22-25 August 2019 / Napier Municipal Theatre / by Rosheen FitzGerald
Nothing quite epitomises the literary canon so much as Shakespeare. And of Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet is universally counted amongst the greatest. Its quotations permeate popular culture, its plot pilfered and parodied on large and small screen in offerings as diverse as The Lion King and Sons of Anarchy.
The Pop-Up Globe Theatre Company have made Shakespeare their bread and butter. Staging productions in a bespoke replica of the original London Globe, they now take up the challenge to transfer the experience to theatres around the nation, bringing a Shakespearean experience to the regions.
The plot, familiar to most, centres around the eponymous Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, a whiney, entitled, mentally unstable, emotionally labile procrastinator. On the advice of the spectre of his not-long-dead father, he suspects his uncle of murdering his way to the crown and his mother’s bed. Instead of being an adult about it and confronting the issue head on, he contorts and soliloquises his way through a series of complex plots and dramatics. Along the way he utterly abuses his delightful girlfriend and weak, hand-wringing mother, punching down. He displays shocking double standards, expecting his grief to be indulged and cosseted, while dismissing the grief of others. All of his poor choices and vacillations lead to (spoiler alert) his ultimate demise and the ruination of his court.
There is such a modern fascination with the tragic figure of the flawed hero, from Don Draper to Tony Soprano, we forget this was a mould cast in the seventeenth century. Indeed Hamlet has much relevance to the world we inhabit today, raising issues of privilege and class, mental health and personal responsibility. It’s a complex work, both in terms of plot, which twists and pivots, and of language — rich and poetic, full of gems of universal truth, and images of breathtaking beauty.
The set design valiantly attempts to transpose a Jacobean theatre onto the art deco surrounds of the Napier Muni. The stage is inscribed in a half circle made of opulent wood panelling, brickwork, tapestries and a mezzanine gallery on which a pair of musicians multitask with a cornucopia of strings and woodwind. Twin columns flank the set, conveying the impression of the original’s ceiling supports. The effect is only partially marred by rows of steel-legged bucket seats that flank the stage. As they have no utility in the action, it can only be assumed they were present as an anchoring device, some last-minute stage management troubleshooting. The chairs notwithstanding, it’s undoubtedly a professional production, sporting bells and whistles such as copious smoke, flaming torches and an igniting sword. Costumes and props are all lush and polished, though here some of the director’s choices become questionable.
While a large portion of the costuming is authentically Jacobean, some veers into the medieval, yet others —the troupe of travelling players — are dress-up-box deco. Odd accents punctuate the piece — a lone musket in a world of swords and daggers; the device of Polonius’ inopportunely ringing cellphone; Bernardo’s moon boot. In some places this works beautifully — Hamlet’s madness accessorised with a two-dollar-shop crown and pink velvet cape; the tradie gravedigger in stubbies and singlet splashing the audience with a coca-cola bottle full of water — in others — the strangely yogic ritualistic hand and breath gestures — it serves as distraction.
The problem with introducing such diverse elements into a piece with this kind of literary and linguistic weight, is one of detraction. The plot and the language in which it is conveyed is itself so robust, that attempts to add frills round the edges only serve to take away from the essence of the piece. There is already enough going on here without pulling the audience away from the words and the story to try to piece together what very clever point the director is trying to make with their temporal and cultural mash up. Whatever way I turn it and squint and hold it up to the light, I can’t quite elicit what that might be, meaning that either it’s sailed cleanly over my head or it quite simply doesn’t exist.
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