Australian Shakespeare Company: Hamlet

Australian Shakespeare Company, to use the most overused quote of the piece (and your marketing tagline), “to thine own self be true”. Your outdoor works are engaging, accessible and energetic romps into Shakespeare. They may not be the most artistically brilliant, groundbreaking or pivotal adaptations but they bring the Bard’s works to new audiences, and you’re very good at them. But Hamlet doesn’t follow that pedigree – and not in the sense that it’s groundbreaking, brilliant or pivotal. It’s complete and utter codswallop and a waste of everyone’s time.

Hugh Sexton. Photo by Jennifer Reed
Hugh Sexton. Photo by Jennifer Reed

Looking back at my reviews, I am pleased to see that even when I have disliked a work I’ve found the positives. I tried to find the positives here, but I can’t.

To start with, this Hamlet is overlong and unengaging. Shakespeare’s bloated and occasionally outdated script is minimally cut in this production that claims to ‘focus on the text’. Sure the text is brilliant to this day, but Shakespeare should be addressed with caution and care. When it starts to droop, as a play written in the 1600s is prone to do, then it is ok for the excess to be cut to allow for greater engagement and to  focus on the story being told.

It’s hard to identify when a lagging piece is the fault of a director and easy to blame unenthused, uncommitted or underperforming actors, especially with such a ripper script. However, there were so many glaring inconsistencies with the direction that it became clear that, while the actors weren’t brilliant, they were suffering from a lack of focus from the director. Pointless movement, bizarre inclusions of musical interludes during soliloquies, awkward and distracting entrances and exits, and upstaging are some of the more disturbing elements. On top of all this the director failed to inform Horatio that pulling a stupid and clownish face on stage doesn’t make you look surprised or terrified, it makes you look like you’re pulling a stupid face.

Other than that little snip, I’m not going to comment on the ensemble’s resoundingly underwhelming performances. But, when you stage Hamlet and flagrantly announce your Hamlet actor on every poster like he’s Sir Ian McKellen, then you invite comment.

While watching, I thought I was going to say that Hugh Sexton’s performance was ‘painful’, but the word I’m going with is ‘hilarious’. Hilarious, not because he had a grasp of the comic elements of Hamlet as a character or chose in his ‘antic disposition’ to take on the clowning persona, but  because watching him had the same effect on me that many get from Australia’s Funniest Home Videos when some poor old gent slips in mud to a comic sound effect.

With extravagant overacting, Sexton seems to do everything in his power to tear Shakespeare’s, arguably, most iconic dramatic hero to pieces. Certainly helped in this quest by the ridiculous getup of leather pants and a sparkly tunic – “Shall we kick on to the Elsinore disco after I avenge my father Horatio?” – he wildly gesticulates while doing his best to ensure his audience has no connection with the hero. Yet his vocal work doesn’t keep with the over-the-top style, leaving the audience caught between wanting to lean back in case of a wayward arm and wanting to lean forward to hear what the fellow is saying.

This Hamlet is a travesty that it fails to engage its audience on any level besides discomfort.

Don’t bother.

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