Hamlet photo (c) The Bacchanals

by william shakespeare

...Day three: Hamlet, four hours of it, which suffered only from the cast (no doubt aware of the play's length) rushing headlong through the lines. It seemed almost pointless that they learned all the words so carefully.
            Otherwise, The Bacchanals deliver another full-on, beautifully conceived and energetically performed classic play. This is a promenade performance, with the audience taken up and down stairs, and it works brilliantly.
            Carey Smith's Hamlet is more charming than mad, more endearing than tortured, a bundle of irresolvable contradictions. Fab performances, too, from Erica Lowe (Horatio), Tina Helm (Ophelia) and Mark Cleary (Polonius) under David Lawrence's inspired direction. But Zeal is wretchedly cold, so take your woollies!
- Lynn Freeman, Capital Times

High-speed Hamlet a great way to learn

The Bacchanals are back with their no-frills approach to the great plays of the 16th century. This time they have produced the most famous play of all and taken us on a promenade, upstairs and downstairs and, literally, into "my lady's chamber".
Grassy Knoll photo (c) The Bacchanals             What's more, they have given Hamlet a modern twist: Claudius is like a chairman of a large corporation, Laertes goes off to Paris carrying a backpack and Gertrude has a TV set playing the latest scandal about Elsinore in her bedroom.
            However, not all is so up to date: the ghost of Hamlet's father looks as if he has escaped from a production of the play in 1865, and although Hamlet leaves for England at an airport he still gets attacked by pirates.
            This may make the production sound as if Baz Luhrmann had a hand in it, but I found the TV sets neither distracting nor out of place because they weren't stressed. The story of Hamlet is told at great and entertaining speed - though one or two of the actors ignore Hamlet's advice to the players - and the audience moving, from one location to another, is stimulating.
            In a programme note the director writes that no production of Hamlet can really encompass everything going on in the play. true, but what The Bacchanals have done is provide an excellent introduction to the full text of the play, and I am convinced senior secondary school students studying the play would lap it up.
- Laurie Atkinson, The Evening Post

To promenade or not to promenade

It was difficult at this "promenade" production not to recall the famous opening of the late Professor Don McKenzie's Hamlet lectures which, following a loud challenge, asked the initial question: "Is this how Hamlet begins?"
            "Not like this anyway," I thought grumpily as the production herded us too soon through too many darkened spaces and up too many stairs, totally dissipating the creepy feeling of the first ghost scenes.
            But though this Hamlet began none too well, it gained energy and tightness as it proceeded to work its old magic by the end.
            The production is based on an uncut text, and on the opening night took four hours, including interval time, to play out.
            It will certainly be quicker when the first part's promenades are tightened as they clearly were in the later two.
            The fully played text does here reveal different aspects to the play from what we normally recall: cuts usually spotlight Hamlet's psychodrama whereas the full text places that in the context of an intrigue-ridden court where few tell the truth.
            In particular, one sees Mark Cleary's Polonius not as a bumbling elder but rather as a disagreeable if not evil man concerned with self-preservation at the sacrifice of all else. This more social context is also emphasised by Carey Smith's Hamlet, who presents an angry and contentious prince who is part of this general scene rather than aloof from it.
            Regular engagement with classics means long-standing members of The Bacchanals have become adept at speaking Shakespeare in a clear and understandable fashion.
            A powerful Claudius from John Porter, Alex Greig's Laertes and Eve Middleton's Gertrude demonstrate this well. So though it is uneven, this Hamlet repays a visit because these virtues make some scenes very good.
            It is just a shame that the idea of moving around the theatrical site - presumably to provide us with a physical metaphor of Elsinore itself - is so irritating and uninvolving in practice, and so frequently dissipates the tension of the play.
            It's increasingly clear to me that there's a good reason why, since Greek days, theatre has mostly left its audience in one place.
            It seems a shame that a production so determined on textual authenticity couldn't have granted us the authentic stationary privilege that Shakespeare certainly extended to his contemporaries.
- Timothy O'Brien, The Dominion

