I had heard only positive reports about Simon Stone’s ‘Hamlet’ and so I was actually excited to see this show, particularly as I have seen so many variations of ‘Hamlet’, starting with my own university days working in the production crew and partaking in Shakespeare’s play night after night and it made me swear that it would be a long time between ‘Hamlet’ drinks. ‘Remember me’ it cried and damn it, I did. All too well.
Of course I have also started to warm to Simon Stone in a love/hate relationship. I think the fact that he has been allowed to experiment on the big stage with the most extraordinary of resources and talents at his disposal has given him opportunities no other director of his age has had, the privilege to hone his craft at an audience’s expense. As a result we have witnessed some previous efforts that might best be described as ‘rank and gross in nature’ and it means that now he has started to theatrically and directorially mature, we are seeing a much more sophisticated and controlled Stone.
In fact, what Stone has given us in this ‘Hamlet’ is a perfect example of Epic Theatre’s verfremdungseffekt. In many ways the edits of this script, now down to eight characters and two hours & twenty minutes, he has also edited out much of the emotion and potential catharsis. That isn’t to say that there aren’t examples of ‘emotion’ on stage, it’s just more external and visual rather than internalised realism.
Hamlet himself (Toby Schmitz) gives us all the words and actions of a man in grief and yet I am unmoved and I feel this is deliberate. Stone’s mantra is to ‘listen to every single word’ and in this instance, I’m hearing them very differently from what I might have heard before and I get to think about these words and the ideas of the play in a new way too. Brecht would have been proud. Stone’s choice to have the stage filled with the ghosts of the play is exciting. It does breathe a new context into Hamlet’s lines and madness- we see what haunts him literally before our eyes and not simply implied in Shakespeare’s script. We are inside his dilemma, we witness him chased by his demons and ask, what is he to do? They are demanding justice and he is tied to them whether he wants to be or not (to be). This is an interpretation where seeing it is much more important than feeling it and so whilst you exit the play thinking ‘I didn’t really invest emotionally in this play’, I believe that’s the point. Consideration, not catharsis.
The ‘play within the play’ is now a puppet show manipulated by Hamlet. It’s a clever device of showing Hamlet’s role in exposing Claudius (John Gaden) and offers one of the lighter moments of the play as he straddles from audience to puppeteer and engages the puppets in the rude play we’d expect from a bawdy Shakespearean ensemble and it highlights the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude (Robyn Nevin). Gertrude herself is interpreted as a little fond of the drink, rarely without a cup of wine in hand and it’s easy to see how reliant she is on external stimulation and the will of others. There is some comedy in Polonius (Greg Stone) and he also provided me with one of the only moving parts of the play when he and Ophelia (Emily Barclay) are reunited in death. That I felt. Then I realised, our interest is in not so much the living but more in the dead and we know that Hamlet’s journey must end with joining them.
Ralph Myer’s set adds another layer to Stone’s vision in ensuring that the first half is filled with curtains, hiding spots, shadows and secrets. The second half is Stone’s hallmark white box, full of exposed and heated disarray with nothing hidden- the pressure cooker is on full speed. Benjamin Cisterne’s lights echo Myer’s design, with the first half so dark that it may promote an abnormal enhancement of circadian rhythms but if you can stay awake, the stage looks heavy with grief. The second half then serves as a battleground of scars of Hamlet’s ghosts, actions, loss and life. I should also add that the live music (Luke Byrne and Maximilian Riebl) becomes the soundtrack to this visceral examination of the play’s ideas and so technically, there’s much to admire in this production.
For a show that constantly moves, it’s interesting that it felt so static in my mind- perhaps because I’m engaging in the ideas more than the characters. The ending may have influenced this with the circle of ghosts joining Hamlet even before they’ve been killed and the lines are spoken in trance complete with camel cries of death and song. It is a fascinating ending to focus on what’s lost and not what’s happening and that purgatory is for the living as well as the dead.
I did enjoy Stone’s version of ‘Hamlet’ as a visual spectacle of words and ideas. I did mourn the loss of emotion but only temporarily. The power was in the way the show resonated long after seeing it.
‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in it’.