Hamlet. La Boite Theatre Company’s 2010 season opener, directed by the company’s Artistic Director, David Berthold (who also has a hit, Holding the Man, about to debut in London’s West End), opened on Wednesday night at Brisbane’s Roundhouse Theatre. I saw the preview on Sunday night. And before I tell you anything else, I am telling you, GO SEE THIS SHOW. Regardless of how much you loved or loathed The Bard at highschool, whether or not you’ve seen any of the  film versions (I’m wondering, as much as you are, how The Lion King or The Banquet made it into that list), whether or not you’ve read any reviews or the associated comments, or visited theatres in cities all over the world simply to see their own Hamlet. Oh, yes, people do; I know them! They do it for Les Miserables and no doubt, for Wicked too (but probably not for Oklahoma. Just sayin’)…

The company website will tell you:

HAMLET by William Shakespeare

This is the must-see theatrical event of 2010.

And others are bound to tell you, in greater detail, why they consider this particular production a must-see. Or not. You will find those reviews (and some very interesting comments) here, here, here, here, here and quite possibly, here. Well, at least, these are the places I expected to find them too. I am telling you here, that I consider this Hamlet to be great theatre. Here is a professional production with everything- every element- I expect to see, hear, feel,  experience, discuss, remember, use as an example in my teaching…whenever I see a show, any show. And by professional I mean that, as far as I am aware, Brisbane has two fully professionally-operating theatre companies; La Boite and QTC who should both be getting it right and presenting great theatre for the masses and not necessarily just those who are bound to attend. This is a Hamlet that, one hopes, will bring audiences back to the theatre.

I am well aware that I got more out of this show than did many others. So sue me. I saw a preview. I saw the potential of a few aspects and the clarity and fruition of others. I saw something entertaining. I let go of all preconceptions and assumptions and I let myself be drawn into Berthold’s Denmark, with its arguable inconsistencies. I didn’t care that political details were diluted or by the fact that I was not moved to tears (god, don’t tell me we have to have tears to make theatre great again). Die-hard Hamlet fans would no doubt have missed terribly, some additional sub-plot and mystery and DRAMA. Home and Away? The Bold and the Beautiful?  MASS AUDIENCE APPEAL AND COMMERCIAL SUCCESS (thereby guaranteeing government and public support for the season and securing the long-term future of La Boite at precisely the right time)? OMG. SHOCKING. I feel it might be important to note, for the sake of the future of this blog, that I have never been critical about the popular appeal of shows produced by theatre companies in Brisbane or on the Sunshine Coast, merely the standard of said shows.

I loved the delightful early performances of Eugene Gilfedder and Trevor Stuart and their contrasts later, in the same roles and in their secondary roles. I’m sure these two rate as gods amongst men, as far as the Brisbane acting scene is concerned. It took me a little longer to warm to Helen Howard’s Gertrude – perhaps this was the intent – but I felt as if she also had to warm to the role of sexy, sultry seductress. By the time she got naked I was somewhat more convinced of her character and motives.

Now, let’s just talk about that, shall we? Everybody else has. The nakedness, etc. Interestingly, others have been quick to question whether or not the nudity and simulated masterbation were absolutely necessary. Um. Necessary or not in what sense? All too shocking and should not have been included……….because……….because??? Nope. I’m really struggling with this one. I found this Hamlet to be extremely unsettling, as you would expect it to be and then suddenly upbeat, as you had always hoped it could be. It is intriguing, confronting, unconvoluted and I found it easier to follow than most shortened versions produced especially for highschool students. Tell it to the HOD, kids. But don’t mention the controversial inclusions such as nudity, depravity and the pure EVIL of man. And woman. Mostly of women, it IS Hamlet’s world, after all. In fact, I am going to go so far as to say that this version, with its nudity and its Toby Schmitz (and sorry, it has to be said, there are some of us who are really disappointed about the nudity not being his), should be filmed in HD from several angles and packed up as part of the senior school curriculum, not to mention to distributors who will put it into cinemas around the world on the last sunday of every month. I think you were still thinking/hoping that this was going to be an ordinary, like, a proper review, didn’t you? Yeah, no.

I admired Helen’s naked courage, confidence and elegance. I thought it befitting for the character by that stage, to disrobe in front of us; I thought it made quite a character statement as well as, if it was indeed a gimmick included for the supposed shock value, it was successful! Brilliant! Cheers! I also remembered Kate Winslet’s Ophelia, to which a blog reader referred,  and I thought Gemma Yates-Round was justified in her homage to that performance…I just wanted to see her commit to it rather than fear her own or the audience’s  response to it. Perhaps she will get a little braver about it so we are not at all mistaken about what we see happening. I also think she will learn to take her time and find Ophelia’s desperately sad madness gradually, rather than put it on all of a sudden so we are sure to see it. How lucky Gemma is, in her professional debut, to have Helen Howard by her side. Intriguingly, the two roles were recently played by one actress. You can read that review here. To have a director who trusts his actors is something one cannot explain to non-actors. Well, I will give it a shot another time. Watch this space.

Look, as far as I’m concerned, if you must direct or act a bold and sure-to-be-shocking thing then just make it bold and shocking! Make sure you’re ready for it and follow through. Do it to shock me. Really do it. And do it well. This brings me to: for the life of me, I fail to understand why such things are still so SHOCKING in the theatre. Is not the theatre the place for shocking? Many of you will remember, that the old La Boite (that’s right, kids, the precious, delapidated, much loved space at Hale St) once played host to The Shock of the New festival. It wasn’t a program full of nakedness and debauchery but suffice to say, La Boite has always tried to be a bit brave, bold, new and shocking. Thank God somebody is doing shocking again!

