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.

Grease, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Grease, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, October 23 (matinee)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 23

THE simultaneous arrival in Sydney of Grease and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels isn’t the greatest news. The Sydney appetite for musicals doesn’t appear to be particularly buoyant at this moment so it’s rather bad luck to have both shows in town at the same time. We’re a long way from Broadway, baby. How tragic is this – that two musicals in a city as big as Sydney could be considered one too many for the market? I hope I’m wrong, even though I’d be lying to say both are must-sees. One is absolutely delightful; the other is a joyless stitching together of names presumably thought to appeal to different demographics.

So. Second things first. Grease really makes one’s heart sink. What started in 1971 as a scrappy, raunchy snapshot of 1950s American teenagers has turned into luridly coloured bubblegum. It’s sticky, but completely disposable. The reason it’s still done is because the songs – which now include ones written for the 1978 film – are so popular. Oddly, Grease has kind of metamorphosed into a jukebox musical.

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo with the cast of Grease, Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo with the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

The current production derives from the most recent UK one. For some reason it starts with an attempt at an audience sing- and clap-along as if it were a variety show at a club or pub. This is not promising and little happens thereafter to lift the spirits. The biggest stumbling block is the poor onstage chemistry: there is no sense that those in the cast naturally go together, no matter what the song says. Veteran Bert Newton as rockin’ DJ Vince Fontaine is a case in point. He is, ahem, of rather too mature vintage for this part (I speak as one who, as a child, was knocked out by his double act with Graeme Kennedy on In Melbourne Tonight, starting more than 50 years ago) and, alas, Newton peppers his lines with fragments of a locution only vaguely recognisable as American. On the subject of accents, Gretel Scarlett plays our heroine Sandy as an Australian, in homage to the luminous Olivia Newton-John in the film version. Her songs, of course, are delivered with an American accent.

I don’t blame Newton or Scarlett, or indeed anyone else on stage. These are matters of casting and direction. In amongst the noisy, superficial action Lucy Maunder stands out for bringing some nuance to tough-girl Rizzo and Todd McKenney’s Teen Angel is an enjoyable amalgam of Liberace and beloved cult comic figure Bob Downe. As a whole – well, there is no whole.

DEVOTEES of the con-man comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – and I count myself among them – know how it turns out, a circumstance that matters not one jot when it comes to the musical faithfully and ebulliently based on the 1988 movie.

The fun is getting there, although if you are no fan of self-referential theatre you may find Jeffrey Lane’s book for the show, written in 2005, just a tad self-indulgent as it nods and winks to the house. I couldn’t enjoy that sort of thing more when it’s delivered with the radiant command of leading men Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington.

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Scoundrels is set in the south of France where the smooth stylings of Lawrence Jameson (Sheldon) have long made him a man of dubiously acquired substance. Enter wannabe Freddy Benson (Hetherington), pretender to the Jameson throne despite lacking the necessary polish. The Odd Couple lives again in primary colours and the broadest of strokes, aided and abetted by a feisty dame (Amy Lehpamer’s Christine Colgate), a tuneful score and exquisitely silly lyrics by The Full Monty composer and lyricist David Yazbeck, and sumptuous servings of ham.

There could so easily be a sour taste to the show’s exaltation of acquisitiveness, which this production of Scoundrels avoids by the simple wheeze of getting its casting absolutely spot-on. I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway with David Carradine as Lawrence and he lacked the requisite lightness of spirit; again, as with my strictures regarding Grease, this doesn’t mean Carradine is not a fine actor. He was simply not quite right for Lawrence, a man Somerset Maugham would have recognised as one of his shady people in sunny places. Sheldon oozes the kind of dash and style that only money can buy, and who cares where the money comes from.

Making a welcome return from the US where he has been ensconced since his big success on Broadway in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Sheldon is in a class of his own for suavity and twinkly, knowing intelligence. Hetherington is the dishevelled, cocky goofball whose charms would be extremely dubious indeed if not tempered with sweetness and boyish buoyancy. Let’s put it this way. He manages to sell a scene in which Freddy pretends to be Lawrence’s chromosomally challenged brother, a scene replete not just with sexual innuendo but graphic sexual horseplay.

As I say, sweet.

Everything else swirls happily around these two. Given that Lawrence and Freddy essentially constitute the lead romantic couple, conventional musical theatre dictates there should be a secondary couple, here the local compliant chief of police (John Wood) and one of Lawrence’s marks (Anne Wood). The parts aren’t up to much really but are nicely played.

It’s a great pity there’s no room in the second half for Katrina Retallick’s rip-snorting Jolene Oakes, an Oklahoma gal intent on marrying up but still wedded to her cowgirl life. But Scoundrels needs to move on to Christine, which it does with double entendre-laden speed, and fortunately Lehpamer is adorable in this pivotal role. All hail to director Roger Hodgman for astutely managing the balance between laugh-out-loud impact and likeability, not just with Lehpamer but with everyone on stage.

The neat ensemble has attractive dance from Dana Jolly, pretty dresses by Teresa Negroponte and Guy Simpson conducts a terrific band notable for its generous size. Loads of undemanding fun.

The Sydney season of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has been extended to December 8

Grease, Melbourne from January 2

A version of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels review appeared in The Australian on October 25.