Hamlet: A History runs at the Phoenix Theatre in Coniston from February 8-23.
So I didn’t go to see Hamlet: A History intending to write a review of it, but OH MY GOD I need to talk about it. This is one of the most bizarre, ridiculous, self-indulgent interpretations of Shakespeare I have ever seen. I probably still wouldn’t have reviewed it, but then I saw in the blurb on the Phoenix Theatre’s website that they’re tailoring this production for Year 12 students studying Hamlet for the HSC, and that gave me serious side eye. If I was a Year 12 student, then this would probably be the most unhelpful production I could see EVER.
Let’s start with the adaptation. The kindest thing I can say about it is that it is experimental. It doesn’t work. At all. I’m a grad student in English lit and I'm trained as a Renaissance scholar - so, basically, I know Hamlet back to front, inside out, upside down, any direction you’d like to name - and I was confused, so I shudder to think how any school students who see this production are doing. Shakespeare’s text has been dismembered. All the pieces have been mixed up with excerpts from speeches from famous orators (seriously – there’s a bit where they take Barack Obama’s speech on the death of Osama bin Laden, bleep out the names and voiceover in names from Hamlet), incredibly pointless movement sequences, multimedia, and original filler dialogue. Then the whole thing’s been stitched back together like Frankenstein’s monster. I’m not talking Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster here, the one that monologues eloquently for 37 pages about the nature of humanity. I’m talking about the Boris Karloff monster that shambles about going, “Braaaaaaaaains! Braaaaaaaaaains!” (There is a whole bit where everyone seems to be zombies, so this is a particularly apt comparison.)
From the director’s note:
“Hamlet: A History is all about reality. Should we trust what we are seeing? Who’s [sic] reality is this? Where is the truth? Authors die, interpretations differ, times change, opinions are personalised. Can history ever be considered stationary?
...what did Hamlet want me to see? Of course Hamlet would want me to see him as this victim and hero! What if what I had seen earlier in life was created by Hamlet, for Hamlet and about Hamlet? In essence, what if this was all a fantasy, a misinterpretation of truth?”
Look, Hamlet is a lot of things, but an unreliable narrator? I don’t think so. For all the complexity of the language in Hamlet, the plot is pretty simple: Hamlet’s uncle has murdered his father and married his mother, and Hamlet is understandably pretty upset about this. He spends most of the play procrastinating and being mean to his girlfriend while he works on his convoluted plan for revenge. He has his own special brand of crazy, but outright delusion...? Not so much.
In this version? Hamlet is a patient in a mental institution. So is Ophelia. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are played by one actor, in a sort of Gollum-esque way. Claudius is the doctor who has taken over the hospital (beating out "Dr Fortinbras" for the position), and Hamlet basically invents this whole story wherein his dad has been killed. Or something. It’s hard to tell when you’re distracted by scenes where the lights suddenly go all red and half the cast pick up kitchen implements and march around pretending to be soldiers.
Basically, what this show is doing is taking the ultimate cop out – AND THEN IT WAS ALL A DREAM – and applying it to Hamlet. Why? I have no idea. As far as I could tell, it was so they could do wacky scenes where everyone is OMG so cray-cray! Or maybe it was so they could indulge in a bit of meta-ness – there’s one scene where Ruby, an original character (yes, there's an original character), comes to visit Hamlet. They talk about how when they were at uni, they studied this play. In it, there was this guy, and his uncle totally killed his dad and married his mum. It was by... Shakespeare. I WONDER WHAT IT COULD BE. (I don’t think there’s a bigger self-indulgence than being meta for no reason. Suffice to say, no reason was in evidence here.) Also, Ruby was a stripper, because Hamlet was totally lacking one of those.
Oh, and Polonius appears to be played by Facebook. Just ‘cause.
I can’t imagine what any Year 12 students who came to see this for HSC study purposes must be thinking. I can only hope they thought, “wow... that was weird,” and then went and watched the Branagh version or something. (Incidentally, excerpts from the Branagh version turn up in the “to be or not to be” multimedia sequence, in case you were wondering.) I don’t review a lot of community theatre and I wasn’t going to review this, but the fact that they’re trying to market it as a study resource is something I found profoundly irritating. There is nothing in here that would help a Year 12 student understand Hamlet better. In a best case scenario, the fact that it confused the shit out of them might make them go back to the actual text and think about it some more? (God, I hope none of them writes an essay in which Ruby the stripper turns up.) The BUT WHAT IF IT WAS ALL IN HAMLET’S HEAD conceptual approach makes zero sense, and the stylistic elements in this show... well, some of them were very entertaining. For all the wrong reasons. I’m looking at you, weird gender-bending Hamlet/Ophelia voiceover sequence. And also you, random multimedia sequence of man screaming. And I can’t forget you, green strobe-lit dance sequence to Where’s Your Head At?. You’re burned onto my brain.