How do you make Shakespeare’s traitorous drama Hamlet, funny? That’s the question. Never mind “To be, or not to be”, adapting five acts and eight deaths into a slapstick farce that runs for 100 minutes is the real masterpiece.

Known for their ability to modernise and adapt the Bard’s work Sheoak Productions presents Hamlet, a commedia dell’arte adaption with great success. Scott Middleton and his cast of multi-talented performers have taken the Shakespearean tragedy and turned it on its skull (sorry, head) in their brand-new production.

As with their previous productions of Two Gents and Midsummer, the setting is moved to a more modern era, this time to 1939 Copenhagen. As the world waits uneasily on the brink of WWII, the interpersonal political drama at the Circus Belli takes centre stage.

The Ringmaster Hamlet senior is dead, and his brother Claudius has succeeded him, both in the circus ring and in his personal life, marrying Hamlet’s widow Getrude. As the young Hamlet attempts to cope with the grief of his father’s death and his mother’s betrayal, he is visited by Hamlet senior who reveals it was Claudius who murdered him and demands vengeance. What plays out is a twisted tale of gaslighting, treachery, violence and death. Hilarious right?

Somehow, it is. It’s down to the talent of the ensemble cast and careful adaptation of the script that everything that shouldn’t work, does. The audience is drawn in with the larger-than-life performances by Ringmaster Hamlet Senior/Claudius by Lachlan Murdoch, whose John Cleese-esque funny walks suit the commedia dell’arte style perfectly. Everyone is double/triple cast and embodies each of their characters with defining characteristics, so the audience is never lost, a feat all of its own. Ophelia’s father Polonius gets the very special honour of being played by all five performers, adding refreshing layers of comedy in the darker moments.

Those darker moments occur later in the piece. Once the audience is fully invested in the joyous comedy, completely on board with the concept of 16th century text in a 1930s circus, does the story take a turn. From Hamlet’s soliloquy, performed with heartbreaking sincerity by Scott Middleton to the deaths of most of the characters and finally the reveal that WWII has begun, the tragic events just keep coming.

Yet even here there is humour, Seon Williams consistently causes inappropriate outbursts of laughter from the audience with her scene-stealing performances. She is an absolute delight to watch and brings unique elements to all the characters she embodies. William’s Horatio is one of the best interpretations of the character I’ve seen, and I’d happily watch her in a spin off production from Horatio’s POV.

Jacqui Martin delights as Gertrude and gets the coveted role of the Gravedigger as well as a stunning operatic solo that demonstrates her remarkable vocals. Scott Jackson plays a multitude of characters, from the serious Laertes to the ridiculous Rozencrantz he covers the gamut of emotion and yet still has energy for the final swordfight. What’s most interesting is that a play that should be about its title character has become a true ensemble piece. Middleton is perfectly cast as the sad-clown-little-boy-lost Hamlet and in his interpretation allows the character to evolve, giving the whole story more gravitas.

I heard once that comedy is just tragedy sped up, and while this production of Hamlet would support that theory, with its condensed script action-packed hour and a half, I believe its success is due to the overwhelming talent and commitment from the cast. Hamlet by Sheoak Productions. To see, or not to see? There is no question.

Event details

Sheoak Productions presents
Hamlet
by William Shakespeare

Director Mandy Ellison

Venue: Fairfield Amphitheatre | Fairfield Park Dr, Fairfield VIC
Dates: 4 – 15 March 2024
Tickets: $35 – $28
Bookings: www.bendigoregion.com.au/arts-culture-theatres/event/hamlet-at-fairfield-amphitheatre

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