down to a mere ninety minutes; gone too, are more than several characters, including Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, the gravedigger et al. Most are cut outright, while others (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example) are conflated into existing characters (like Horatio). Rather than restricting the scale of Hamlet, what these cuts and shifts do is open up the possibilities of the play to explore new ground, new relationships, to look again at the play and try to work out what exactly is going on inside it. “Because Hamlet is so consistently held on a pedestal of individuality that disconnects it from any theatrical or literary tradition or influence, we too often lose sight of Shakespeare’s very conscious interrogation of [the revenge tragedy] genre.” If anything, ninety minutes seems slightly too long for this production; perhaps some more – smaller – cuts could be made throughout the text to fillet it down to a lean and taught seventy minutes, to create a more furious and mercurial play.

Right from the beginning – the ‘bad quarto’ version of the ‘To be’ speech – this Hamlet is deliciously off-kilter from our usual expectations. As played by Christian Byers, Hamlet is mercurial but distracted, caught in his own world, constantly pacing around the space, hands waving in front of him, trying to make sense of everything; if only he could. Our first real encounter with the ghost (voiced by Ewen Leslie) is cleverly evoked through the bank of television screens, and is the catalyst for Hamlet’s journey; rather than coming halfway through the first half of the play, we encounter the ghost right at the top of the show, and it’s a choice which pays off throughout the rest of the production as we see Hamlet deviate from and return to his intended purpose. While Zach Beavon-Collin’s Horatio is downplayed, there is a touching glimpse of what might have been in his relationship with Ophelia (perhaps following on from a suggestion by Jean Betts). Lulu Howes’ Ophelia is perhaps the strongest character in what is a rather feminist Hamlet; not only does she stand up to Hamlet (and actually – understandably – slap him at the end of the ‘nunnery’ scene), but her madness is here made all-too understandable. Patrick Morrow’s Polonius is pitch-perfect (and certainly doesn’t overstay his welcome as in many other productions), and his death is brutal, swift, and harrowing. Robert Boddington’s Claudius may seem at first like a toothless tiger, but there’s an undercurrent of yearning to understand Hamlet’s affliction which sits quite nicely within this production.

There are some very effective moments in this Hamlet – Polonius’ death and Ophelia’s madness (and death) which immediately follows it, and for the first time they truly make sense of each other; Hamlet’s performance of ‘The Murder of Gonzago,’ where he himself plays both the poisoner and the poisoned, flipping (astonishingly) acrobatically between the two; ‘The Mousetrap,’ which is the best use of The Lion King I have ever seen… While Lusty-Cavallari’s cuts mean we do lose some of the narrative closure of the story, namely the duel at the end of the play, what we are left with is a more humanist and quietly affecting moment – Horatio alone, reading a letter left by Hamlet, dictating the terms of his remembrance.

While the pacing sometimes lags for a scene or two, this Hamlet is ultimately one which mirrors Hamlet himself – it feels alive, dangerous; unpredictable. If you want to see a Hamlet that will play out very much to your expectations, go to the opera house; if you want a Hamlet which is more particular in its concerns, more ultimately concerned with embracing the Hamlet-ness of Hamlet – that is, “a cruel, frustrating, and inconsistent play… that does not offer the discernable logic of great revenge tragedies or beloved cartoons” – then this is definitely for you. It has been a pleasure to watch Montague Basement go from strength to strength in their productions, gaining confidence (and audacity), finding and sharpening their voice, in the space of fifteen months. If the teaser we get in the program to this production is anything to go by, 2016 looks to be another cracker of a year for this uncompromising collective.

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