Belvoir Street, October 16

Accepted scholarship has it that about a decade before he wrote Hamlet Shakespeare had written another play of that name, now lost. This, predating his known plays, was a crude revenge tragedy that supposedly influenced Thomas Kyd’s hideous The Spanish Tragedy. The plot of Hamlet (borrowed from elsewhere) was already in place in this early version. What was missing was the character of the protagonist as we know him: a young man of soaring intellect, racing wit and scalding irony. The most complex character in the entire western canon, he burst from the pages of his own play, so that the plot pales into a backdrop, while the foreground of the first four acts is dominated by Hamlet’s observations, dilemmas, prevarications and gradual unhinging. He emerges in the final act improbably older and more decisive, rushing the play to its abundantly bloody conclusion.

Hamlet 1
The high point: Toby Schmitz as Hamlet and Robyn Nevin as Gertrude. Photo: Brett Boardman.

It is necessary to remind ourselves of all this so as to understand what a gross and abject failure is Simon Stone’s production for Belvoir Street. Gone is the soaring intellect, to be replaced a cartoon Hamlet, worthy of Shakespeare’s putative proto-play. This Hamlet, played by Toby Schmitz, howls and bays, contorts his body and bemoans his fate. He all but froths at the mouth as he works himself into a sufficient lather to denude Denmark of her entire upper level of government.

This cartoon character rages, but does not reflect. The major soliloquies are delivered as if their very distinction makes them an embarrassment. Often rushed or mumbled, never do they grant us insight into the workings of a stupendously intricate and increasingly unstable mind. It would seem that Stone and Schmitz have chosen to latch like limpets on to Hamlet’s much-trumpeted madness, and put the myriad other facets of his character in the too-hard basket.

More was within reach. The scene where Hamlet confronts his mother (Robyn Nevin) proved as much. Here was all the gut-string tension of which the play is made. Suddenly we were feeling rather than merely observing (in a state mostly fluctuating between bewilderment, embarrassment and amusement).

Meanwhile another aspect of the production bordered on genius. Stone has stripped back the text so the production could be mounted with just eight actors. (As an aside, the primary reason for any such shredding should surely have been to shine a more penetrating light on Hamlet. Opportunity lost.) Among the casualties were the Player King and his motley travelling circus. Instead Stone has the play-within-a-play, The Murder of Gonzago, enacted by look alike marionettes, with Hamlet as the puppeteer. This brilliant device had resonances flaring in all directions amid its own charm and humour. Designer Ralph Myers created delightful puppet-cartoons of each character and a miniature proscenium-arch theatre with scrolling backdrops, all superbly controlled by Schmitz.

What a shame they could not see that they had turned the surrounding action into a life-size cartoon, with Stone as the puppeteer.

A third redeeming feature was the music. Composed/selected by Stefan Gregory and performed by pianist Luke Byrne and counter tenor Maximilian Riebl, this added a dreamlike formality and sadness, and hinted at transporting the whole affair into the afterlife of Hamlet’s ghostly father.

With the interpretation so skewed from the author’s lofty intent the actors playing the minor characters – and everyone in Hamlet other than the prince is a minor character – shuffled about their all-too mortal coil, with little chance of doing more than escaping with reputations intact. Anthony Phelan was a suitably imposing and insistent Ghost. John Gaden’s in-built likeability made one oddly inclined to forgive Claudius his fratricide as another minor misdemeanour, akin to his hypocrisy. Nevin, as I said, shares the production’s strongest scene, but too often seemed like Jennifer Saunders playing Edina playing Gertrude. Emily Barclay is a rather anonymous Ophelia to begin, but certainly touched upon the devastating sadness inherent in her mad scene. When Greg Stone’s performance milked every possible laugh from the rather asinine (if harmless) Polonious in the opening scenes I presumed that Simone Stone was setting us up to like him, and therefore feel more than we usually do when Hamlet so casually aborts his life. But for all the actor’s work Polonious’s death still came and went with littlie sympathy aroused. Thomas Campbell wrestled with the difficult Laertes, and Nathan Lovejoy completed the little cast, primarily rolling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into one ill-fated friend – which was one way to avoid confusing the pair!

Myers presents a bare stage surrounded with black-curtained walls for the first three acts, and bare white ones for the conclusion. Plastic chairs and a grand piano are all that decorate space, the piano used beautifully as a place for the desolate Ophelia to run beneath and hide. Mel Page suggests a vaguely formal modernity in her costumes, while lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne mainly blasts the stage with white light, again as if to illuminate a protagonist who resolutely shies from betraying any insights in this production.