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Forsooth, I just had a very Shakespearian weekend!

That sounds as though I was involved in some kind of immersive, 16th Century Nostalgia experience, that involved wearing a long dress and running (or gracefully tiptoeing) around saying “thou” and “verily.”

Forsooth, this gear is not made for running.

Nay, verily I say that I did none of those things. I donned a pair of black jeans, packed a small carry-on bag, and flew to Sydney to see a Sydney Theatre Company production of Romeo and Juliet at the Opera House, AND a production of Hamlet, by Sydney-based theatre company Belvoir, at the Belvoir Street Theatre.

Just to prove what a contemporary kind of gal I am, none of those activities could have been envisaged in Shakespeare’s day, as neither jeans, nor air-travel, nor yet the Opera House, nor white Australians reenacting historical English plays, had been invented in the 16th Century.

I enjoy history, yet when it comes to the arts, I am most stimulated by contemporary works and ideas. So to me it is intriguing when a historical play is re-imagined and re-presented in a contemporary setting, with creative adaptation to make it relevant to a contemporary audience.

Some will take issue when classic plays are adapted, and lines, characters or even whole scenes are altered or left entirely out. When it’s done well, however, I suspect that such adaptation is, in a way, being true to the spirit of theatre. Unlike a painting, sculpture, book, or recorded piece of music, performance is a transient artform. Any new production of a play will never be exactly the same as previous productions.

As time goes by and society changes, we need to make an effort to understand and appreciate the context in which art was produced, for example a painting from 1595, by accessing information about that time in history, and what the painter intended to say about the scene depicted. The text of a play, however, when old enough to be beyond copyright, is able to be adapted, so that a director may choose to hone in – or tease out – particular themes so that the play resonates with a contemporary audience.

An example of this kind of adaptation in the cinema is Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet. I studied Romeo and Juliet at school when I was about 15, and had to watch the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film. I thought the film was pretty corny, and consequently didn’t think much of the play either. Then in 1996, along came Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet and – BAM! The narrator is a newsreader on TV! The city of Verona is a suburb of L.A! The Montague and Capulet boys dress like Latino mafioso and punk surfers. Their guns are branded Sword, and they have a shoot out at a petrol station! Suddenly the story was cool.

For**$#!sooth

Oy, Benvolio, watch where you wave that Sword!

Pic: The Partial View (click picture to be taken to the site)

But I’m writing about theatre, not film. As opposed to a Hollywood produced film, a theatre production has many restrictions and yet some important freedoms. Restrictions are obvious (budget, set, lack of editing etc) but what are the freedoms?

Theatre allows directors to focus on, and tease out, what they find interesting in the play, or in a character. Actors are able to take the time, or use subtle – or not-so-subtle body language, to let the double meaning of a line, sink in for the audience. And yay, verily, they did so in these two superb productions.

Following in the footsteps of Baz Lurhmann’s production, the STC production of Romeo and Juliet focussed on the relevant themes in the play about the decadence and crime that wealth and indulgence can breed.

After a brief introduction by the narrator (in this case, Juliet), the curtains parted, electronic dance music boomed, and a revolving stage revealed glimpses into a mansion, where young people were partying, drinking, and in one case, swinging from the chandelier. As the stage revolved, and the music continued, the audience glimpsed darkened streets, where other young people drank, stalked, or fought one another – and as the stage continued to revolve, the fighting moved into the party in the mansion.

This production also focussed on the control Juliet’s family has over the 13 year old girl they are forcing into marriage with an older man. The brooding, angry father was played well by Colin Moody, who seems on the verge of violence when he grabs his wife’s face and forces her to look at him while he addresses her. All the actors in this production were very strong, and in most ways it lived up to my hopes for a contemporary adaptation. My one disappointment was in the ending (which I think I can mention without spoiling it for anyone, since the production is over) – where Juliet did not kill herself.

Maybe it is hypocritical of me to applaud contemporary adaptations and then turn around and complain that I don’t like a rewritten ending, but surely the whole point of Romeo and Juliet is the tragedy that they both kill themselves? I liked the changes in the final scene where Juliet hysterically pointed her gun at her father, but I felt that having her still alive when the curtain left a question mark about what happened next, and that was not true to the spirit and intent of the original play, which an adaption must still be.

