Review: Hamlet in the box ‘Ugly-beautiful’ La Boite Theatre

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Top Posts of 2010

Originally published 15 February, 2010

Toby Schmitz as Hamlet Photo: Amelia Dowd

Let it be known, nothing sums this show up better than its poster: a soaking wet Toby Schmitz (very Trainspotting) arms raised as he pulls his hair back … with just a fine whisper of pubic hair on show. Whilst grabbing my tickets from the box office to see this not-so-subtle erotic piece of marketing on sale for three dollars a throw, I could understand how (if I were a Year 11 school girl) I’d have begun hungrily digging through the bottom of my school bag, gathering change from my tuckshop visit in order to pick up a copy. You get this feeling throughout the show: it’s sexy, cutting, and brutal, and it’s made for the 21st Century Twilight obsessed kid.

Ophelia is seen texting on her mobile phone, the Gravedigger grabs a quick digital pic with Hamlet, letters and messages are sent over an odd Star Trek-like video system. In addition (and I promise I’ll get to the finer points of the actual performances in a moment) it would be hard to find a group of more beautiful actors without resorting to Photoshop. Berthold has assembled a sexy cast, and he knows it. Skin (and on one occasion, full frontal nudity) is shown without hesitation, often in pairing with the four or five rock-opera style contemporary songs.

Hamlet’s play, in particular, makes you feel like you’re at some kind of incestuous drunk dance concert, and I’m not totally certain that this isn’t exactly how Shakespeare would have liked it.

You can’t begin to truly look at the show without placing it in its larger context. This is a big deal for Berthold, the new Artistic Director of La Boite and director of this production. Overall, the past couple of years haven’t been to kind to the Brisbane institution, and Berthold’s new on the scene. He’s re-branded the entire company: a new logo, a new feel, and an exciting season ahead. Hamlet is the headliner of the year. In this regard, the production is an overwhelming success. It most definitely makes a statement, and the mainstream reviews reflect this. The poster and Schmitz’s pubic hair have driven the show into the public consciousness in a way that hasn’t been felt in Brisbane for a while, particularly with youth. A few students I teach were incredibly excited that I was going to the show, and these are kids that wouldn’t be able to name a single play that was produced in Brisbane in 2009, or for that matter, 2010. (This may reflect my teaching abilities as opposed to the Brisbane cultural market.)

A few odd happenings have occurred during the show’s run so far, the like of which are usually reserved for the Scottish Play. On opening night the show was delayed by half an hour due to an unfortunate front of house mix-up. On Saturday evening we also had a thirty minute delay. We were told by a lovely stage manager and front of house folk that the lighting board had suffered a critical error. Having been part of my fair share of theatre crises myself, I can only imagine the fear that would have gripped the hearts of the entire crew.  I’m also well aware of how helpless they would’ve been in trying to fix it. Eventually, the show had to go ahead, but with the emergency lighting on, as they were proving impossible to turn off. This meant ugly fluoro light and aisle lights were on for the entire performance. This compromise, of course, came with profuse apologies and the admission that several lighting effects in the show would be effected. Overall, it didn’t really bother me, although several big moments that were obviously meant to occur in absolute black (several dramatic exits, as well as the ghost scene) came with the pestering parenthetical question: ‘I wonder if it would look any better with all the lights off?’

But, as we went into the near blackness, all thoughts of the poster, the new logo, and the technical flaws faded away, and we were left with the show itself. Overall, it was a damn good night out at the theatre, and an enjoyable and entertaining production.

Berthold has really gotten a lot of things right here. Bard fanatics may shiver as I admit this, but he’s quite obviously abandoned Shakespeare’s text at certain points to hammer important plot points home.

There are large portions of text that are outright original, like the lyrics of the songs. This seems, again, a move to appeal to the mass market, and, for me, it was a welcome and refreshing change – although I am well aware that it would not be to everyone’s taste.

This occasional admission to simplifying the text obviously aids Berthold’s overall vision. Characters wield guns, and the violence is delivered with a brutal hand. The final duel is particularly compelling (and bloody). This gives the tragedy a hard and ragged edge that keeps this three hour monster, for the most part, clicking along pleasantly.

This 21st century re-visioning of Shakespeare is hardly original, however, and at several points I did feel it had gone a little too far. I couldn’t help sighing when Hamlet first appeared in costume: skinny jeans and a black hoodie.

I had hoped we’d left the ‘Hamlet as emo’ portrayal behind in the previous decade, but it unfortunately lives on.

There were several points where he bordered on the annoying adolescent. This is inherent in Shakespeare’s text, of course, and is usually relieved by the comedy of his madness. But here, another problem was presented. While Schmitz is an absolutely fantastic performer who commands the stage and the audience’s eyes, the trip into insanity, while hilarious, felt like a completely different imagining of the character. This was repeated with Hamlet’s return in the final act. Each portrayal was gripping and excellently delivered, but it almost felt like three distinct characters as opposed to one consistent arc.

It’s obvious that Schmitz is having a ball on stage, and he’s great fun to watch. It is perhaps this charisma that leads to another minor failing of the play for me. In every scene, it seemed Hamlet held the highest status. He left every scene having won it. This meant that his struggle was slightly less easy to sympathise with, and the conflict of the piece felt slightly compromised.

These challenges to Berthold’s interpretation seem trivial and academic, however, and don’t spoil one’s overall enjoyment of the play. Make no mistake, Schmitz is a delight. Eugene Gilfedder and Helen Howard do particularly well as the ill-conceived newlyweds, but on the whole this is a fine cast of actors who master the text with ease.

Greg Clarke’s set holds constant surprises and tricks, right up until the final scene. The staging of the entire piece is really quite clever. A bathtub, a bed, several dead bodies and a grave all make entrances and exits with only one distinct break in the action. (And I must admit, this felt a little forced. Several cast members come on stage to mop up water that’s been left by the previous scene. An attempt to make this legally required cleaning a movement piece felt like an afterthought and wasn’t particularly successful.) Clarke’s costumes too give the actors their sexy gloss.

Steve Toulmin’s sound and music rises to an epic challenge with ease. David Walter’s lighting design was strong, even given the compromised form in which I saw it. Nigel Poulton’s fight direction, as always, is of an international standard, and truly first class.

This is an enjoyable night out at the theatre, and a true success for Berthold and the La Boite company. It sets a interesting standard for the rest of the year that I, along with the rest of Brisbane, will look to with interest.

GUEST POST: David Burton is a playwright, lecturer in children’s and young people’s theatre (USQ), and the Director of the Empire Youth Theatre in Toowoomba.  David is writing Captain Pathos and his Army of Imaginary Friends for this year’s USQ Children’s Theatre Festival, following his acclaimed Spirits in Bare Feet for last year’s Festival.  His one-man play Furious Angels will premiere as part of the Metro Arts Independent season later this year. Dave is also working on the commissioned April’s Fool for the Empire Theatre; this new work premieres in August before an extensive tour of Queensland.  In 2009, his award-winning work Lazarus Won’t Get Out of Bed was produced by AS Theatre, and played a season at Metro Arts in Brisbane.  Other work includes The Bachelor Prophecies (2007) and Smashed (2008).   Follow him on Twitter @dave_burton

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David Burton

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