Unitec Theatre, Entry 1, Carrington Rd, Mt Albert, Auckland

07/06/2013 - 15/06/2013

Production Details

Hamlet’s dad is dead. It’s all bad news for him. But if this wasn’t bad enough already, his mum has married his uncle, they’ve cancelled his University course and his girlfriend is ignoring him. His silent protest in wearing black to the wedding isn’t going down very well, and melancholy Hamlet starts to fade into the background, until his best mate comes in with the news he never expected to hear – his dad is back from the grave. And he isn’t happy. 

Hamlet has been, and continues to be, the most famous drama in the English language. Vividly portraying both true and feigned madness, the play explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption. This reduced, contemporary, adaptation explores the play’s core – a family in crisis. 

Tickets: now on sale at iTICK­ET.co.nz (09) 361 1000. 
Venue: Unitec Theatre, Entry 1, Carrington Rd, Mt Albert

Hamlet Show Dates: 7,10,12,14 June 7pm & 15 June 2pm
Running time: 90min approx

Performed by Unitec’s third year actors 
Albert Walker – Hamlet
Anna Haydon - Rosencranz/Priest/Osric/Player
Cathy Evans - Marcellus/Guildenstern/Grave Digger/Player
Eloise Pengelly - Ophelia/Bernardo/Player
Kelly Gilbride - Ophelia/Bernardo/Player
Faye Rillstone – Horatio
Linda Zheng - Laertes / Player
Nicole Steven – Gertrude
Stuart Shacklock – Claudius
Toby Stewart - Lord Polonius

Extreme choices

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 10th Jun 2013

Claude Bernard was a great man of science. I know this because I. Bernard Cohen, professor of the history of science at Harvard University from 1942 until he died in 2003, said so. And though Claude Bernard died 36 years before Cohen was born, he should know.

Why is this relevant? Apart from a seemingly minor focus on mortality which Hamlet himself shares, there would seem to be nothing to link the two but, since ‘seeming’ is also very much in Hamlet’s mind, please bear with me.

Claude Bernard is quoted as saying three things which I believe have singular relevance when discussing UNITEC’s Hamlet and they are these: “the experimenter who does not know what he is looking for will not understand what he finds”; “it is what we know already that often prevents us from learning”; finally, “observation is a passive process, experimentation an active process”.

UNITEC School of Performing and Screen Arts Shakespeare Season 2013 consists of this production of a truncated Hamlet and, on alternate nights, The Comedy of Errors, each performed by a company of third year degree students coming to the end of what has consistently been an exceptional programme of experiential learning.

Director Benjamin Henson, in his informative programme Foreword, ends by hoping that we might enjoy his and his cast’s “exploration of Hamlet”, for ‘exploration’ it is, and it is in this context that Claude Bernard’s observations about experimentation, and my responses to the production, have their origin. 

I can’t think of a better time for a young actor to experiment than while at school and UNITEC has, for many years now, provided one of the best and most challenging environments for such experimentation. Nor can I think of a piece of theatre that is so sacred that it can expect to be excluded from the prying eyes and minds of the young, and long may this be the case. I have little doubt that there will be purists who will disagree with this premise and there are certainly risks in undertaking such endeavours but the risks are worth the effort and we often learn most from our less successful ventures. 

Henson’s Hamlet is experimental, that’s for sure, and I’m certain Monsieur Bernard would advocate, as I do, that ‘nothing venture, nothing gain’ is a fine maxim in almost any circumstance. It seems to me, even though I’m not a scientist, that experiments have three possible outcomes. They can be great successes, they can be abject failures, or they can, as most do, sit somewhere in the middle.

For me, Henson’s Hamlet sits somewhere in the middle.

Henson lays down very clear parameters for the production in his foreword. He uses words such as ‘us’, ‘we’ and ‘our’ which suggest a collaborative approach, the outcome of which is a work that focuses on “a domestic drama charting a family in crisis” and the text is cut accordingly. He goes on to talk about building a “sterile world for Hamlet’s mind” with an emphasis on “false beauty”, with each character “an infection in this world” and “the decay of Shakespeare’s Denmark being present in each character”. “Hamlet’s isolation,” he suggests, “escalates as he fails to reach those around him.”

I’ve outlined these parameters because they are constraints within which this production must be assessed, the ‘rules of engagement’ if you will. It’s a domestic crisis, the outcome of which is the complete isolation of the title character and the ultimate avoidable tragedy.

Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is, of course, much more than this but I won’t travel this path as my role is simply to critique what I experienced in this production and assess it against its own set of criteria. I will pin my flag to the mast, however, and say that my personal belief is that you remove the external threat of Norway’s imminent invasion, the political milieu, the fact that this is a royal family tragedy played out in full glare of a public gaze alongside the destruction of Hamlet’s kingly hopes and the perpetuation of his father’s lineage, at your peril. Yes, you can turn it into a domestic drama but that’s not what Shakespeare wrote. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is not an example of the Bourgeois tragedy which developed in 18th Century Europe, nor is it the ‘ordinary people in domestic surroundings’ model, so clearly elucidated by Arthur Miller in Tragedy and the Common Man. Insteadit follows the structure clearly defined by Aristotle in Poetics(1) where he identifies seriousness, complexity, dignity, high social class, a reversal of fortune and a fatal character flaw as essential criteria for dramatic tragedy.

This isn’t to question the validity of Henson’s hypothesis or his right to have a bash at it but it does put it into a broader context and one that many theatre-goers might need to get their heads around. Henson’s not the first to adopt this approach and he certainly won’t be the last, and it’s probable that Claude Bernard is right when he says “it is what we know already that often prevents us from learning”.My own not infrequent forays into Hamlet and the expectations that result from these explorations may indeed present a unique challenge to my objectivity but I have little doubt that the same applied to the actors and Henson himself, as they struggled to find a voice that was uniquely their own. I have no doubt that what they’ve experienced has been an extraordinary and worthwhile journey.

