Fierce, funny and fraught
By Leeor Adar
Satirising the current state of Australian politics with the heady and destructive tendencies of the Prince of Denmark lends for a wild, funny, and at times utterly confusing production. Just as I’ve grasped one metaphor and issue, Mark Wilson’s Anti-Hamlet shifts us onto the next, expecting its audience to intelligently manoeuvre themselves through the multi-layered political arc Wilson has created.
This is the third of Wilson’s Shakespearean adaptations after Unsex Me and Richard II. Wilson comments that these productions “inherit from Shakespeare”, and fill the gaps. On this occasion, Wilson engages with the Australian inability to confront its history. History is the underlying theme of Anti-Hamlet, but I am deeply sceptical as to how tenuously Hamlet itself connects to a country’s collective blindness. I will say in Wilson’s defence, his ability to bring Shakespeare’s Hamlet into contemporary ‘realness’ and embellish its themes with references to the Australian political climate is impressive. That is no easy feat. Despite this tenuous connection, the key issues rage on. A young man, both sexually and politically impotent – afraid and trying to find meaning at a time when ‘democracy’ feels more like forcing kool-aid down your throat.
Wilson is wildly funny and painfully irritating as Hamlet. Wilson is accompanied by some theatre-heavyweights in Marco Chiappi’s Claudius, Natasha Herbert’s Gertrude, and Brian Lipson’s marvellous contribution as Sigmund Freud. These actors brilliantly dive into Wilson’s writing and bring to life the characters in an exciting and relevant way. Herbert’s Gertrude is an indulgent, lazy queen whose concern is with turning her gaze towards her possessions rather than noticing that her power is waning. Chiappi’s Claudius is the fabulous politician in the blue tie (a wink to our political leaders), desperate to become President of Australia’s new Republic. A new addition is the role of Freud, and it’s so apt that Freud should show up as the family psychiatrist to stir Hamlet et al. Freud, like Hamlet in this production, is a self-aware character that almost recognises that he is party to a play and merely a plot device. It works very well, and adds yet another intricate layer to this complex work.
Anti-Hamlet unpacks two issues astonishingly well. Firstly, there’s the spin-doctoring behind politics, which takes on a seductive and serpentine fervour in Charles Purcell’s energetic American marketer, Edward Bernays. Secondly, there is the idealism of those politically-minded young Australians who succumb to the political machine in a feeble attempt to create change in the world. Ophelia (Natascha Flowers) is the modern woman; she’s no limp-limbed belle of Shakespeare’s imaginings. A Rhodes Scholar and Oxford graduate, Ophelia comes brimming with ambition for a better nation, but is the futile pawn to a more experienced and cynical power under Claudius and his newly-minted henchman, Bernays. Wilson’s Hamlet serves as the alternative to Ophelia – a politically awakened youth with nothing but privilege and a blossoming conscience who thinks taking back ‘blackface’ to undermine racism is an acceptable and intelligent statement. Hamlet is politically impotent, and this funnels through into his sexuality, which he attempts to mask. This is a striking point of discussion for this production, because it single-handedly takes on issues that are utterly relevant in Australian politics today, but does so in a manner that humours and pinches those politically aware within its audience.
Anti-Hamlet is self-indulgent and utterly self-aware. If you’re a Shakespeare puritan, perhaps step away. However, if you’re interested in a play that engages with the politics of today in an original way, you may be convinced to come down to Theatre Works and indulge yourself… and Wilson.
Anti-Hamlet continues to run Thursday-Saturday 8pm, and Sunday 5pm until November 13 at Theatre Works in St Kilda. Afternoon session at 2pm Saturday. Book your tickets here: http://www.theatreworks.org.au/whatson/buyeventtickets/?id=278
Image by Sarah Walker