Goodnight, sweet prince

Hamlet, change of cast, Belvoir, Sydney, November 26

THEATRE critics don’t often revisit a production. They go to the opening, write, and move on. They must. Other plays, other companies relentlessly crowd the diary and then the season is over and the chance disappears. The critic has to make judgments swiftly, and very possibly on a performance that is not as good as it will become. But that’s the way it works. The review is a snapshot of that one occasion.

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir's Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir’s Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

By and large that’s fine. Few productions, within the four to six weeks of their run, will alter so fundamentally that another viewing will change critical opinion. It also must be remembered that critical opinion isn’t a singular, unified beast. It’s a collection of disparate views, often wildly differing.

Only infrequently, therefore, does a production make an ironclad case for being seen again. Simon Stone’s Hamlet for Belvoir came into this category through chance. The production opened on October 12 with Toby Schmitz playing the prince of Denmark, but he was released when shooting on a US TV series, Black Sails, in which he is involved, was brought forward. (Black Sails is described as a prequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.) Series one doesn’t premiere until January 25 but early buzz was so good a second series was commissioned by cable channel Starz and it started filming this month.

One can’t help thinking of when Geoffrey Rush withdrew from Belvoir’s 2003 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot to take a role in some pirate film. Yes, that would be Pirates of the Caribbean. That went pretty well for Rush. You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of an opportunity like that. But Godot hadn’t yet opened and John Gaden nobly stepped into the breach.

In the case of Hamlet Schmitz would need to leave two weeks before the scheduled closing date.

Quite a challenging situation, you would think, having to replace such a charismatic leading man, and in Hamlet to boot. Belvoir, however, hit the jackpot with the availability and willingness of Ewen Leslie to step in. Not only is Leslie one of the finest stage actors of his generation, he had played Hamlet in Melbourne in 2011, although this assignment was a very different one. Leslie would have to forget huge swaths of text and come to grips with a re-ordering of that which remained.

Stone’s Hamlet isn’t one for everyone, particularly those who don’t know the play, and while I would suggest this production isn’t one for the ages, its explosive energy and intensity of purpose make riveting theatre. Hamlet has been ruthlessly pared back – take out the interval and there’s not much more than two hours of drama – and is presented in black and white. This is literally so in design terms, with the first half set (such as it is; a wall of curtains and row of bog-standard chairs) a study in black and the second act performed in a bright white box in which only the grand piano from Act I remains. The first setting acts as a visual equivalent to the dark deeds that unhinge Hamlet and the second provides a bright canvas for all that blood. Grief and death are Stone’s preoccupations and he goes at them pell-mell.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said of Edmund Kean that seeing him act was “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”. It wasn’t entirely the compliment it sounds. The meaning, it seems, is that with Kean you didn’t get the whole picture. Nevertheless, that wonderful phrase conveys the crackle and electricity of performance and could justifiably be used to describe this Hamlet and its strictly limited palette. The wonderful Nathan Lovejoy gets to be both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Anthony Phelan is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and in one of the production’s most touching moments is assigned Horatio’s beautiful words, “Goodnight, sweet prince”; an audacious puppet show economically replaces the travelling players; and so on.

All these things were immediately legible on a first viewing. The second viewing brought into sharper focus the production’s intimacy and complicity with its audience. The auditorium lights are often high and several times Hamlet crosses the invisible barrier between stage and seating. Even if not physically doing that, he makes searching eye contact. The idea of a soliloquy as ideas spoken aloud is transformed into a feeling of being inside Hamlet’s head as he tries to think things through. Leslie is particularly direct and powerful in this. At the performance I saw, when he demanded, “Am I a coward?”, you could feel people restraining themselves from answering. Thus, when the final scene is filled with blood-soaked characters, some of them are, strictly speaking, not yet dead. But as the duel scene rapidly unfolds, it is not unreasonable to apprehend these last moments as flickers of Hamlet’s dying thoughts. He sees dead people and so do we.

Stone’s production is not in essence changed by the change of cast, but naturally there are differences between Schmitz and Leslie. Schmitz was witty and unpredictable, wearing his rage and grief like banners of war in high-definition colours. Even when he was wracked with sobs there was the sense he was very aware of his effect and of how events may unfold. Leslie’s torment is no less overtly expressed yet feels more private. Deep thinking and even deeper desolation are his lot.

While on the subject of spellbinding performances, the weekend brings not only the last chance to see Hamlet, but also Marshall Napier in All My Sons at the new Eternity Playhouse for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Napier is towering in a very fine, absolutely traditional staging of Arthur Miller’s domestic tragedy. There’s happily a little more time to see Paul Blackwell in John Doyle’s Vere (Faith) for Sydney Theatre Company. Blackwell is devastating as a physicist falling into the black hole of dementia.

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waiting for Godot runs until December 21, with as thrilling a quartet of performances as you could find anywhere from Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins. In the bewilderingly under-appreciated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – by audiences, that is; the crits were the kind you’d write for yourself but houses have been small – Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington are a riot.

What of roles for women, we ask? Things are a bit thin on the ground at the moment, although Harriet Dyer is harrowing in Machinal at Sydney Theatre Company and Toni Scanlan magnificent as Kate Keller in All My Sons.

Like Hamlet, All My Sons had a key cast change during the run when Meredith Penman could do only a couple of performances as Anne due to another commitment. I didn’t see the well-reviewed Penman but her replacement, Anna Houston, was superb.

