Hamlet Review

Union House Theatre

In the word of the University of Melbourne Student Theatre, there are institutions – the Melbourne University Shakespeare Company (MUSC) has become one of these companies. They regularly turn out quality performances twice a year, bringing William Shakespeare to student audiences. This semester MUSC teamed up with HE!ST Productions to co-produce a play that is an instition itself: Hamlet. The HE!ST team have an impressive history of shows such as Crook’d and Mysterious Mysteries that highlight both a delicious subversion of genre coupled with strong performances and writing. Hamlet is no exception, displaced into the unbalanced world of the Great Denmark Hospital it is clear from the very outset that we are not going to be witnessing an ordinary Shakespeare.

The audience is lead through the depths of Union House Theatre to the stage, where a small and intimate audience of fifty have a truly complete experience, immersed right into the twisted world of the play. As our senses were overwhelmed with dry-ice; sirens wailing and music pounding it was clear from the outset was that there was no escape: for us and the characters, this was it.

Melding schlock-horror with glam-rock in a grotesque hospital setting might seem like a difficult aesthetic to pull off, but kudos to the design team – it was fabulous. Everything was linked together with a ghastly-green vibe that distinctly unsettling. Amy Dyke’s initiation in costume design was a triumph and worked wonderfully with Robert Smith’s stark and adaptable set. The lighting of Matt Jones and Tom Fifield and the sound of Zoe Meagher also contributed to closely interconnected production design. Even the electric live music from the band was integrated into the action, with the lead singer insinuating himself as the ghost of Hamlet’s father and the musicians both contributing riffs and sound-effects. A strong and cohesive staging always contributes to a great show, and with slick accompanying performances Hamlet was a definite success.

At times an incredibly stylish Rock Opera and at others broad farce Hamlet contained some deceptively simple elements in the script. Jack Richardson’s additions to Shakespeare’s text worked especially well in the comedic scenes and Amy Hack and David Harris clearly delight in playing his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Actually the cast in general seemed to be having terrific fun, and this drew the audience into the work even further.

With this production clearly about being in the face of the audience it feels a little unfair, under the circumstances to thus complain that some of the characterisation lacked subtlety. But like it or not Hamlet is quite a complicated character, this didn’t come through at all. Jan Mihal played a very realistic and creepy mad-man (insane eyes!) but the time and space weren’t provided for a more rounded character to develop into this crazy psychopath. Literally injecting his madness, it seemed that this Hamlet was perhaps was waiting for the opportunity to unleash horror in this hospital; the death of his father an excuse to rampage rather than the reason. There was thus very little opportunity for the audience to feel any sympathy for him at all and at times it felt that Claudius of all people was the misunderstood character of the play!

This production of Hamlet was a highly charged performance and a worthy addition to the performance history of both HE!ST and MUSC. It was packed full of grizzly murder scenes; big hair; fluro blood exploding under black-lights; fantastic songs and the kind of energy that reenergises a source text that is hundreds of years old into an entirely new institution.