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Hamlet (2013)

Directed by Damien Ryan

Written by William Shakespeare

May 2, 2013 to May 18, 2013

Clear, insightful and thrillingly imaginative theatre…

Give your students the chance to experience Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the stage in a clear and powerfully imaginative production of one of his greatest tragedies. Students attending last year’s season returned on their own to see the show a second time!

Sport for Jove’s acclaimed production of Hamlet returns to the Seymour Centre in 2013, following its huge popularity among teachers, students and theatre-goers in 2012.

In a world of accidental judgments and casual slaughters, where everyone dies but no-one is permitted to grieve, a young man speaks for us all by daring to speak for himself.

Director and educator Damien Ryan brings his 15 years of intensive experience with this great story to an inspiring and passionate production, described by Sydney critics as one of the finest visions of Hamlet in recent times. Starring Lindsay Farris and exploring loyalty and faithlessness, madness and freedom, and the debts children owe to their parents, this is clear, insightful and thrillingly imaginative theatre for students, bringing great integrity to the text and the characters.

Performances are 110 minutes long without interval and feature a short post show Q & A with the actors.

The critics said
“Sport for Jove’s Hamlet is the best I have ever seen. Do not miss it for any reason whatsoever…teenagers were rapt and silent throughout. The most electrifying, memorable, sustained and intelligent realisation of the tragic Prince of Denmark I've ever seen. A remarkable achievement.”
Diana Simmonds, Stage Noise

“Passionate and pacy…the depth of ideas and emotional horsepower to connect broadly…bitingly funny…and no shortage of illuminating ideas…it works splendidly”
Jason Blake, Sydney Morning Herald

“One of the best productions of anything I have ever seen, one of the best Shakespeare's - and way the best Hamlet. Truly do your mind, your soul and your love of theatre a favour and go and see it. I went to a school's session today - you could have heard a pin drop.”
James Waites, Theatre Blog, former SMH critic

“Beautifully integrated…It’s adaptations like this one that are necessary to prove that there is bright blood at the heart of Hamlet, made and performed with a presence and vitality that the play deserves. Its concepts are simple and the staging simpler yet but every component, from the actors on stage to the players unseen, show this mighty play for the classic it is.”
The AU Review

“Damien Ryan proves once again he is one of our best Shakespeare directors.”
Jo Litson, Daily Telegraph

“Sport for Jove Theatre Company have exploded onto the Seymour Centre stage with a fabulous, fast-paced production that is fresh and vibrant – it is almost as if we have never seen this classic play before. A gripping, thrilling and contemporary version of a tale of power, politics, madness and corruption that had the audience of mostly young high school students enthralled.”
Lynne Lancaster, Arts Hub Review

By all of its most prominent signposts, Hamlet should be a very bleak play. The first thing we see is a dead man walking the theatre. The first thing we hear from the hero is his profound wish to die, either through simply melting away or through self-slaughter. The basic plot function is to cleanse a great wrong through violent revenge – such purification through vengeance and hatred is typically the realm of the terrorist in our modern world. Its hero is a young man whose humane and instinctual trust in the family unit, the social order, the political state and the potential of the human mind turns to anarchy and a complete loss of faith in every thing, every system.

By Act 2, he deconstructs the four basic elements that make up our existence (“this goodly frame the earth”, “this most excellent canopy the air...fretted with golden fire”, and watery the “congregation of vapours” by which we live), turning them to dust and despair in the prison of his diseased wit. Then, by Act 5, he is no longer sure why he is in the play at all, almost butchering the climax by glibly refusing the request to fence - “How if I answer no?”. It's an extraordinary question really. 'What if I just don't turn up to the finale? Will that have any affect on things?' He appears to drift by opportunistic chance to the revenge we have waited so patiently for since Act 1.

And our final pay off is the complete collapse of the entire realm these people have so desperately wrangled over in the first place – it was quite literally all for nothing. Shakespeare places an astonishing rug beneath us, a veritable tapestry, purely to rip it out from under us. Denmark is simply handed to Norway and a dynasty evaporates. Hamlet's own birth seems to have promised such wastage – his father killed Old Fortinbras of Norway on the very day young Hamlet was born, and young Hamlet's auspicious life is simply the sacrifice for that crime, falling away on the very day young Fortinbras comes to claim the rights to his future.

Therefore, an immense cycle of life and power and family and political order has coiled steadily in upon itself until the circle diminishes to nothingness, the mortal coil strangles itself, leaving only Horatio to explain why and how. And his explanation - “of accidental judgments and casual slaughters, of purposes mistook, fallen on the inventor's heads” - is basically that of a giant botch up. The story of Hamlet is truly that of a cataclysm, of a total dissolution of something once worth living for. The distant, only faintly etched image of the threat from Fortinbras and Norway seems to sit side by side with the greater menace of what lies beyond our life, beyond death - what “undiscovered country” is waitingbehind the large doors? The play's first question – “who's there?” – is an apt coda for its bleak uncertainty.