Remember how a couple of years ago there was a hoo-ha about lack of opportunities for female directors in theatre? That situation seems to have shifted appreciably, which is good. But what about towering roles for women. Well, this year we’ve had The Maids for Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, and Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury for Sarah Peirse, and newcomer Taylor Ferguson was given the title role in Miss Julie, although I found the production misbegotten.

I thought the unforgettable women of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe were quite right when they made a joke about how they should have been in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre instead of the tiny Downstairs space. But they weren’t.

As for next year, well, Sydney will see a man playing Hedda Gabler – Ash Flanders at Belvoir. But he will be directed by a woman, Adena Jacobs.

Hamlet and All My Sons end December 1. Vere (Faith) and Machinal end December 7. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels closes December 8. Waiting for Godot ends December 21.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney

Belvoir St Theatre, February 27

WHEN theatre practitioners talk about putting Australian voices on stage they tend to be talking about Australian plays and Australian content – what else would they mean? Well, at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre, artistic director Ralph Myers and resident director Simon Stone take it a step further by preferring to use the Australian accent on stage, no matter where the play may be set. There were no upper-class British elocutions to be heard in Myers’s production last year of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, no American cadences in Stone’s Death of a Salesman (he unwisely also deleted the epilogue and had to reinstate it, but that’s a separate matter).

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Now Stone offers Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof without the perfume of southern accents. It’s a bold call, and not one that persuades unconditionally, but nevertheless the decision is all of a piece with a keen desire to make an audience see important texts anew. To hear them anew. No Tennessee Williams play was harmed in the making of this production. (We may also assume that when Stone puts Hamlet on the Belvoir stage later in the year he won’t ask Toby Schmitz to play the Dane in Elizabethan English.)

There’s a Brechtian element here. It is disconcerting to hear Willy Loman talk about upstate New York towns and sound exactly like Colin Friels. It is jolting when, in Private Lives, Elyot says women need to be struck regularly, like gongs, and to see and hear Schmitz as a present-day Sydney lad about town. And it is deeply dislocating to hear Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as if it were set on a big property somewhere in rural Australia.

Such a provocation is stimulating and challenging – if one gains more than one loses. With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I give Stone the win. I’d like to see the production again and think I’d get more from it on another viewing, which is pretty much my criterion for a successful evening.

But still.

I think it’s relevant that on the night I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the sounds of the American South frequently trembled on actors’ lips before being suppressed. Those sounds, so soft and stretched and swirled in the mouth, are at one with the rhythms of the text and have an almost palpable sensuality along with intimations of decay. Think of the sentimental references to Brick’s alma mater Ole Miss; that’s as mushy a phrase as you can find. And “mendacity” – the key word in the play – begs to be heard drawn out into four distinct, deliberate, southern syllables.

No wonder the actors appeared to be attracted strongly to this way of speaking. Embedded in the very sounds are layers of meaning and yearning. Without the accent Williams’s words no longer seem quite as sumptuous, and with that slightly slack quality that makes one think of licentiousness.

Does that sound like stereotyping? Sure does, which is possibly one of the reasons Stone wanted to do away with such a rich element of the play. The ruthless excision of that element forces the audience out of an ole plantation, “I wish I was in Dixie” mentality. Interestingly, the new Broadway revival goes hell for leather in that direction it would seem. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of January 17 notes “it is saturated in Southern Gothic atmosphere” and that the sound design includes snatches of servants singing spirituals and work songs – “Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton”. Lordy indeed.

I can understand Stone wanting to run at speed from that kind of presentation for an Australian audience. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has to be mined for its application to the here and now.

Need, greed, manipulation and the coruscating exercise of power within a rich dysfunctional family lie at the heart of the play. Big Daddy (Marshall Napier) is dying and doesn’t know it; older son Gooper (Alan Dukes) and his fecund wife Mae (Rebecca Massey) think they should take over; both Big Daddy and Big Mama (Lynette Curran) prefer formerly golden younger son Brick (Ewen Leslie); Brick is trying to drink his way out of a life he despises and his wife Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) will do anything to hang on to what she’s managed to claw for herself. Meet the family.

As they go around and around on Robert Cousins’s revolving set with its rainbow curtain of streamers, everyone except Brick vies for ascendency in the shadow of Big Daddy’s demise. McKenzie is a wonderfully angular Maggie, and her tense skittering about at the play’s opening shows exactly what kind of cat she is: fast, wily, hungry, not quite enough meat on her bones. Napier will be a fine Big Daddy once he gets off the book (he was a late inclusion in the cast due when Anthony Phelan fell ill and had to do some scenes script in hand on the night the media attended) and Curran’s Big Mama, by turns vivacious and clingy, is vividly conceived.

But it’s Leslie’s handsome, desperate, disintegrating Brick who is at the core of this production. In a way he’s the only one who no longer wants anything, except a drink. He hates the tawdriness of it all – the loss of his shiny youth, his football prowess, the way in which his intense connection with his friend Skipper, now dead, is cheapened by everyone. The family all talk about the nature of the friendship and no one seems to care too much about what it was, as long as Brick can get it up long enough to impregnate Maggie. Mendacity rules, as the final image of the production proves. You could weep for Brick’s utter desolation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues at Belvoir St Theatre until April 7 and transfers to the Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 10-21, 2013.