Helmed by passionate and opinionated director David Lawrence, The Bacchanals' characteristic intelligent, energetic and enthusiastic commitment to poor but accessible theatre has produced a four-hour Hamlet. Staged in four spaces on three different levels, the audience is asked to stand, move and re-settle some 15 times. But don't be put off.
Carpark photo (c) The Bacchanals             Despite having its structure and flow disrupted by an intrusive and unnecessary gimmick (newsflash: simple set, lighting and sound design can instantly change locations and mood), the text is generally well exercised. The corporate-suited family dynasty feel and the CNN-style reports on the advance of Fortinbras work a treat.
            Erica Lowe (Horatio), Eve Middleton (Gertrude), Kate Soper (Rosencrantz) and Hilary Willard (Guildenstern) all make clear and compelling sense of their roles. Tina Helm's Ophelia starts strong, her emotions are mostly well contained but the soft-singing choice in the mad scene robs the text of its unnerving shock value. Alex Grieg readily reveals Laertes youthful arrogance and inexperience.
            John Porter's Claudius is mostly strong, focused and articulate but the King's most vulnerable moment, when he knows Hamlet knows he dunnit and is racked with guilt and fear, is obliterated with overwrought rage. Mark Cleary finds the political controller in Polonius but has yet to discover his unctuous and foolish dimensions. In his gravedigger pairing with James Stewart (who does a passable Ghost and Player King), they subvert the comic text with too much business.
            Any actor who takes on Hamlet, the largest role in the lexicon, must be commended. But inevitably he exposes his weaknesses as well as his strengths. Carey Smith has yet to mark and share the important transitions in Hamlet's journey: realising his father was murdered, deciding to feign madness, hitting on the play-as-weapon idea, knowing his uncle's guilt is confirmed, wanting (after Ophelia's death) to recover equilibrium. His emotional range is limited and his habitual hesitations, which seem to be involuntary, reduce the power of the text.
            My previously mentioned gripe with The Bacchanals is unrelieved. Dedicated to playing great classics, they perform with too many instruments (ie, their bodies and voices) un-tuned. Given their under-resourced status, I'd be tempted to gloss over that (although we'd never accept it from an orchestra) if Lawrence did not continue to disparage the extremely committed work of professional practitioners in his programme notes. Hubris will always be answered.
- John Smythe, National Business Review

The Bacchanals are the amazing group who performed three Renaissance plays last year in full length, totally uncut and sometimes on one day. Their Hamlet also respects the text - as far as we have it - by leaving out nothing from the second Quarto apart from phrases now thought to be introduced by performers rather than by Shakespeare himself.
            Like Kenneth Branagh's four-hour film version, this Hamlet changes perceptions of the play in interesting ways. Rather than a psychological study of an individual - which is essentially a nineteenth century corruption well overdue for revision - it turns out to be a complex political depiction of a corrupt ("something rotten") society. The constant delays in Hamlet's actions, which have become so much of a cliché that directors tend to play up all those parts of the play which emphasize it and cut all those parts which seem to address other issues, are barely noticeable here, because they are just one aspect of ways individuals have to cope with living under a tyranny.
Zeal photo (c) The Bacchanals             Years ago I was privileged to see a Romanian version of this play - conceived and performed at a time when the dictator Ceauscescu was tormenting and oppressing the people of that country. It was perhaps the most menacing and explosive theatrical event I have ever witnessed. Weeks later, after Ceauscescu had been toppled and left dead in the streets, people carried the actor who had played Hamlet on their shoulders through those very streets. That is how relevant Shakespeare can be to the modern world and it makes such petty games as re-gendering Lear look pretty silly. The Bacchanals do not equal the intensity or urgency of that Romanian production, but they do the necessary service of showing New Zealand audiences that Hamlet is not only - or need not only be - a study in individual psychology but can be a socio-political drama of great relevance to people living in a repressed or repressive society. Sure, we do not live in a dictatorship, but few people would be hard put to point out areas of repression, undemocratic structures and intolerant interference with people's lives right here in New Zealand. The presentation of Polonius as a censorious, philistine, over-confident, insensitive CEO is just one example of how the Renaissance and the twenty-first century can be linked. This is what the actor Mark Cleary showed, with his director, in this production.
            There are several centres of interest in the full-length play in addition to Hamlet (who, of course, remains the strongest of them). Polonius and his children offer an alternative image to Claudius and his stepson. Ophelia goes mad not merely from sexual frustration, as some productions have tried to suggest, but from living under the familial tyranny of her father within a generally tyrannical society and the agony of living without the freedom of thought and action needed to keep her sane. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are time-serving moral cowards, more willing to serve the tyrant than maintain friendship. Gertrude acts under terrible pressure, in fear of her life at the hands of a known murderer, as well as from uncontrollable sexual needs. Laertes means well but is not intelligent enough to be equal to cope with the emotional and social pressures that come upon him. The Players (listen!) are able to subvert the system indirectly, subtly, too indefinitely to come under the power of Polonius' censorship or the brutality of his minions.
            I'm sorry there is not the space to name the actors who carried out these various roles so effectively. All of them made their contribution. The only doubt I have of this production is the way the audience was asked to move from place to place rather than have the scene changed in front of them. That tended to fragment the action and to make audience members a bit too aware of each other. But it did have the virtue that we could stretch our legs during the long production, rather than let our bums grow cold and sore on plastic chairs. At the very least, this was a thought-provoking evening. More strength to The Bacchanals, I say.
- Nelson Wattie, Theatre News

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