Toby Schmitz in Hamlet | Belvoir St Theatre (Pic: Brett Boardman)

We all know that, to make a Hamlet, you have to break a few eggs and, if there’s anyone that’s known for doing that, it’s young gun director Simon Stone. Sometimes, said eggs are cracked with deft precision; at others, they fracture in an unexpected way and end up all over the floor. When critics laud Simon, he seems to exhibit no loss of composure but, if we say, now and then, ‘oh, Simon, what a mess!’, he’s tended to attribute it to our misunderstanding of cooking technique.

The universally admirable thing about the talented Mr Stone is he’s prepared to test new recipes, experimenting with texture and flavour. He’s done it with Hamlet, cutting scenes, characters, tracts and diatribes, to remain true to the spirit of the play. That’s the argument. And it’s very substantially sustained.

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On entering, one is struck by the sheer number of lights (Benjamin Cisterne), shrouded, so as to create a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. The other immediately striking thing is Belvoir artistic director, Ralph Myers’, spare design. A black curtain spans the back and side wall of the space, helping create a brooding mood and suggesting concealment. There are rows of black plastic chairs lining said walls. Hamlet (Toby Schmitz) sits, quietly, on one of them, as the audience filters in and works its way through the customary babble of settlement into their own seats. By and by, Schmitz begins to twitch, in idiosyncratic ways that are nonetheless patterned, to suggest pathology. In a matter of minutes, much of the thrust of the play has been intimated. It’s true genius. But nothing stands out more than Luke Byrne, kitted-out as a concert pianist, sitting at a grand piano, eking out phonometrician Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie, No. 1; this, in itself, a piquant resonance, as Satie, at the behest of Jean Cocteau, wrote incidental music for a 1915 production of A Midsummer Night’ Dream. Byrne, too, provided a more-or-less continuous, unobtrusive score, which repeatedly interpolated medieval songs from counter-tenor, Maximilian Riebl. To have these performers intermingling with the central action of the play might sound like a madness as deep-seated as the not-so-great Dane’s, but, again, Stone’s never battle-weary, lionhearted courage was rewarded.

It’s gratifying to see a move back to zeroing in on the prince’s angst. Schmitz portrays it such that we might find ourselves speculating he’s, poetically, way off the autism spectrum Richter scale; Asberger’s with two all-beef patties, perhaps. Or perhaps we’ll surmise he’s a common (for they are, quite) psychopath. Maybe he just needs a new mattress and a good night’s sleep. He’s almost certainly seen too many horror movies, or gone overboard with the D & D. Whatever conclusions we draw, he’s slanted towards incoherent, adolescent rage, which fits the character, as drawn by Shakespeare, remarkably well, methinks. And what a relief the oedipal remains little more than an allusion: I’m rather tired of that exploration.

Schmitz gave it his all and I’m sure he must’ve been knackered by the end. In all his roles, it’s as much about Toby, I think, as his character, but that’s ok. He’s more than charismatic, so he gets away with it. And he’s a realist.

Everything in this production appears to have been predetermined with a perfectionistic zeal, all the way down to the level of an inflection here (the archaic “o, fie!”, for example, is divested of its cloying, mock-classical cadence, and invested with the idiom of “oh, fuck!”) a gesture there. It hovers between the highly stylised and naturalistic, in the most proteinaceous possible way. Here and there, Schmitz trademarks teeter on the ridiculous and parodical, but, happily he, nor the play, never seems to quite tip into that ignominy and riding the crest of the wave is tantalising. One has the feeling, too, that Schmitz’ mind is constantly ticking, looking for angles, accentuations, niches, nooks and crannies, tiny spaces in which he can improvise, so that his performance, character, and the play, continue to evolve. By mid-season, it might well be quite a different reading; it’s certainly the sort of production that bears repeat attendances.

Notwithstanding his and Stone’s seemingly insatiable appetite for risk (which I applaud), TS’ Hamlet is more eggs than ham: in short, he is outstanding, rendering (and I’m sure he knows it) a career-enhancing performance of a magnitude that’s sure to skyrocket him from the status of highly-respected actor to the popular and critical virtual untouchability of, say, a Geoffrey Rush. You can’t take your eyes off him (though he’s generous and judicious enough to know when to give over), which, where the mad prince is concerned, surely, is as it should be. Turns out, too, he’s a dab hand at pornographic puppetry. I won’t say more, lest I be accused of spoiling.

Toby would be enough to carry a “b” cast, but instead Stone has recruited a triple a one. Emily Barclay is Ophelia. At first, she’s rather benign and girl next door, but her rapid reversion to childhood games and songs on news of her father’s, er, accidental death is as much a masterclass in how to go mad as Schmitz’; perhaps even more believable. Thomas Campbell’s Laertes was rock-solid insofar as it went, but we were left with no particular insights into his character. Stone hasn’t spend enough time on Polonius’ son, rendering him an also-ran; a lame duck. Traditionally, he’s a man of action, rushing back from France the moment he hears of his father’s death. But here,  we’ve no inkling of his determination or any palpable sense of his hunger for revenge. Dare I say, Laertes is a little boring?

