18 May, 2007


Eagle's Nest Theatre Company

Northcote Town Hall is a wonderful community resource: a grand, 120-year-old building, providing a venue for local theatre productions in the small but adequate space out the back known as the West Wing. The theatre seats about 100 people on scaffolded seats, and is an intimate space – always an interesting setting for a production as grand in scale and premise as 'Hamlet'.

During the first scene one could be forgiven for thinking the cast would get through the play’s full four-hour breadth just by speaking very quickly. Happily though those nerves calmed and the abridged version ran at an intelligible pace.

Eagle’s Nest Theatre Company’s take on this greatest of tragedies portrays Hamlet as an intelligent, grieving prince. He is a step removed in mind, though not physicality, from those around him, watching on bemusedly as their lives progress so easily following the death of his father. Its creative director, James Adler, plays Hamlet, and brings erudition and introspection to the role. His classic Hamlet is nonetheless a modern man, grappling with morality and with the weight of power, borne of his royal status and the heaviness of the task of revenge. He is a generous figure, happy in the company of friends Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but simultaneously persecuted, perceptibly longing for his allotted task to be removed by some force as ephemeral as the ghost who gave it to him.

Bruce Woolley’s Claudius is excellent: debauched, thoroughly modern in cream disco suit, and wracked with wine-fuelled remorse at his ‘rank offence’. His impassioned prayer soliloquy contrasts sharply with a lack of such an emotional display from Hamlet.

It is hard for women to shine in this play of masculine angst and revenge. Liz McColl, as Gertrude, is motherly in her concern for Hamlet’s madness and distracted by her lust for her new husband, but, as is perhaps expected in a 21st century production, she does not show obsequiousness to either of the powerful men in her life.

The whole play is performed around a set of two regal chairs, two stools, a raised platform that functions as both watch tower and stage, and a sideboard (oft-frequented by Claudius to top up his goblet). With discreet lighting throughout, a meaningful effect is created during Hamlet’s conversation with his father’s ghost: old Hamlet’s hands shadow his son’s face and body, at times to embrace, stroke or remonstrate. This is an effective visual analogy of his insubstantiality, echoing Horatio’s assertion of his existence: “these hands are not more like”.

The plays runs at about 2 hrs 45 mins, with a 20 minute interval (the venue serves its guests well with a satisfying bar of beer, soft drink and wine at $6 a glass, as well as free water, but not so well by selling chips, the consumption of which were a notable distraction during the performance). 'Hamlet' presents a difficulty in that its very length is part of the tension of Hamlet’s inaction, but it must be condensed for this forum. The soliloquies are reduced, and the battle with Poland is not surprisingly absent. More surprising was that Hamlet’s soliloquy when he sees Claudius praying was not included: to some this speech is critical in verbalising his inner turmoil and need for surety before action. However this was an assured and genuine version of Shakespeare’s greatest play, which achieved a pleasing balance between a modern re-telling and an evocation of Elizabethan theatre.

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