Bell Shakespeare’s latest production of Hamlet, directed by Damien Ryan with Josh McConville in the lead role is a technical triumph. Ryan’s direction is impeccable, with each obscure line made clear by a physical explanation (the most direct is Hamlet squarely eyeballing Ophelia’s navel as he delivers the line, “Do you think I meant country matters?”). Ryan’s crystal clear rendering of a 1603 text into modern sensibility is remarkable. It’s also remarkable, however, that there is no vision for the production. But more on that later. First to the force of nature that is Josh McConville.
From his first “too too solid flesh” monologue, McConville is on fire. The last Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet I saw was in 2008 with Marion Potts directing and Brendan Cowell playing a very sad Hamlet indeed — his heavy melancholy verging on lethargy. McConville’s embodies what Dame Francis Yates describes as Hamlet’s “inspired melancholy”; contemplative, yes, but also electric and dangerous. At ease and present throughout, he cuts through each of the over-famous lines as if the thoughts had come to him just that second.
The production has been touring Melbourne and Canberra already, so the ensemble works like a well-oiled machine, aside from apparent boredom on the part of some of the supporting cast. Ivan Donato playing Horatio is a trustworthy, honest presence throughout, and his mourning of Hamlet’s death is very moving.
The production could have done without most of Steve Francis’s sound design, which tends towards the obvious. As Hamlet and Laertes duel, a wave of strings crescendo to inform us that things are tense between two men trying to stab each other. Similarly his sound design sentimentalises Ophelia’s demise, which detracts from Matilda Ridgway’s frank, believable interpretation of madness.
There’s nothing wrong with this production. McConville’s performance is virtuosic and Ryan’s direction immaculate, but the tidiness of the production means there’s also nothing much wrong in this particular state of Denmark. The overlay of a surveillance state by Polonius’s constant spying seems bumbling and unlikely (microphones hidden under tables) rather than speaking to the current surveillance state we live in.
Hamlet is a political play. The Prince of Denmark’s unrest stems from the moral quandary of how to act when his society has become corrupted. To stage it in an apolitical tundra is a missed opportunity.