John Gaden brings off Claudius with almost too much dignity; which is largely inevitable, since that’s the kind of actor he is. I like the fact his Machiavellian mind is downplayed, almost as if (leaving aside a moment of confessional prayer) he’s deluded himself into believing he’s a king worthy of a crown. Almost. Much of this is down to the density and complexity of Shakespeare’s creation, of course. He has an undeniable knack (talking of psychopathy) for investing his villains with beguiling charm. This, at once, lessens the appearance of “evil” and intensifies the presence of it. This makes them human. Credible. They aren’t all bad. They’re complicated. Because life is complicated. Stone understands and exploits this dimensionality. And so does Gaden, making it hard to believe this apparently agreeable, reasonable old bloke saw fit to pour a vile substance into his brother’s ear and consort with his sister-in-law.

Nathan Lovejoy’s Horatio suffers the same fate as Campbell’s Laertes. Not just in terms of corporeal demise, but because his is a character somewhat overlooked. There is plenty of scope to tool around with the fact he looks up to Hamlet as if he were an older, wiser brother; which makes Hamlet’s abuse of his loyalty all the more heartless. But this pathos is missing, in another dependable, but unspectacular reading. That’s two small boats missed by Stone.

Robyn Nevin, though perhaps not at her outright best, has found a nifty peg on which to hand Queen Gertrude’s character. She shows Gertrude to be increasingly out of it, thanks to a white wine habit (there’s rarely, if ever, a time she doesn’t have a glass in her hand). For all we know, she could be popping the odd Mogadon as well; after all, she’s been through a lot and things aren’t getting any easier. It turns Gertrude into something of a pathetic, almost unwitting victim; it’s as if she’s spectating someone else’s life, rather than living her own, the image distorted by an always half-full glass, while the vessel of her soul remains half-empty. In relatively few lines, all this is communicated, showing us, yet again, just how profoundly good an actor Nevin is.

Anthony Phelan, as the ghostly spectre of the former king, looks and sounds the part. He haunts the space in such a way as we might be convinced he’s recently arisen from his soiled tomb. Only gripe? His diction wasn’t always as round, open, clear and present as it might’ve been.

For mine, next to Schmitz, it was Greg Stone’s Polonius that shines like a beacon. His is a buffoon in just the right measure. Everyone tolerates and loves him, at the same time. He’s a pedant, prone to Sir Humphrey-style bluster and babble, but, like Humphrey, his political judgment oft proves irritatingly on-the-money. He makes every phrase accessible and intelligible, which even Sir John Gielgud, I understand, regarded as nigh-on impossible. It’s the Kinder Surprise performance of the year.

Stefan Gregory deserves another big-up for the sheer excellence of his composition and sound design, which was a pivotal part of the production, lending much to the mood and aesthetics. Ralph Myers’ and Benjamin Cisterne’s monochromatic vision was uncompromising and very “European”: taut, cold and controlled. The noir that dominated up till interval was suspenseful and menacing, while the blinding illumination that followed awakened us to the diamond-hard day of final reckoning. Covert finally gave way to overt.

Those looking forward to swordplay might be disappointed: the minimalism after interval was tougher to sustain and, if not for the almost unsurpassable, utterly compelling theatrical virtuosity of what went before, I’m not sure I would’ve exercised quite as much patient attention.

To the best of my knowledge, no actors were harmed in the making of Belvoir’s Hamlet (yes, there’s a lot of blood spilled, but don’t let that fool you, the outpouring is mainly sweat and tears), even if a number of characters, typically considered indispensible, were disappeared. We’re none the poorer though. After the travesty that was Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Simon Stone has achieved a double redemption. First, with Miss Julie. And now, this. I’ve a feeling it’s the stuff of legend. Only time will tell. The last half-hour of so might be more like Night of The Living Dead, or The Prince of Denmark vs. The Zombies, but the preponderance of the production is hand-stitched, bespoke revelation. At least one colleague has suggested that Stone’s productions of classics tend to be so far beyond the pale he should call them something else. I, for one, endorse his to draw new lines and colour outside them. I think there’s little or no case for absolute fidelity to historical European, American or, for that matter, Australian or other plays. Stone’s philosophy, to seek truth and believability, is a worthy quest. Not all his attempts at finding a contemporary vehicle for old plays strike a chord, but at least he’s strumming and humming the tune.

Nothing’s rotten in the state of this Denmark. On the contrary: Simon Stone has raised The Bard.

The details: Hamlet plays Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre until December 1. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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