New Zealand Herald Review, 26 May 2003






Hamlet at the Maidment Theatre


Skullduggery: Michael Hurst shows
off a huge emotional range with
his complex and scheming Hamlet


Shakespeare's enduring appeal resides, in part at least, in his receptiveness to reinterpretation. And any production needs to invest the play with new life, making the ancient seem modern and the familiar shockingly new.

Michael Hurst's new Hamlet--his first Shakespeare since he took on the same play almost nine years ago--reinvents the famous tragedy and not just because it's done in "modern" dress: in fact, the design, which allows cellphones and digital cameras to share the stage with broadswords and silver goblets, is disquietingly timeless.

In deciding what to take out of a work which, in full, would run four hours, under Hurst's direction it becomes a sleek, dark drama about a dysfunctional family.

Shorn of its political subplot, it comes to this: Hamlet's mother married his uncle Claudius, who is his father's killer. Hamlet--like Hurst, a man at mid-life, and barely younger than Claudius--is, to put it mildly, having trouble adjusting to the idea.

In this highly charged environment, Hurst's Hamlet is a man in whom contrary emotions dance with a horrible grace: his grief has a playful streak (at comic moments he recalls a young Stan Laurel), his detachment wars with his thirst for revenge, his assumed madness conceals a keen and scheming intelligence. Thus he makes a fascinating, unpredictable prince--the soliloquies, in particular "Who calls me villain?" at the end of Act II, showcase a huge range and control of tone.

But the characterisation, the result of a collaboration between Hurst and Large Group associate director Christian Penny, has an irresistible emotional logic and lines worn by overuse sound contemporary and vernacular.

Spread across John Verryt's flexible, raked, black-on-black set, this is a stylish affair, indeed, in which characters enter and exit as if being faded in and out of a movie. The ghost, a rib-rattling presence like Darth Vader at the disco, works on the principle that the supernatural is best heard and not seen and is genuinely unsettling.

Among the living, Hurst is ably supported by Elizabeth Hawthorne's preening but brittle Gertrude, particularly in a closet scene rich in eerie sexual overtones.

David Aston's Polonius--reptilian and greasy yet still pompous and tedious--is a standout and younger players, too--Kip Chapman's honest Laertes and Anna Hewlett's heart-rending Ophelia--are excellent. Ray Trickitt's Claudius is the cast's sole blemish: he growls monotonously through a clenched jaw and at times it's not at all clear that he's speaking English.

But comedians Jason Hoyte and Jonathan Brugh (the latter in particular) are an inspired piece of casting as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and, later, two hilarious gravediggers.

This is the first production of what is planned as an ensemble company. Here's hoping the Large Group's plan ripens./



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