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.

Angels in America, The Maids, Phedre, Othello

Angels in America, Belvoir, June 5 and 6; The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company, June 8; Phedre, Bell Shakespeare, June 12; Othello, Sport for Jove, June 14.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

THEATRE, from companies big and small, has been particularly rich in the first half of the year in Sydney. There were exceptional new works, old ones given a jolt and imports done proud; the diversity was such that you pitied those people who remain faithful to just one company. So far this has been a year to be promiscuous in one’s theatre-going and the rest of the year promises to be as tantalising.

In this first half a partial list of favourites would include Belvoir’s rough magic Peter Pan and, at Belvoir Downstairs, Nakkilah Lui’s devastating new play of suburban Aboriginal aspiration and despair, This Heaven; Sydney Theatre Company’s majestic Secret River, adapted from the Kate Grenville novel, and STC’s small and sweet Dance Better at Parties, which grew out of a work by Chunky Move dance company. At the Ensemble, Joanna Murray-Smith’s strong series of female portraits, Bombshells, and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were graced by exceptional performances; Van Badham’s The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars at Griffin irrepressibly mixed ancient myth and modern sex comedy; and the American drama The MotherF**ker with the Hat, seen in the tiny TAP Gallery space, was given a staggeringly good production by independent outfit Workhorse Theatre Company.

The range of theatrical possibility was extended further if you add the visitors: there was a Sydney season for the madly uplifting School Dance, which came from Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre; Bojana Novakovic’s enchanting, and improvised, The Blind Date Project had small seasons in Melbourne and Brisbane before fetching up as a petite gem in this year’s Sydney Festival program; and the Sisters Grimm’s Little Mercy – provenance Melbourne – was outrageously, implacably, divinely irresistible. (I relegate to parentheses the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors and the achingly beautiful gift of seeing Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy only because they are fully imported.)

A lot of the best theatre was small-scale and fighting well above its weight. Then came June, and with it the possibility of seeing – within the space of 10 days – a cluster of classics that would fascinate if you’d seen them in the span of an entire year. Or two.

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

I think I can get away with saying I believe the two-part Angels in America to be the greatest play written in English during my lifetime. (Waiting for Godot, which premiered a week or so after I was born, was written in French and first staged in that language. So.)

Sydney Theatre Company staged Angels in 1993, less than two years after its San Francisco premiere and a couple of months before its Broadway debut – a great act of percipience on the part of then artistic director Wayne Harrison. Michael Gow directed a piercingly spare production that did everything it needed to: it let this profoundly moving and intellectually searching piece speak for itself. The breadth, depth and reach of Angels is dazzling and Belvoir’s current production, directed by Eamon Flack, understands, as did Gow’s, the central necessities of Tony Kushner’s piece – cast it well, honour its multiplicity of emotions, tease out the many strands of its narrative and tone, clarify the complexity of its language and imagery, and stand back. In other words, don’t have a production that over-decorates a work that is already magnificently ornate.

Angels in America is concerned with but also transcends the questions of AIDS in the 1980s, the Cold War, Reaganite philosophy, climate change, gay politics, right-wing politics, ethics, religion, personal responsibility and much more. In that transcendence lies its connection with audiences today and anywhere. The ease with which Kushner interweaves realism and fantasy is breath-taking. I was reminded when seeing Angels, entirely engrossed, of something New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell wrote in a preface to one of his celebrated profiles of New York characters: “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual.” And elsewhere he wrote: “You’ve got to get to the true facts.”

Belvoir’s cast is exemplary, led by Luke Mullins as the AIDS-inflicted Prior Walter, who has visions both profane and ecstatic. Marcus Graham has the part of his career as lawyer – and helper of Senator Joseph McCarthy – Roy Cohn (fun fact; his middle name was Marcus). Graham’s Cohn burns like a wildfire that is fuelled by his ambition and certitude, along with the disease he refuses to acknowledge by name. Amber McMahon’s lost-soul Harper, who is charged with one of the play’s most achingly potent images as she escapes the pull of New York, is exceptional. Mitchell Butel’s unwaveringly steady compass as an actor – he is always one of the clearest interpreters of any text in his enjoyably wide repertoire – makes the flexible conscience of Prior’s lover Louis explicable and even worthy of sympathy. And what a joy to see DeObia Oparei as Belize, a part he performed with such distinction for STC all those years ago. Only connect.

The true facts. Again this idea comes into play in Jean Genet’s The Maids, in which Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert play sisters. Claire and Solange act out “ceremonies” in their Mistress’s over-blown boudoir, escaping into cruel fantasies to blot out their sordid reality. They turn on themselves and each other, the interchangeable torturer and tortured holed up in the same prison. In a naturalistic play this blood relationship would test credulity. And yet on deeper levels – those of understanding, of equality of standing, of temperament, of spirit, of intelligence – they are quite clearly soul sisters.

Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s translation of Genet’s 1947 play is robust, mordantly funny and chilly, as is Andrews’s direction of his stars.

Blanchett impersonates her Mistress with raucous, savage glee but can be undercut in a micro-second, visibly deflating so that a great beauty becomes a plain nonentity in the blink of an eye. Huppert, tiny as a sparrow, does limber calisthenics while lying on her employer’s bed, and as she opens her legs wide a camera captures the view and conveys it to the audience. It’s a familiar Andrews choice, but so apt on several levels. Not only is surveillance a very real possibility in this sleek, contemporary household, but on a practical level it helps connect the audience in this slightly too-large theatre to the action. It’s a kind of voyeurism too, spying not only on two maids but on the women playing them.