Henson says, and I’ve no doubt he’s right, that “the cast have leapt into this world with clarity, precision and an emotional maturity that will stay with them throughout the rest of their training and careers.” Hamlet – and an open mind – will do exactly that and lives are changed forever through a mere association with this play.

Often with experimental work, and especially if it’s been collaboratively fashioned as would seem to be the case with this Hamlet, the most exciting occurrences happen on the rehearsal floor rather than in performance and, once again, I defer to M Bernard’s wisdom when he reminds us that “observation is a passive process, experimentation an active process.” As observers we often see just a smattering of the learning that happens during the experimental phase and before performances get ‘locked in’ and it is the discovery process itself that is of greatest importance to the student actor. 

I am excited, on arriving in the theatre, to see that most of the theatrical subterfuge that often accompanies performance has been removed and that the stage, open and visible to the white back wall, is discernible in all its glory. It’s a wonderful, deep space and it is great to see it made accessible in such an attractive manner. Down-stage left and right are batteries of screens backed by a larger plasma monitor on the left and the remainder of the space contains paraphernalia – lights, reflective umbrellas and a costume rack – which contributes to the overall look of a photographer’s studio. Centre stage, in a wide pool of light, lies the still and silent body of a man who, we assume correctly, is Hamlet himself.

The production begins as it traditionally ends, with “Now cracks a noble heart” but there’s nothing traditional about the look and feel of this production. The cutting is ruthless and, in the main, to the point. There is no exile to England, no external Norwegian threat, lines appear in new and sometimes unusual places, with “To be or not to be” turning up in the closet scene. But all in all, the actors are confident in what they’re doing and saying.

Excising Hamlet’s ‘advice to the players’ to let their“own discretionbe their tutor” and“to suit the action to the word, the word to the action” seems to somehow give carte blanche for some fairly extreme choices, some of which I like, some of which I don’t and some I don’t understand at all. No matter, my understanding as an audience member is based on my own constructivist perceptions and others may well have grasped, and been moved by, the same actor choices that I find somewhat bemusing.

Songs are included, electronic equipment is effectively managed, costumes are varied, eclectic and, in the main, attractively chosen despite occasionally challenging both logic (Barnardo and Marcellus in camouflage gear, bikinis and high heels) and tradition (Claudius in cowboy boots, cotton undies, a plastic coronet and a floral robe). Unlike Henson, whose deft directorial hand and affectionate and personable approach are visible everywhere, I can’t honestly say that the narrative is presented with what he describes as a “laser-like clarity” but the story is certainly well told and with a modernity that is ultimately refreshing. It must be said that when the actors allow Shakespeare’s text and the indisputably gripping narrative to drive the production it becomes vivid and alive and the ninety minutes without an interval fairly zips by.

The ensemble works well throughout and with a degree of trust that is heartening and there are some standout performances. As Ophelia, Kelly Gilbride finds a fragile vulnerability and serves the narrative well. Gilbride best bridges the gap between the expressionist nature of the experimentation and the power and authority of Shakespeare’s plot and seems to best understand her role, not only in the family, but in the play as a whole.

Toby Stewart’s Polonius has some excellent moments, not the least of which is the growing realisation that he’s been a pawn in Claudius’s ghastly game and that his daughter is the gravely damaged victim of his own gullibility.

Faye Rillstone plays Horatio straight down the middle and her grief in the final moments of the play is palpable and deeply moving.

Linda Zheng’s Laertes is played with passion and commitment. She and the ‘players’, wittily decked out in their Pussy Riot masks, add real vitality and visual flair to the production.

Albert Walker’s Hamlet is a mixed bag, at times excellent and at other times somewhat difficult to follow. His is the longest, hardest and most complex journey and, as is typical of Shakespeare – and important though he is – he doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In its entirety Hamlet is a finely honed and wonderfully musical script and it may well be that Walker’s Hamlet suffers most from the cuts and rearrangement of the text and the interpretation of his two great protagonists Claudius and his mother Gertrude.

This, of course, presents one of the theatre’s great conundrums: how does an actor know what the journey is until he or she has travelled it or, as M Bernard most clearly articulates, “if the experimenter does not know what he is looking for he will not understand what he finds.”  Experimentation is one thing but it doesn’t exist outside an understanding, by the experimenter, of what the journey just might be and from this grows that most critical of questions: how can I, the actor, predict where I might be going so that I can test, and adapt, my experimentation against this? A most wise man once said to a cast I was in, “If you lose your performance or you want more answers, go back to the text. The answers are all in there.”

You can, of course, play against the text but fighting to make it something it’s not can be a futile exercise. 

It’s fair to say that the study of Hamlet is a lifetime’s work and equally fair to say that playing the Dane is too. Walker has a most courageous bash at it and should be immensely proud of what he’s achieved, as should Henson and his entire team. It’s enough to tackle the play from a traditional perspective where you’re supported by decades of learned writing, actor biographies, film and critical reflections about the play, its narrative, its characters, their myriad interactions with each other and the time in which they exist. To take all that and use it as a focus for experimentation sits somewhere between the foolhardy and the sublime and must be applauded.

It’s no discredit to this student Hamlet that they fail to reach the sublime – they’re in exquisite company in that – but neither is the venture foolhardy as personal growth for the student actors is the ultimate aim and I have little doubt that this is achieved. 

Big ups to them all – it is Hamlet, after all.

(1)        Aristotle. Poetics, Trans. W.H. Fyfe. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1932. Section 1452b


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