Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet: what a sweet prince this is, or, the award for best use of condoms in a Shakespearean play goes to:

Hamlet-webOh my bard! I caught the two-and-a-half-hour epic that is Bell Shakespeare‘s Hamlet at the Melbourne Arts Centre last night, and I’m still reeling.

One of the best Shakespearean productions I’ve seen? Without a doubt.

The set design: a facade of doors and windows, shakily climbable, splits the stage. Behind this lit window, a spy, replaying dialogue just heard behind another, as the new king keeps an ear on his fellows. Behind this one, the boudoir. Look, the bed becomes a grave, Yorick! With dirt for the shovelling, a pit for fair Ophelia, complete with toe tag after she is wheeled in in a wheelbarrow. And see here, how the theatre bunting can lose some letters and have others changed to present a far more telling dramatic title! Best use of condoms in a Shakespearean play!

The lighting, used to highlight the areas of the drama, whether by spotlight or torchlight or flickering wall lights, was sensational. One dramatic front-lit Dracula-like moment still blazes in my mind. Underpinning that, the music, just touches of thriller bass or gay song to enhance the mood, or the sound of rain, or the sound of fighter jets doing a flypast.

Here a mobile phone captures a moment; there, an electronic listening device is disabled or revealed. And here, it’s halberds and foils, and the ensemble sharing a king’s joke as he dons a player’s crown.

And here’s the thing of it, the thing that really elevated this production: the acting. Not just in delivery and emotion, and there was plenty of emotion, but in the interplay. In the interpretation of the lines. Bawdiness. Cheekiness. The use of repetition to telling effect. The use of props to add context to the lines, to illuminate character — the play with said condoms between Ophelia and Laertes as he prepares to leave at the airport (with Rosencrantz and Guildernstern hailed over the PA in the background!), the sister-brother relationship anchored around their doomed father. The physicality: Ophelia (Matilda Ridgway, divine), only days in to the play’s run, already sports scrapes and bruises revealed by her dishevelled night dress.

They play them well (better than well; I love that to be fit to receive a guest still in her a nightrobe, Doris Younane’s Gertrude first slips on her shoes, then transforms her hair), but it is Hamlet’s show, and Josh McConville is amazing, physically and emotionally, seamlessly switching from rude imp to avenger to distraught son. Bravo!

Hamlet plays at the Arts Centre till July 25.

Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V: all class

bell shakespeare henry vBell Shakespeare played Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s last night with Henry V, and it’s one of the best adaptations I’ve seen. A play within a play, both ring true: it’s an absolute triumph for the creative team, headed by director Damien Ryan, with an ingenious set built by Malthouse Theatre.

The stage is set in a London classroom during the Blitz, 525 years to the day after the battle of Agincourt, where a teacher distracts those sheltering from an air raid with an improvised performance of Henry V. But first, there’s a quick grounding in the history leading up to the English king’s ascension with some help from the blackboard and others of Shakespeare’s tales: clever.

The set — three bookshelves, a ladder and assorted odds and sods, such as cricket bats, a mop, and crowns and dresses made of newspaper, and smart use of the play itself in book form — proves versatile and evocative, backlit with bomb flashes seen through shattered windows.

The play within a play is a superb device, as the actors portray the makeshift cast — primarily students — putting on Henry V, yet being pulled out of the play by events in their world: the mirroring, the splicing, are brilliantly handled. Ghosts and a downed German pilot, his parachute become part of the set, are just some of the echoes that enrich the drama.

Lighting is superb, and the sound is also well crafted, balancing Churchill’s ‘finest hour’ against Henry’s ‘we few’, putting the actors to work on percussion and choir, and signalling the transitions between Blitz and Shakespeare with bombs, planes and sirens.
bell shakespeare henry v
The actors do a great job of handling this meta performance, with all bar Henry (Michael Sheasby) handling multiple Shakespearean roles as well as their 1940 characters.

As Kirstyn noted afterwards, it also allowed the performance to skip scenes, with the understanding that they have been played as the crew while away their terrible night, finding comfort and distraction in the Bard.

And the ending, with only ghosts remaining … a song and that feeling of futility evoke memories of that final ‘God Bless America’ of the Deer Hunter.

In much the same way as 1984, played at the same venue earlier this year, struck a chord with the dangerous, hypocritical idiocy the Abbott government is inflicting on this country, so Henry V has provided a counterpoint to any jingoistic overtones of the 100th anniversary of World War I. None of which is to question or belittle the valour of those on the ground, but rather, the original impetus for the conflicts: the reason for the rattling sabres to be drawn, and the consequences that last long after they are cleaned and sheathed.

The play is touring until 15 November: catch it if you can.