Secret Theatre’s staging of
Eventually, this performance more than makes up for its grating opening.
Directed by Brooke Johnston, who also plays Ophelia, the show supplements what it omits from Shakespeare’s extant texts by setting the production in the swinging sixties. Aside from one or two intradiegetic musical references and the slightly miscued recasting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as coked-up party girls, the 60s setting neither adds nor takes away a great deal from the production.
Raphael Verrion offers a polarised take on the protagonist. Given that the majority of what is taken from the abridged script comes from the opening two acts, Hamlet’s “unmanly grief” – his vacillation, apprehension and self-doubt – is replaced by a sort of manic fixity of purpose. Naturally, this leads to a typical failing of Shakespearean performance: there are times when the players (not only the lead) hit their marks a bit too hard, ranging from sorrowful to vengeful and back again in the space of a couplet. This over-emphasis leads to some of the dialogue becoming garbled or lost in the emotional torrent.
A word, however, must go to Denis Delahunt’s Polonius. Delahunt gives a flawless performance as Claudius’s counsellor. It is measured, concise and introduces the odd moment of levity when required. When all those around him seem to be losing their heads over the course of the first two acts, Delahunt’s performance grounds the emotional and narrative momentum of the production.
Just when it seems that the heavy-handed nature of the show’s opening is going to descend into full-blown histrionics for the remainder of the play, Hamlet takes centre stage for his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. With an unexpected syringe in his arm (it’s not alluded to that the Dane has a heroin problem in this interpretation and it doesn’t appear again), Verrion’s delivery is, for the first time, level, deliberate and disarming, especially given the context of the opening twenty-five minutes or so. Verrion uses his commanding stage presence much more effectively from here on out.
There is a palpable sense of relief following this ‘nunnery scene’ – the audience has finally been given permission to experience the glut of emotions this play naturally provokes without being distracted or confronted by any performative gimmicks or emotional inconsistency. Eventually, this performance more than makes up for its grating opening.