I have spent a lot of time talking about Romeo and Juliet. That may be because I am reasonably familiar with the play, so I had something to reference and compare.

In contrast, I have never seen in full, nor read, any version of Hamlet, (I seem to recall seeing some of the film with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, but either I didn’t see it all, or it made no sense to me), so I had no preconceptions of, or comparisons to make with, the Simon Stone directed production at Belvoir St.

I was familiar with the basic premise, that Hamlet’s father has died, and  his ghost informs Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, who has since married Hamlet’s mother. Incestuous, forsooth!

I’m also aware that Simon Stone is a young director receiving a lot of attention from the theatre world – positive and negative – for his “slice and dice” adaptations of classic theatre. From what I’ve read, this production puts a greater focus on the angst of the prince (Hamlet). As I have not seen other versions, after having seen this play, I can’t imagine how the prince’s angst could not be the main focus, but I can grasp some of the ways in which it is literally made central in this production. For a start, Hamlet rarely leaves the stage for more than a minute – in scenes between other actors he was seated at the side, sometimes watching and responding with facial expressions and groans to what they were saying, at other times, seemingly unaware of them.

To set the scene, I walked up the steps and into my seat, to find Hamlet already on stage,with his head in his hands, sobbing. The actor, Toby Schmitz, was clearly following direction – for the next 15 minutes or so, he continued to sit there, alternating between raising his head and staring towards the audience in despair, back to sobbing with his head in his hands. This is not a new technique, but I always enjoy that deliberate break with the theatrical tradition of needing the lights to go down and the audience to go silent, before The Play can begin.

The contemporary nature of this production was conveyed, amongst other things, in the 21st century costumes of the characters, in the sparseness of the set, in the intonations and modulations of the original lines, in Hamlet’s eavesdropping on scenes he is not in. In one scene, Hamlet, contemptuously rebuffing Polonius who is trying to engage him in conversation, sings to himself, over the top of him, songs from Disney movies, including “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” (from the Lion King).

Hamlet occasionally addresses the audience directly – or seems to. It’s very Shakespearian for an actor to remind the audience that they are “watching, pale and trembling, speechless spectators of these acts,”* but Schmitz makes this device feel contemporary, speaking of, and to, the audience with a look and tone of contempt at one point.

Interestingly, medieval songs were sung throughout the play by a counter-tenor, often as he emerged from the wings at one end of the stage space, walked across the stage still singing, and disappeared again. Was that a contemporary touch?  I’m not a scholar of theatre, but I’m aware that singing in plays has historical precedents, (such as the ancient Greek chorus). I have never heard of singing in Hamlet, and suspect it was a new element, particularly when the timing of the singer’s appearance sometimes interrupted an actor who was still delivering their lines.

Overall, I didn’t feel the director’s focus was on re-imagining the story as taking place in 2013, or on finding themes that are relevant to audiences right now. Based on this play, I think, and my reading backs this up, that Stone’s interest in adapting classics, is so that a contemporary audience can understand and be interested by the original story. To keep a contemporary audience interested in listening to people talking in Iambic Pentameter, in 16th century English, he does away with much of the complicated, confusing speeches and extraneous characters and retains those that will tell the audience the central story. In the end, particularly based on the strength of the central performances and the way the sparse setting worked in with the play, I enjoyed this Hamlet immensely.

Now I’ll just have to rent a DVD so I can compare other versions.

*Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 5 –  from (my possibly erroneous) memory this specific line was not in the Belvoir production but is an example of lines that were retained.

To read some proper reviews of these plays, try:

Crikey Blog: Simon Stone has raised the Bard

Aussie Theatre: Romeo and Juliet – Sydney Theatre Company

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2 Comments

  1. There are many good film versions of Hamlet – They include one with Mel Gibson, one with Kenneth Brannagh, and then a more recent one with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as King Claudius. They all have their good elements. The David Tennant version is done in a pseudo-modern/pseudo-theatrical style with a simplistic set and scenes portrayed through the lens of surveillance cameras. It would probably be a really interesting version to compare with the live version you watched.

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    • Thanks for the suggestions! (And for reading far enough to get to that part about Hamlet!) I was aware of the Mel Gibson version, totally forgotten about the Kenneth Brannagh, & never heard of the David Tennant version, which does sound interesting! I’ll have to hunt that down!

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