Ewen Leslie in Hamlet | Sumner Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

He’s been dead for almost 400 years, but Shakespeare still knows how to work a dastardly revenge tale. In the Melbourne Theatre Company’s rendition of Hamlet, Ewen Leslie plays the titular character as a sulking yet empathetic man wracked by anger and driven to revenge.

After Hamlet’s father is bumped from his royal perch by his own brother, Claudius, the crime is compounded by the Claudius’ marriage to Gertrude, his brother’s widow. When Hamlet’s father’s ghost confirms his death was no accident, his son plans payback. While he ponders the nature of his revenge and whether he can actually complete the deed, Hamlet rails against the darkest questions about life and death. It’s little wonder the play’s modern-day translation makes Hamlet seem like a teen suffering a bad bout of adolescent angst, albeit with reason.

While the play itself is an ageless meditation on life and death, this production takes few risks with the material, aiming for a sure thing rather than experimenting with a new approach or understanding.

Even in a tragedy, Shakespeare’s works are generally flexible enough to allow invention or playfulness in the direction. The play has been updated, certainly — cue the stovepipe jeans, edgy pop sountrack and the likely nixing of a few ‘messenger’ roles, replaced by the immediacy of a text message or earpiece conversation — but the direction keeps the production in safe territory.

Leslie’s performance is strong, but possibly a little limited by the overall restraint of the production. There are sparks of brilliance in Leslie’s sure-fire, anger-laced quips, ones that force the audience to pay attention. And his soliloquies in general draw the viewer in, with Leslie refraining from an overload of melancholy and self-pity; instead, he wisely focuses on Hamlet’s existential confusion as he plots revenge.

Credit is also due to Shaun Gurton’s set design. Devoid of warmth and feeling, the glass-and-steel construct lends itself to the play’s poisonous atmosphere. Hamlet’s paranoia about being watched or monitored is encapsulated perfectly in a world where there is nowhere to hide, highlighting his isolation in the midst of a highly political environment.

Yet the set does, perhaps, deny the audience a sense of humanity; by reducing the environment of the play to such simplistic terms, Hamlet’s existential struggle proceeds in an otherworldly, emotionally cold environment of glass and steel. It’s a beautiful set design that complements Hamlet’s moral turbidity, but it does make the play more surreal and hence less relatable.

The cast overall is strong and delivers on everything Shakespeare promises: Eryn Jean Norvill marks her presence as a becoming and affecting Ophelia; Garry McDonald’s Polonius is understated but effortlessly funny; and the Type-A character that emerges from John Adam’s Claudius is an excellent study in the type of fault-ridden character portraits that Hamlet embodies.

While there’s a little something missing from the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Hamlet, the high-production and casting values here go a long way towards making up the shortfall.

The details: Hamlet plays the Sumner Theatre until August 31. Tickets are currently sold out but the season is expected to be extended.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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