(Queensland Theatre Company/State Theatre Company of South Australia)


By William Shakespeare

Professional production

Incest, adultery, suicide, murder, calumny, treachery, insanity, even the good old Oedipus complex – you have to admit that Hamlet has it all. In fact, I’m surprised they don’t give it an Adults Only rating.

Its place in the canon of world literature is assured, but the “Greatest Play” label often prevents us from taking an objective look at what it says. We know bits of it off by heart, we settle back comfortably when asked whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer etc etc, we affect the standard shock/horror response at the “country matters” repartee (if we understand it, that is), and after weeping with poor mad Ophelia we will never look at pansies in the same way again.

But it’s not a comfortable play, and establishing the real motivation of its protagonist is a problem that has puzzled directors and readers for 400 years. How much of Hamlet’s madness is assumed and how much genuine? Does he morph from one state to the other during the course of the play and, if so, what triggers it? How can we explain Gertrude’s easy drift from widow to wife – is she sexually insatiable, or simply a very weak woman? Ask your own questions, and you’ll probably find no answers, and that’s what has kept the play alive during the centuries, for nobody can satisfactorily work out its meaning.

Just as every age demands its own Jesus, so every age, or perhaps every decade, needs its own Hamlet. And here we have a brilliant 21st century interpretation from Cameron Goodall, who with director Adam Cook gives us the Johnny Depp version, all tousled hair, manic physicality, crazy mood swings and adolescent fun. These days they’d probably put him on ADHD medication.

But he’s adorable, because underneath the troubled spirit and the irritating wit is an acute intelligence and a deep sensibility, and because we know he’s going to die, taking everyone of importance in the kingdom with him, leaving nobody except the loyal but boring Horatio to keep his memory alive, we sense that the devastation is not local but universal, and that these deaths presage the death of western civilisation.

But this is not the time for a lecture in Lit Crit. The play’s the thing, and the production, and whether people are going to get their money’s worth out of what is a very long night in the theatre.

So first impressions first, and let’s begin with the set. What is that circular structure that dominates the stage, its tall panels bearing lists of names like a war memorial? “I pray you love, remember,” perhaps? It could be the motivating theme of the production, because as a set it is unforgettable. And when the organ thunders out in Wagnerian mode and the set rolls backwards upon itself, it reveals a great dark hall vaguely suggestive of Valhalla, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Rhine maiden or two, or Percival, or even Jean Simmons in a bad blonde wig, if anyone remembers the Laurence Olivier film version.

But no, in front of the hall are the battlements of the castle of Elinor, and soft, what light through yonder window breaks? Sorry, wrong play, and it’s not the light of dawn, but of Old King Hamlet as spook, done in by his brother Claudius in the nastiest possible way so that Claudius can seize the throne and marry his sister-in-law. I’m not sure about the laws of inheritance in Denmark, that the rightful heir can be left out of the equation, but perhaps today’s young Prince of Denmark should be sent to see this play asap.

Two soldiers are keeping watch, in the daggiest outfits that soldiers have ever worn since Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, which immediately gives rise to the question, what is going on here? We know that something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, but only ethically and spiritually, not materially, and everyone in this play looks as if they’ve been dressed from St Vinnies. The costumes, I have to say, are appalling, except for Hamlet, who is always in basic black anyway, with the odd coloured shirt and ill-buttoned jim-jams.

Why does Ophelia look as if she’s come out of a Boo-Peep Disney movie? Why dress Dennis Olsen like a reject from Alice through the Looking Glass designed by John Tenniel? I expected him to burst into a G&S patter song at any moment. And please God, why make the elegant Gertrude, played by the even more elegant Barbara Lowing, look like an overweight haus frau in bad fake furs and Paddy’s Market taffetas, with a dreadful Vivien Leigh 50s perm? I’ve read the designer’s program notes, so understand her reasoning, but on stage these costumes just don’t work – for anyone.

So much potential in this play, so many good actors, but it just doesn’t come together, for me at least. The production as a whole has no integrity – it’s as if three or four different plays are going on at once, and even the usually chirpy Emily Tomlins as Ophelia doesn’t seem to know what she’s there for.

But perhaps director Adam Cook is cleverer than I give him credit for, and the jerky discontinuous narrative that he has given us is in fact an image of the fragmentation of the world. I still can’t make up my mind.

But it’s scary stuff, and worth going to see, if only for the sword fight in the final scene, the war memorial set (which features a man called Brian Nasson among the list of war dead), and of course Cameron Goodall’s Hamlet, one of the best I’ve ever seen (and make that about 15 over a lifetime) – a man, as Ben Jonson would probably say, if not for all time, definitely of an age.

Director: Adam Cook

Set design: Bruce McKinven

Costume design: Kathryn Sprout

Lighting: Gavan Swift

Sound: Brett Collery

Playing until Saturday 12 May 2007: Monday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm

Duration : Just over 3 hours, with a twenty interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 25th April 2007)