SUDS’ 2014 major production of Hamlet opens with the play’s conclusion, a tableaux of corpses and silent mourners beneath the anarchic strains of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Without pause, the scene transitions backwards to a funeral, followed by a too hasty marriage ceremony. During this sequence, Hamlet (Travis Ash) grasps our attention wholly despite being staged on the side. The sole person looking away, he regards the audience directly, wide-eyed, cogs ticking over as if thinking “something’s rotten in the state of, uh…”.
Visually, the play’s aesthetic is reminiscent of Dogville, without the chalk. Black curtains and a black floor, interrupted only by a rolling sarcophagus and some other choice, unspoilable stage pieces. Director Nathaniel Pemberton’s production highlights the disorder of Claudius’ Denmark by emphasising the air of mourning and uncertainty through the absence of colour. Intervals of darkness on stage are disrupted by piercing streams of torchlight, some focussed at the audience to blind them, and others directed cross-stage, extending the cast’s shadows as fierce analogues on the wall.
This same darkness extends to the costuming—mostly white against matte black—and designer Julia Robertson succeeds in conveying each character’s difference through visual shorthand. Hamlet’s long jacket screams scholar—just look at it!—while the decision to dress the gravedigger in a fisherman’s overalls jabs at the circumstances surrounding Ophelia’s death. The same symbolism extends to the broader set. The curtains are let down to reveal a backdrop of white swirls on black. They might be ectoplasm, or fog, or froth—bubbles from Ophelia’s last breath—floating on water.
Though this would all be subterfuge if not for the quality of the performances. Pemberton draws a number of noteworthy performances, as each archetype is made to embody a different dimension of the play. Ian Ferrington’s Claudius has a statuesque physical presence and a serpentine charm in line with his being the worst step-dad you know. His solidity juxtaposes Travis Ash’s fluid Hamlet, who ambles about the stage like a slinky on an escalator. Ash is a funny Hamlet, whose comedic beats only heighten the intensity with which he delivers the soliloquies. It works then that his opposite number Laertes (Charlie Jones) realises the pathos of his part, embarking on the same journey as Hamlet though with different emphasis, exuding the gravity of each filial death. Hamlet’s mum (Caitlin West) thoughtfully balances Gertrude’s contradiction. Both domineering and neurotic, intimidated and intimidating, her relationship with Hamlet almost necessitates his antic disposition. Some of West’s best moments are off the ball, in the background, through subtle dictates that reveal her utter influence over the scene. Tess Green plays the extremities of Ophelia tactfully, descending from an understated homeliness into insanity as the play’s tension grows. Her song sequences are among the play’s most unsettling, as her stilted intonation embodies Denmark’s growing disorder. Sean Marshall, playing both Ghost and the prime player, gifts us with a number of the play’s most compelling speeches, which are especially impressive when you consider the difficulty of his parts. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Hannah Cox and Elliott Miller) show shades of their Stoppard-analogues in a complementary performance that balances the comedy with their drama. While we’re on funny, Jack Mitchell steals a number of scenes through the timing and naivety with which he embodies the witless Polonius.
Does this mean Hamlet is faultless? Of course not. There are some inexplicable distractions to the language, as when Hamlet’s “antic disposition” speech is drowned out by dance music. Similarly, some instances of blocking obscure characters behind rigging or with their backs to the audience, denying us vantage to scrutinise their emotions. While the broader ensemble performs in a way that maximises each individual actor’s quirks, these vignettes are a sign of uneven emphasis, as the focus on the central cast is sometimes unfairly usurped. Similarly, in presenting the play with only minor cuts, there is not enough time to clarify problematic arcs and relationships. That said though, there are graces you afford student theatre, and Hamlet refuses to accept them. I nit-pick because the production invites it. Hamlet sometimes overreaches, but its successes are resolute and many. You can’t fault its ambition.