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.

The Chocolate Frog and other plays

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney, October 9; Hamlet, Belvoir, Sydney, October 16; The Chocolate Frog, Parramatta Correctional Centre, October 22; Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, Melbourne Festival, October 25

 Hamlet: Denmark is a prison

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines

wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst

A COUPLE of weeks ago I was invited to see a performance of Jim McNeil’s first play, The Chocolate Frog. It was a one-night-only affair at Parramatta Correctional Centre, now decommissioned as a prison but the place in which in 1970 McNeil, then serving a lengthy jail sentence for armed robbery, started writing drama.

The connection with the justice system went further than writer and venue. The performers themselves had criminal records, and after serving their sentences had come to acting through an unusual program. While casting extras for TV programs including various Underbelly series, former actor and now agent Grant Thompson met some people who had done time. It gave him the inspired idea of training former prisoners for film and television work.

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

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

This story of reinvention will be told in a three-part TV series for Foxtel arts channel Studio, being made by Screentime and expected to be screened next year. Because the series has followed the process that led to the casting and performance of The Chocolate Frog I can’t give too much detail about the performers. We saw some of them deliver Shakespearean monologues before the play began, and we saw a tremendously involving performance of The Chocolate Frog. We heard a few stories, and when Thompson spoke he was on the verge of tears, so proud was he of his students’ achievements.

Theatre has touched these lives profoundly, and we in the audience were profoundly moved. I wish I could write more about one performer in particular but that would pre-empt the story to be told in Taking on … The Chocolate Frog. Let’s just say the filmmakers have riveting material to work with.

I saw The Chocolate Frog – prison slang for dog, or informer – shortly after Griffin’s The Floating World and Belvoir’s Hamlet, and shortly before Belarus Free Theatre’s Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker at the Melbourne Festival. All of them are plays of imprisonment, either physical or psychological or both. Simon Stone’s much-cut “I see dead people” Hamlet foregrounds the grief that unmoors the Prince and from which he can’t escape. In The Floating World Les Harding, former World War II Japanese prisoner of war, is sent mad by memory and guilt. Minsk 2011 describes the surreal ways in which reality is altered in a totalitarian society and is performed by actors who are either in exile or in danger of arrest but who still have the deepest attachment to their home.

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

Minsk 2011, a thrilling and challenging piece, had a very short festival season but The Floating World and Hamlet are still running in Sydney. I admired Hamlet very much and am thrilled I’ll be seeing it again when Ewen Leslie takes over the title role from Toby Schmitz. We don’t often get a chance to see important work through the prism of two very different actors.

As for The Floating World, it is a crucial piece of theatre. John Romeril’s 1975 play is as relevant as ever, it is given much honour by its cast in Sam Strong’s pitch-perfect production and it was an idea of genius to stage it now. Next year will be one of much soul-searching as the centenary of the start of World War I is commemorated. Peter Kowitz’s Les is devastating: I saw the final scene with tears pouring down my face. What horrors so many men have suffered.

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

I was reminded too that the Yirra Yaakin-Belvoir production of Robert J. Merritt’s The Cake Man was written in prison, in Sydney’s Long Bay, and was first staged in 1974 with Merritt allowed to attend the opening under guard. It deals with another kind of imprisonment – white imperialism. For so many of us, these plays are as close to the experience of oppression as we’ll ever get. How fortunate we are.

The Cake Man is being performed in Perth at present and comes to Sydney in two weeks.

The Floating World ends at The Stables, Kings Cross, on November 16. At Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, from November 19.

Toby Schmitz gives his last performance as Hamlet at Belvoir on November 17, after which Ewen Leslie takes over. Hamlet ends on December 1.

The Cake Man, Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, Perth until November 9. Belvoir, Sydney, November 14-December 8.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sydney Theatre, August 10

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. On!

Pozzo, Waiting for Godot, Act II

I HAD forgotten to what degree Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pays homage to Waiting for Godot while going backstage at Hamlet, as ‘twere. As the court of Elsinore goes through its well known paces, shown to us only in flickers and fragments, the two courtiers are left to fretfully consider just why they have been tapped to glean what afflicts Hamlet. Like Vladimir and Estragon they puzzle and ruminate, waiting for something to happen, never entirely sure of their shifting ground. That’s ground in the metaphorical sense; in the physical sense they seem rooted to the spot, unable to escape from a claustrophobic set of arches and tunnels that, disconcertingly, look fake but through which others – but not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – come and go. The two are like actors who have lost the plot, babbling away, unable to find the right spot in the script and move on.

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Sydney Theatre Company’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

With Stoppard’s intellect and wit on speed dial – the man was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937; naturally he sees the mordantly funny side of existential angst – one has to be in alert form to keep up on both sides of the spotlights. Simon Phillips directs with unflagging vigour and a keen sense of the absurd, rightly, I think, valuing energy and momentum over textual clarity at times. Well, there are so many words that if you miss one or two, there’ll be another bunch along in a moment. (There isn’t a lot missed, and to be honest a couple of the more abstruse jokes are never going to score big with an audience so best to get ‘em out and move right along.)

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a marvel of cunning, and not only because it uses the Sydney Theatre stage in a way we haven’t seen before. It is genuinely disconcerting as well as being playful and mysterious. What’s that funnel doing hanging above the stage? At the beginning we see it extrude some bare branches – shades of Godot! – and later there’s a kind of twisty, open-work ladder that trails off into the wings. All very sci-fi and theatrical. Tylesova has had great fun with the costumes too, memorably kitting out Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude as a mad version of Elizabeth I. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern revels outrageously in its play-ness (more Godot!), giving a particularly juicy role to the impresario whose dogged band of mixed nuts is hired to perform for Gertrude and Claudius.  “We are actors. We are the opposite of people,” says the Player, impersonated with lofty self-regard by Ewen Leslie, employing the rich, thespian tones of a man exceptionally impressed with the timbre of his voice.

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

When it comes to words, however, Toby Schmitz’s febrile Guildenstern is your man, pouring out his thoughts and fears amusingly, obsessively, manically. (Even his hair is jumpy: Schmitz’s usually straight locks are hidden under a riot of curls.) Of course he has every reason to suspect all is not right. Tim Minchin’s Rosencrantz, on the other hand, is not quite so aware of the abyss yawning before them – why toenails don’t grow as swiftly as fingernails is more his speed – but intimations of mortality are everywhere. Schmitz and Minchin, Minchin and Schmitz. They are tremendously vivid and engaging and touching as well as being highly individual. Claudius and Gertrude keep mixing them up, to the point where the lads themselves become a tiny bit unsure about who they are. But that’s because no one else is really real. They are all opening their mouths, saying stuff and playing a part.

I’d like to think it’s fate that provides Sydney with the chance to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sydney Theatre Company), Hamlet (Belvoir) and Waiting for Godot (STC) in the same year. Indeed, in the same half of the year.  I don’t suppose STC’s Andrew Upton and Belvoir’s Ralph Myers cooked this up together, at least I hope they didn’t. Less fun that way.

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

That two of the three plays feature Schmitz is a bonus. What a shame the scheduling of Hamlet makes it impossible for Schmitz – he is the Dane – to play Lucky to Philip Quast’s Pozzo while Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh play Vladimir and Estragon. Or is it Estragon and Vladimir?

What brilliant casts we’re seeing in Sydney this year.

Postscript: The supporting cast for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a knockout, and includes, along with Heather Mitchell, John Gaden as Polonius and Christopher Stollery as Claudius. And a special nod to George Kemp as the player Alfred, put upon in more ways than one.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continues at the Sydney Theatre until September 14.