As for school bookings, I know that many school leaders will take issue with full frontal nudity and simulated masterbation in any show, particulalry when it appears in a “classic” (“Oh my! How dare they mess with Shakespeare! What an insult! We can’t possibly expose our students to that! And, more importantly, we just don’t have time to respond to parents’ questions!”). I believe that if teachers and parents are unwilling to discuss the more confronting aspects of a production or they are going to continue to prevent young people from experiencing great theatre, then that is the real shock. I applaud the teachers and principals who continue to support the Performing Arts and the rich education of their students. And so if there is a school requiring a good drama teacher who strongly supports this premise and is not afraid to say so, do call me. I need a real job, having done myself out of several in the last 2 years, due to my strongly stated beliefs that do not necessarily weigh in with those of the particular schools in a certain area that we know well and love very much despite their continual contradictions and miscommunications *smiles sweetly, hands over resume and decides that honesty really is usually not the best policy*

So let’s keep it real, folks. Hate to be the one to tell you but…your students are still sexting and lying about their age on Facebook and seeing far more graphic violence and simulated sexual acts, far more often, on their screens. And by screens, I mean cinema, plasma, PC, Mac and iPhone. Any perceived damage done will be because nothing is said in the debrief. Or because the student misses out on the experience altogether because somebody else has deemed it “inappropriate”. This is how misconception, fear and hype about normal, real, actual things pervade our society. Warning: the following statement may offend some readers due to its blasphemous tone. For God’s sake, people, let the arts change our lives! The whole issue reminds me of a parochial Brisbane type blog post from some time ago…..sigh.

So. Into the Roundhouse via the top doors. Tricky. I noticed the floor. Nice. But ruined. The house lights dimmed and…disappeared completely! We were plunged into total darkness for what seemed like an eternity, well, at least a full minute longer than one would anticipate, in terms of establishing mood and seducing the audience, making us feel comfortable (or not, as the case may be) and drawing us into the sacred space and all that stuff. I would have timed it but I thought the light from my iPhone may incite physical violence from another audience member…

What I got, from those first few moments of blackness and Tibetan prayerness was a sense of DREAD. To the audiences’ credit, had it not been for the oddly dreadful-peaceful opening soundscape of that Tibetan horn we would have heard a pin drop (was it a rkang gling? I’m guessing. I don’t actually know. But I’m not making it up entirely; I googled “tibetan horns” and…voila)!

In the pitch black, Steve Toulmin’s dread-inducing soundscape actually prepared me, more than any other mechanism could have, for the heavy content of the play. I know, I know, some of you think they skipped over the heavy bits. But this production had other merits. To the actors’ credit, they found their first marks in that blackout! I’m afraid this occupied a relatively large space in my head for more than a couple of minutes. It’s not that I’m that easily impressed but more that I appreciate good craft and something as simple as lights up and the play begins can be a disaster! Or magic. Just say those words aloud. Go on, in a mysterious whisper: lights up and the play begins…magic! That was great! It is just always such a relief to me, when I find within the first couple of minutes of a performance that I actually want to STAY and see the WHOLE SHOW. This is important, I think, especially in light of the fact that we just don’t have the time or space here to discuss the shows I would have preferred not to suffer sit through. I’m sure you feel the same. It’s just that some of us are silly honest enough to blog about it. Sometimes. After a scotch. Or two. Just kidding, kids. Don’t drink and blog. As I mentioned I think, in my original post for this blog; generous audience member, harsh critic. This time it seems I have not been so harsh! This reminds me to tell some of you, lay off the other bloggers and reviewers about having a drink before the show! Judgment much? Save it.

So anyway, once I’d suddenly tuned into the language (it takes a moment, a line, a phrase, a Tibetan foghorn to remind you to be ready to focus, this is Shakespeare; it’s different for everybody)…I thought of Pearl Harbor. I’m so sorry, Greg Clarke and David Walters but I did. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that the sparse set, with its towering interior wall (and security cameras) and its hospital bed and its lifting and cracking, once elegant floor under, looked a bit like the interior shots of that (add preferred adjective) film. Not that they had security cameras at Pearl Harbor either. Now that I think about it, it was nothing like it, was it? But these are the images you see in your head and try to separate, as you’re laughing at the sudden hilarity of Toby’s inflection/facial expression/gesture/kinda-funky-without-getting-the-follow-through dance move, the useful from the rubbish. Useful? The hundreds of Hamlets who have only delved as deep as “angst-ridden”, “sullen” and “oedipal” in their character studies and realising within the opening minutes of a performance that this is not one of them. Rubbish? The Pearl Harbor reference, of course. This is embaressing. CAN WE PLEASE MOVE ON NOW?

Toby Schmitz’s Hamlet, with his rock-star-morning-after voice is intelligent, super cool, a little bit cruel and quirky. I liked the Emo/Edward Cullen thing. I loved that his Hamlet was recoiled and delighted by the Hedwig-inspired rock-musical-within-a-play (New concept? Maybe not. Absolute genius version of it and thoroughly entertaining? YES)! I loved that Toby the actor obviously has a wonderful sense of comedy and that he was encouraged to use that to show us his own interpretation of Hamlet the character, after we have seen so many others. I thought he was crush-worthy and I hope the school girls and boys attending with their enlightened and inspiring staff members go away giggling and sighing over him. I just wonder if everything he takes out on Ophelia will become clear before the end of the season…

I’ve been trying to resist but I have to add that it seems to me, from various comments attached to blogs and facebook updates, that it is the local performing arts community who – again – are less than satisfied with this production. The general public want more of the same. So. two things: everybody in Independent Theatre quit griping and criticising and go see a show, produced, designed, performed and directed by your peers, for what it is. Great theatre for the masses. After all, isn’t that how this theatre business began?

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