I can’t help but raise one eyebrow when looking at the Belvoir website.
Under the headline of “Hamlet” is the usual credits:

“By William Shakespeare Director Simon Stone. 12 October – 1 December. Upstairs Theatre”

And then a quote:

“The play’s the thing… “

Indeed it is the thing.

Well, usually it is, but I don’t think it is. I think Simon Stone is the thing… here’s a little bit of context:

Before I provide my reading of this production I think it’s worth to acknowledge I am not interested in bashing Stone (stoning Stone?) for his supposed crimes against “theatre” or expectations of theatre. I think that’s a bit silly, really. I don’t agree with many things Stone has said about adaptations: please read Croggon to catch up on my context here
) and I really want to say that there are a lot of really interesting things that can come out of all and any discussions to cement thinking or ideology or to set a direction.

I personally don’t really care for the themes and representations in Stone’s work overall – I find the re-occuring representation of fragile yet destructive women in his work (Strange Interlude), (Face to Face), (The Promise) , the role of a father as a self-actualising force (Death of a Salesman), (Miss Julie) and a lost priviledged man-boy dilemma (Baal), (Thyestes) (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) – not really something I have much sympathy for.

But just because I don’t connect with his work emotionally nor personally doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s holding an important light up to certain demographic’s personal preoccupations. They’re just not my preoccupations.

Now, back to the play. Yes the play is the thing. In my life I have been audience to 7 Hamlets. Each of them offering an interpretation, each respectfully regarding the the epic, well known images that haunt the collective consciousness in minor references in pop culture…

And of course Wikipedia acknowledges this telling us:

“There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first time and said, “I don’t see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.” —Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, pg vii, Avenal Books, 1970.

Stone’s Hamlet is an exercise in excerpts. To see what can be extracted and what can be edited out without the structure being compromised. I admire the concept of such a test on a classic play – but the most interesting aspect of this is to consider how much is Stone relying on audience understanding of the text (in the sense of both production and literature) by the audience. My favourite conversation about this production came from opening night where I met a friend of a reviewer who had never seen nor read Hamlet before. I was fascinated by her and her reading of the play. As some of us tried to surrender the stories and productions we know and make sense of the amalgamated characters and re-positioned contexts: her experience was very simple. She was uncluttered by context. Which only worried me slightly in that perhaps Stone’s work is best understood by those inexperienced by what he is doing to text? (Perhaps this is the opposite of what we’ve been supposing all along… perhaps watch John McCallum’s thoughts at 17:33 below for context of how Stone’s work has been regarded)

Perhaps read if you like the reviews floating around town:
The Australian HERE

The Daily Telegraph HERE

The Sydney Morning Herald HERE

This Hamlet is fairly black and white. Without political pressure it is a story of a man who was never capable of leading a country to begin with – a friendless, sexually obsessed child who with too much time on his hands was over indulged to the point of self-sabbotage. This Hamlet is not a prince, but a spoilt, righteous child. Without Fortinbras out of the picture this is just another rich kid being unable to adapt to changing circumstances. Without Horatio’s surviving friendship, he is a loner with a disconnected legacy (was the Ghost the scribe of this story? But… I thought the ghost was avenged and therefore set free?). Hamlet only having one friend means he has more reason to “lose his way.” I arrived at the conclusion whilst watching this is that external pressure (ie a JOB or a DUTY or a sense of RESPONSIBILITY to friends/loved ones/family) would have saved Hamlet. As it is, Hamlet is time-wasting puppeteer – the very worst representation of my own generation: self-entitled, arrogant, overly-educated, obsessed with sex, without any sense of wider world context, politics and maturity. This production of Hamlet failed to engage me emotionally, me sitting aloof and detached whilst they all steamed and stamped in their privileged, black and white reality.

So by the time the moment arrives where Hamlet is forced into “action” (after avoiding action through bumbling, verbose articulation of his internal world), Stone removes action entirely – and the actors stand (not unlike zombies) in a drama-school circle doing a flat line run of the sword fight. Fore-gone conclusions smack us in the face. We know Hamlet is a tragedy. They die at the end. We know this. The pleasure of theatre (all of which has an end) is the journey. The delight in each moment unraveling. But Stone robs us of that delight. Instead we watch the end clunk out, the words roll out on an unambiguous conveyer belt.

In Stone’s production, Hamlet only ever launches into action in his theatrical telling of The Murder of Gonzago – you see the play IS the thing for Hamlet. As it is for Stone.

All love stories (Claudius’, Old Hamlet’s Gertrude’s, Ophelia’s, Hamlet’s included) quickly sour.
The family unit is based on politics, not love.
The hostile take over of Denmark doesn’t matter.
Friends are disposable.
Women are fickle.
The burden of other’s expectationon leadership is too much.

BUT the play. The theatre. Playing with text. Playing with “words, words, words” is a comfortable space to sit in.

All in all I found this Hamlet to be consistent with Stone’s overarching concerns… an installment which again shows a way of viewing the world which is cynical and selfish and indulgent. The tragedy here for me is exactly what does Stone hope we do with this world view? Nod and accept? Or is it a criticism of the audience (the over arching death and crisis of theatre that is is ineffectual in instigating meaningful change) that we sit an accept this world view by continuing to re-enforce through patronizing Stone’s work? Are we, the audience, just as paralysed as Hamlet? Are we just as indulgent that we sit there and just do nothing? Should we be revolting against cynical theatre?

Perhaps this production is not so black and white.