Bell Shakespeare's Hamlet

I was lucky enough to see Bell Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet, directed by Damien Ryan, at the Canberra Theatre on Wednesday 14th October. Despite it being one of the longest plays in the history of intellectual snobbery, it was obvious why both Damien Ryan and the Bell Shakespeare team have the reputation they do. A modern take on the script mixed elements of contemporary life and medieval valour, while only a director who knew the script inside out could have drawn out the numerous moments of physical comedy, to the point where the audience was regularly in stitches.

Damien Ryan gave the audience the courtesy of a personal address pre-show, to tell us that Hamlet’s understudy would be taking the role that night due to the lead, Josh McConville, having back pain issues. For the audience, it may have been a blessing in disguise (though I suppose we may never know), because his understudy, Scott Sheridan, was sublime. He completely immersed himself in Hamlet’s madness and was quick with winks and resplendent grins when making bawdy jokes that anyone, if reading Hamlet, could have easily skipped over and missed. It takes a talented director to manipulate long Shakespearean soliloquies into clever physical and pun-based comedy, and there were many lines I was surprised (and delighted) to find they cleverly clowned around with.

Watching the play, I was surprised by how many everyday quotes we have taken from this classic. There are the quotes normally ascribed to Hamlet – “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark”; “To be or not to be”; “To thine own self be true”; “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. Then there are some quotes that have been assimilated into everyday speech that I had forgotten had come from the play – “The lady doth protest too much”; “In my mind’s eye”, “[The] dog will have his day”. I was surprised by how much of the play was familiar to me.

There was also a few interesting twists added from the mixing of modern design elements: Ophelia’s shroud-wrapped body had a mortuary tag on her toe; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s arrival to Denmark was announced over a PA by a smooth female voice in an airport setting and they later arrived at the castle, flashy dressed in turtlenecks, sunglasses and big smiles for the Queen; the Polish soldiers that storm the castle at the end of the play were dressed in a distinctly South American rebel-style uniform, complete with beret, as if to allude that Poland were as foreign an enemy to Denmark as another continent’s soldiers would be. There was also the use of spying devices, telephones and plenty of cloak-and-dagger folly.

Ultimately, each and every cast member was outstanding, especially Scott Sheridan as Hamlet. It was a memorable experience created by people who are obviously extremely passionate and talented with their craft. The Bell Shakespeare Company has an excellent reputation for good reason, and it was a wonderful and surprisingly enjoyable show.