Hamlet 2006 photo (c) The Bacchanals

by william shakespeare

Many of these reviews first appeared on John Smythe's excellent website, www.theatreview.org.nz - go and have a look through it!

Entertainment value off the charts

Call me a raver, but I do not expect to see a more enjoyable production of Hamlet as long as I live. Okay, Simon Vincent plays Hamlet, and it's hard to think of a more perfect casting, but this Hamlet exceeds expectations. With a performance of extraordinary verve and intelligence, Vincent turns Hamlet inside out and shows us what he, both prince and player, can be.
            This is a no-frills Hamlet . He's on the level. He's human. This is a Hamlet who looks you in the eye from three feet away as he tells you of his plight. This is a Hamlet played in full fluorescent light as the birds tweet at dusk outside your local community hall.
            There's no set; there's no effort wasted on creating an illusion of the castle of Elsinore. Yet its doomed legacy is fully realised in the psychological realm through the articulation of this poetry. Costuming is rich and effective being of mixed styles; players make great sport with cloak and dagger.
            Casting is, for the most part, extremely effective. Phil Peleton, extra-handsome with his black-and-white beard, makes a genuinely regal ghost of his dead brother, Hamlet's father. This ghost is no ephemeral cliché but an energetic force, so Peleton's doubling as Claudius is all the more chilling as the calmer, mortal schemer.
            Erin Banks steals those few scenes given her as Ophelia. She is a grave, flesh-and-blood sweetheart, finding transcendence in a singing voice that breaks to speaking in her grief at losing Hamlet.
            John Smythe enjoys a dual comic triumph here, playing Polonius as a bumbling parody of the political adviser, and doubling as the gravedigger whose gratuitous riddles stop the show for a round of pure silliness before the fatal sword must fall. (Lost on few readers of this site--still less on Smythe himself--would be the irony in his lengthy speech which concludes with "brevity is the soul of wit".)
            Comic relief comes readily, too, when the entire company assembles as The Players who ape Claudius' heinous act, at Hamlet's behest, and at each appearance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played camp and gormless respectively, by Salesi Le'ota and Alex Greig. Doubling as Laertes, Greig also makes a fine challenger to Hamlet's honour.
            I was bemused by what seemed to be a one-note performance by Jean Copland as Gertrude. Apart from being old enough to be Hamlet's twin sister, this Gertrude doesn't seem to give a rat's arse about her son until the script has her showing some interest in the 'plot' in the second half. I found myself craving a hint of conflict in her, of maternal feeling, something that would make the mother/son relationship credible. The inevitable Freudian slant makes the play no less interesting; it just seems to me that a mother this callous would drive you nuts years before your uncle murdered your father to marry her.
            But I digress. What you need to know is that the entertainment value of this Hamlet is off the charts. Go and see for yourself.
- Maryanne Bourke, www.theatreview.org.nz

Common Kiwi Touch

The Bacchanals' first assault on Hamlet a few years ago had the audience wandering all over Elsinore as it followed the action from room to room, upstairs and downstairs. Their latest version, which I caught up with at the Brooklyn Community Centre, is played without any theatrical embellishments or clever directorial gimmicks whatsoever; there's Shakespeare's script, some bare boards and the actors.
            The play is taken at a fair clip, which means as usual that at times sense and poetry are lost, but the compensations are gratifying: the exciting story is told to us by the actors only centimetres away (Hamlet may well sit next to you), subtleties and ironies are possible (Laertes congratulates Hamlet after Claudius names him his heir), the soliloquies become part of the action not solos ('To be or not to be" is spoken directly to Ophelia), and the comedy in the tragedy arises naturally (there's even laughter, for the first time in my experience, in the final duel).
            This is also very much a New Zealand Hamlet - a Hamlet reflecting our times. The production has a No 8 wire feel to it. While it is never clear what is rotten in this state of Denmark, it is crystal clear that the Royal House of Denmark is made up of ordinary contemporary people and precious little deference is paid to them because of their status.
            Simon Vincent's Hamlet lacks any air of royalty or privilege but he brings to the role a burning modernity and everydayness about the Prince that makes you feel you could meet him at the corner dairy, though you had best be wary, he could explode at any moment. Erin Banks captures beautifully Ophelia's love for Hamlet and her incomprehension at his rejection of her, as well as her decline into madness, is underplayed and consequently heartbreaking.
            Phil Peleton's excellent Claudius, who is not your usual obvious villain, could easily pass for a suit in Lambton Quay and Jean Copland's Gertrude, though she reacts with the mild irritation of a hostess worried about blood on the carpet after Polonius's death, is a respectable middle-class matron.
            John Smythe makes Polonius an eager-beaver, jovial bureaucrat of the old school who is also a behind-the-scene fixer, and he completes a fine double as the gravedigger whom he makes an old professional first, a comic character second.
            Alex Greig and Salesi Le'ota as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bring some Stoppardian humour to the proceedings: Rosencrantz tosses a coin at one point, while Guildenstern has clearly been indulging in illegal substances.
            Playing four roles that are usually overlooked Phil Grieve stamps his mark on a puzzled Reynaldo, a priest, an English ambassador, and a bombastic Player King who can suddenly inject emotion into obscure speeches. The Players, however, perform the dumb-show as a travesty which rather undermines Hamlet's assumption that they are a top-notch company.
            This, then, is an uncomplicated, straightforward tour through contemporary Elsinore - and what's more it is free, though donations are gratefully accepted.
- Laurie Atkinson, The Dominion Post

Terrific Shakespearean ensemble

The Bacchanals are indeed like the travelling players who come to Elsinore (though far better actors it must be said), as they take this free production of Hamlet out and about Wellington. Don't let the fact it's free fool you into thinking its not of a professional standard - it most certainly is, indeed, it's one of the most engaging productions seen in the Capital this year.
            David Lawrence has such a great feeling for the Bard's work, he keeps the setting basic (one curtain, two chairs) so the audience focus is entirely on the actors. They are terrific, a true Shakespearian ensemble, the comic roles are hilarious (John Smythe's dual act as the officious Polonius and wisecracking gravedigger is to die for, and Phil Grieve's Player King is a delight), and the tragedy is heartfelt and heartbreaking.
            Simon Vincent is the latest brave young actor to dare perform Hamlet, not only a feat of memory but it's almost impossible to nail it - indecision, madness, guilt, cruelty which goes far beyond being, as he says, cruel to be kind.
            Vincent's Hamlet is perhaps a little too tearfully emotional from our first encounter with him, he stays at that heightened pitch for most of the play rather than building to it. But it is a powerful and moving performance, most notably his scenes with Ophelia. The "get thee to a nunnery" scene is beautifully done. Even more exquisite is where Hamlet delivers his "To be or not to be" soliloquy not to the audience but looking deep into the eyes of the woman he loves.
            Erin Banks is a revelation as Ophelia, playing her as a smart, strong, independent thinking woman who really would have been the perfect partner for Hamlet if, like Romeo and Juliet, their stars were not crossed.
            So raise your goblets and toast The Bacchanals: Ginny Spackman, Salesi Le'ota, Jonny Potts, James Stewart, Phil Peleton, Jean Copland, John Smythe, Alex Greig, Erin Banks, Simon Vincent, Phil Grieve, Jack O'Donnell, 'Walter Plinge' and David Lawrence.
- Lynn Freeman, Capital Times

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