Robin Goldsworthy, Ivan Donato, Philip Dodd, Josh McConville. Images: Daniel Boud.



Hamlet, by William Shakespeare | Directed by Damien Ryan

Bell Shakespeare | Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, Melbourne | Until 25 July, then moves to seasons in Canberra and Sydney

Polonius (dressed in a brown three-piece suit) whips out his mobile phone and photographs Queen Gertrude (crisp white shirt and full-length floral skirt) and her mad son Hamlet (loose black pants, casual shirt) in an unfamiliar cozy pose.

Earlier, Polonius eavesdropped on Hamlet with hidden surveillance bugs.

Polonius was unable to snap the climactic scene — the death of Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet and Hamlet’s old friend Laertes over just a few minutes around the closing duel scene — because he had previously been mistakenly murdered by Hamlet. Ophelia, Hamlet’s girlfriend and Polonius’s daughter, was not around for the big duel scene either because she too was dead, from suicide drowning.

Modern costumes, devices and setting in no way detract from Shakespeare’s most famous play, written about 1600 and set in Denmark. It fulfills the belief of Bell Shakespeare that “Shakespeare and other great works are not stuck in the past, but they are the key to exploring our present and imagining our future.”

Hamlet started a 30-venue national tour in Melbourne this week.

Damien Ryan directs an engrossing and engaging Hamlet production, seemingly zooming us through its two-hour-and-20-minute duration.

John McConville is brilliant as the mood-lurching Hamlet. His is a high-energy portrayal of a confronted, confused and complex character, fixated with revenge. It is a star performance by McConville.

Matilda Ridgway as Ophelia was especially powerful as she lost her mind in grappling with the death of her father while Doris Younane (Gertrude) and Sean O’Shea (Claudius and the ghost of old Hamlet) were sound principal characters.

Phillip Dodd was an endearing Polonius character for the audience as he delivered regular humorous asides, both as Polonius and the gravedigger.

Remember the story?  This is how Bell Shakespeare sees it, in a nutshell:

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. But one thing’s for sure, it’s not the corpse of the king that’s causing the stench. Prince Hamlet’s father is dead. But before the body has even begun to smell, Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius seizes the crown by marrying Hamlet’s mum. Now that stinks.

“Hamlet finds Claudius’s connubials creepy enough, even before his father’s ghost shows up and claims that Claudius murdered him. Royally riled, the dead king urges young Hamlet to seek revenge.

“But that’s easier said than done.

“The Danish court is crawling with spies and Hamlet doesn’t know who he can trust. Certainly not himself. For the young prince has descended into a crisis of confidence, indentured to indecision and overwhelmed by overthinking. Conscience has made a coward of Hamlet. He is desperate to obey his father and kill Claudius but he frets that committing murder would make him just as bad as his evil unc.

“What’s a guy to do? To kill? Or not to kill? Hamlet’s sure that was the question …

“But our hero beats around the bush, pontificating and procrastinating, and wasting an opportunity to waste Claudius. He goes looking for further proof of his uncle’s guilt, all the while feigning insanity to throw his detractors off the scent. And while this may fool his friends, foes, and even his sweetheart Ophelia; it’s not enough to stop the rot. In his quest to find transcendence, Hamlet loses his love and maybe his mind, before making the ultimate sacrifice.”

Josh McConville, Matilda Ridgway.