The Australian Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet (directed by Glenn Elston) is an enjoyable presentation of the classic play, a pleasant outdoor theatre experience at the Royal Botanic Gardens. The long summer daylight hours perhaps keep it from reaching its full potential as an outdoor performance, especially in the opening scenes featuring the ghost of Hamlet’s father (which would have been magnificent against the backdrop of a cold, black night). But the lovely surroundings, strong base text and powerful performances make it an excellent choice nonetheless. Hamlet, it seems, is a play that can never be “done to death”; and this production certainly has some unique offerings.
The plot is well-known, filled with drama at every turn: fratricide, incest, supernatural visitations, revenge, madness, players, pirates, love, friendship, treachery, and political intrigue. What is unique to this version, though, is Andre de Vanny’s refreshingly real interpretation of the deeply flawed protagonist. The brooding Prince of Denmark, charged with the task of killing his uncle to avenge his father’s murder, is often portrayed as strong but depressed, deeply intelligent but prone to inaction owing to his tendency to overthink everything. De Vanny’s Hamlet, however, comes across not so much clinically depressed as deeply hurt, and his feigned madness appears not so much as a strategic cover to conceal his dark mission, as it does a mask to conceal his vulnerability and hide his stinging pain. There is a distinct flavour of youthfulness and worldly inexperience in this Hamlet, a poetic fervour, an almost whiny resentment at his isolation in cruel circumstances. De Vanny surprises by bringing out an “emo” side to this deeply complex character, and pulls it off with power.
De Vanny is also a physically agile performer, effortless in his graceful execution of demanding choreography. His Hamlet exudes authenticity, which makes him likeable and relatable, despite the character’s sometimes shocking interactions with the other characters in the play: his lover Ophelia, her father Polonius, and of course, the King and the Queen. His unrelenting contempt for Polonius in particular reveals glaring blind spots in his character, especially his shocking inability to engage with Ophelia’s pain (of which he is the cause), despite how deeply it mirrors his own.
Brian Lipson is outstanding as Polonius. His take on the character is traditional yet vibrant, every word and action faithful to the text and persuasively performed. Lipson almost single-handedly carries the weight of providing balance to this work, with flawless timing and delicately provided comic relief.
If it’s good weather outside and you feel like a quality production of a well-loved, time-tested Shakespearean classic, head over to the Royal Botanic Gardens before 9 February 2020 because Hamlet will not disappoint.