Make no mistake. If The Maids were not starring Blanchett and Huppert it could easily have been slotted into STC’s Wharf 2 space. There is layer upon layer here. Not only are stratospherically famous actresses playing the part of role-playing maids, their Mistress, in a piece of casting announced late, is played by the gorgeous and very, very young Elizabeth Debicki. She is too tender in age to have established such complete dominion over her household help, but let’s not be too literal. Debicki has come to attention recently through her appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby and adds another level of drop-dead glamour. Please don’t think this is a criticism. Far from it. There is something absolutely delicious about seeing a production in which there is an explicit invitation to examine one of its most important strands – the assumption of roles as a way of surviving – from a variety of angles. It keeps the viewer constantly on the qui vive, thinking and re-calibrating.

Debicki, by the way, may be just at the start of her career but she holds her own gallantly with Blanchett and Huppert, and looks so dewily beautiful you could cry. The camera comes in leeringly close to her and to Blanchett and Huppert, both of whom are ravishing in a different way. So much visual information to absorb along with the text. And if you can’t understand Huppert all of the time, too bad. She is an electric presence as she darts about, swings from the clothes racks, plays games of abasement, hitches a ride on a long train of a gown like a playful – or abject – child and so much more. Truth not facts …

French drama is given a second gripping outing with Bell Shakespeare’s Phedre having landed in Sydney after its Melbourne season. Racine’s 1677 drama based on Greek legend is given in Ted Hughes’s plain-speaking, supple translation and given a production that enthrals from beginning to end.

Director Peter Evans’s taste for stillness on stage and for clearly marking entrances and exits has never had a better fit than here. He takes the elegant formality that is a hallmark of classical French drama and converts it into an atmosphere of fear – the kind that makes one freeze with terror.

We are told Phedre has a fatal illness, but what’s really gnawing away at her is forbidden love. Phedre has conceived a passion for her stepson Hippolytus, who in turn loves where he is least allowed. The play opens with most of the players placed separately on Anna Cordingly’s wonderful stage upon a stage. The set resembles a disintegrating country house folly with its jagged hole in the ceiling and signs of decay all about. Kelly Ryall’s soundscape of barely discernible beats, fluttering voices, groans and bells adds to the foreboding.

The scene is static for quite some time as the play’s concerns unfold. The stillness, unusual in our theatre, brings its own tension. When the hell is someone going to do something? And then Phedre touches Hippolytus (a fine, unmannered Edmund Lembke-Hogan), and the tragedy is unleashed.

Catherine McClements’s rail-thin Phedre is, like Marcus Graham’s Roy Cohn, doubly burning up inside. The passion that’s devouring her will get her before the unnamed physical ailment can do its work, that much is evident. McClements gives an unsparing, towering performance. And speaking of towering, Phedre wears difficult, vertiginous shoes secured with gladiator-style straps that are their own form of bondage, as well as being a slightly too-young choice for the queen. I found that oddly touching.

Also tremendously good are Bert LaBonte as Theramene – his long description of Hippolytus’s death is mesmerising – and Marco Chiappi as Phedre’s husband Theseus. Abby Earl as Hippolytus’s secret love Aricia is, unfortunately, too inexperienced in this company. She certainly looks lovely enough to secure the prince but lacks texture and conviction in her delivery.

Similarly, in Sport for Jove’s Othello the casting of Isaro Kayitesi as Desdemona puts the young actress, not long out of training, at an unfair disadvantage. That aside – and one must admit it is a big aside – Othello is riveting. In the Seymour Centre’s small Reginald Theatre, Sport for Jove yet again finds a way of presenting Shakespeare without tricks, with no heavy-handed “concept”, but with force, clarity and a satisfying sense of purpose. It’s as if a light has been turned on. (The way the production always has a fresh surprise up its sleeve without distorting the text is definitively demonstrated by Anthony Gooley’s hilarious Rodorigo and the way in which he shows his devotion to Desdemona. Unmissable.)

Damien Ryan’s Iago is meticulously and persuasively thought out. In Ryan’s hands and under Matt Edgerton’s direction, Iago can’t be faulted for his logic: he’s been passed over and demeaned and he’s going to do something about that in his own good time. Ryan presents a man who is proud, intelligent, implacable and as creatively manipulative as any top politician. He could turn day into night with his arguments, and so he does.

Ivan Donato’s attractive Othello is more good-guy soldier than powerful military chief, which tends to minimise the tragedy of his downfall and give even more oxygen to Iago. And of course there’s always the problem of that handkerchief, the bit of fabric on which the denouement so precariously turns. But Sport for Jove makes a reasonable fist of keeping the stakes high here, anticipating how the drama will end with an inventive and relevant opening image.

I saw the production with a group of students and their attention was held, as was mine, for nearly three and a half hours with just one interval. Enough said.

Angels in America plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 14 and then Sydney’s Theatre Royal from July 18-28. The Maids, Sydney Theatre, until July 20. Phedre, Sydney Opera House, until June 29. Othello, Seymour Centre, until June 29.