Hamlet | BelvoirLeft – Robyn Nevin, Toby Schmitz & Anthony Phelan. Cover – Toby Schmitz. Photos – Brett Boardman.

I’ve seen three productions of Hamlet in 2013. The first was probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I really enjoyed the second one. But the third, Belvoir's production, directed by Simon Stone and starring Toby Schmitz, is simply electric. It is gripping from start to finish, absolutely pulsating the whole way through. This is thrilling, exhilarating theatre.

There’s a tendency with Shakespeare to try and play it “faithfully”, which so often means “unadventurously”. It feels like the director tries to make themselves as small as possible in order to let Shakespeare’s words speak for themselves, and it means that a lot of productions, different as they might be in setting and cast, feel quite similar. Simon Stone has not fallen into this trap. While he hasn’t attempted to rewrite Hamlet like he has so many other classic plays, he has made some very firm decisions and stuck to them. He’s applied quite an aggressive reading to it, and he’s executed it brilliantly.

The reading that Stone has applied places even more pressure on the shoulders of Hamlet to carry the play. This is Hamlet told in the first person – we not only watch Hamlet, but in a sense, we become Hamlet. Playing the eponymous character, Toby Schmitz is on stage almost the entire show. He observes most of the action, lurking in the shadows, until we begin to realise that what he is seeing might be almost entirely in his head. This is gonzo Hamlet with the most unreliable of narrators – a horrendously difficult job for an actor to pull off.

But Schmitz manages it. He more than manages it. He is absolutely electrifying. His Hamlet is grief-stricken and tormented and horrible to the people he loves, but we cannot help but sympathise with him, because he has forced us inside his mind. There is definite method in Hamlet’s madness here – Schmitz presents us with a penetrating psychological study of a man who, unable to cope with his grief, must become mad in order to cope.

One of the things I’ve always liked most about Hamlet – and something I think is often forgotten – is that he is a scholar. He is brilliantly, almost overwhelmingly clever. He has an obsessive single-mindedness, to the point where his obsessions consume him. (As a scholar and as someone who consequently hangs out with a lot of scholars, I feel pretty comfortable in saying that this is a fairly accurate representation of a lot of us.) In the first act in particular, Schmitz allows us to see just how clever Hamlet actually is. We see hints of the passionate, brilliant man, the sweet prince, who could have written, “Doubt thou the stars are fire / Doubt that the sun doth move / Doubt truth to be a liar / But never doubt my love,” to his lover. His intelligence is almost as much of a burden to him as his grief. All his intellect cannot save him from his emotions, and the combination of the two essentially turns him into a conspiracy theorist. Schmitz charts Hamlet’s descent into paranoia and obsessive madness consummately. This is an absolutely outstanding performance.

Because Stone’s reading of interpretation privileges Hamlet’s narrative so much, the rest of the cast necessarily suffer a little in comparison. Nevertheless, there are some remarkable performances in the rest of the ensemble. Robyn Nevin’s Gertrude is virtuosic, especially in the final scene before interval, which she plays with Schmitz. The role John Gaden has been given as Claudius is more benign than in many other versions of the show, but he still maintains a powerful presence. Emily Barclay is wonderful as Ophelia (I really liked that her madness was clearly attributed to her feelings at the death of her father, thus giving her grief equal weight to Hamlet’s, rather than being chalked up to pregnancy, greensickness, or unrequited love as it so often is). And Greg Stone is just perfect as Polonius, providing some great comic moments in the first act and becoming a poignant symbol of just how dangerous Hamlet’s madness has become in the second act.

This is a truly exceptional production of what is perhaps the classic of the Western canon. There’s a lot in it that will be familiar to those who know the Simon Stone oeuvre (when I walked in for the second half and saw that the walls had magically become white, I had to laugh), but this is a production of Hamlet which feels new and fresh and exciting – quite a rare achievement. Schmitz’s performance is a tour de force, a complex, nuanced, layered portrayal of one of literature’s most iconic characters. I feel lucky to have seen this production, and if I get the opportunity, I fully intend to see it again.

Belvoir presents
by William Shakespeare

Director Simon Stone

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre | 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 12 October – 1 December 2013
Tickets: $65 – $45
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 | belvoir.com.au

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