Yet somehow within the dire existential chaos of this broken world order, we have a story filled with as much life and exuberance as could be contained in a play, such positive inspiration and life-force, particularly in the apparently forlorn hero. Polonius' unlikely description of a 'tragical-historical-comical-pastoral' play is actually accurate to the one he is in. This play energetically spans every genre and at its heart we get Shakespeare's great instinct for theatricality as he uses theatre itself, the roles we play and the masks we wear, to fuel the conflict. Hamlet the character is as much an actor as the actor playing Hamlet, and he does a remarkable thing in staging a play within the play, literally asking our indulgence as an audience to stop the play we bought tickets to while he stages another play just to make certain that he wants to carry on with the 'real' play.

The challenge of how to tackle these ideas in a production is much the same as a student's challenge in finding his or her personal voice in writing about the play. We are forced to find our answers to the many uncertainties and questions in the play.

We have sought to explore with clarity and detail the anatomy of two troubled families in this production but it is not enough for the play to be taken purely as a domestic family tragedy. The larger political and social scale is critical to Shakespeare's point so finding a marriage between what is personal and individual, and what is national and political is the first great challenge. One feeds off the other – Shakespeare's point seems to be that the political is fundamentally personal. Claudius' decision to murder his brother is motivated at once by great political ambition and power, and by simple sensual desire, and this grand yet domestic crime destroys his whole nation's future. Likewise, Polonius' fears of Ophelia's sexual awakening provoke Hamlet's deepest despair and loss of himself – the 'expectancy and rose of the fair state' dissolves and so does his country's hope. It is as much a tragedy of love as of revenge, and even the play's friendships – Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – are fundamental to its depiction of the value of loyalty to the youthful mind. In the extreme world this play depicts, to betray your friends is to believe in nothing at all and the betrayals run both ways. Anyone who lies to Hamlet dies, such is the blindness of the play's justice. But justice for Hamlet isn't blind enough in some ways. The old world, his father's world, had an easy road, revenge, an eye for an eye. But this simple medieval task is given to a young man with a modern mind, a 'new' mind, whose capacity for reason and conscience pollutes the simplicity of the 'old' task.

Another challenge is to express the grief in the play. None of the children in this play are permitted to grieve their dead parents – not Hamlet, not Ophelia, not Laertes – there is a terrible suppression of the natural medicine of grief which can only form a diseased blister waiting to explode, and it does. Hamlet's first entrance sees his mourning rites rebuked, “cast thy nighted colour off”. “The poison of deep grief” is Claudius version of Ophelia's madness. Laertes names the problem when he cries out at his sister's funeral - “What ceremony else? Must there no more be done?” He is screaming out for help in the mourning of his dying family. Gertrude's seemingly false tears at her first husband's funeral become one of the most prominent and repeated motifs in the story, re-expressed through the flooding tears of Hecuba in the Player's story. Grief is perverted in this play and it is surely deliberate on Shakespeare's part that Ophelia, having strived in her madness to ritualise her father's absent funeral as best she could, and unable to find 'natural' expression for her grief, dies climbing the willow tree. The tree is the only thing that seems to be allowed to weep freely in Denmark.

It is interesting that the Nordic myths and sagas from which the 'Hamlet' tale springs, and indeed the entire basis of Scandanavian mythology is of the tree – the tree of life, the Great Norse Tree (Yggdrassil), representing both the family tree, the state and the universe itself. Its branches were thought to sustain the heavens, its trunk the living political and humane dimensions, and it's root system the underworld. It was beneath this tree, each day, that the gods meted out justice to the world. Hamlet is a fundamentally religious play, dealing with the nature of purgatory; the world's first murder, brother killing brother; a 'serpent' and a terrible sin committed in an orchard through the alluring temptation of desire for a woman; a son having to fight his way out of the long shadow cast by his father (as did the Norse god Odin, the Greek god Zeus, Jesus Christ, and almost all mythological godfathers). In this story of Hamlet, the tree of life, the family tree, the natural order of things, is torn out of the ground by Claudius' crime, uprooted and supplanted leaving no oxygen by which the state can live and grow.

Writing at a time of great doubt and uncertainty, Shakespeare's Hamlet is perhaps so timeless because he works hard to take very clear and unambiguous source material and create as much ambiguity as possible. It is the women, Ophelia and Gertrude, who become the greatest enigma in the story. Hamlet's most passionate scenes relate to his lover and his mother, which is a significant diversion from the traditional nature of a revenge tragedy in which the male crime and its repudiation are the audience's focus. Hamlet loses sight of the play he is supposed to be in, and as we see quite literally in his own 'writing' in the Mousetrap, he constructs his own narrative that is far more interested in the female 'crime' of disloyalty or infidelity than it is in his father's request. The Ghost, having already bid his eternal farewells, even has to return in the middle to remind his son of why he came to the theatre tonight!

There is another ghost in this play, existing somehow outside the reality of the other characters and yet the very key to the action – Hamlet's imagination - expressed through his famous soliloquies. It is easy to forget what a strange and exciting convention it is to talk directly to us. To suspend the action and take us into deep speculations, often against his own will as he relentlessly attacks his own perception of himself and his circumstances. We are used to the soliloquy now, thanks to Shakespeare, but he made this thing special back in his day, more dynamic, more personal and offering a greater sense of a character 'overhearing himself' than his contemporaries were capable of. We wanted to re-examine how and why a character might halt the story to talk to us, with us, to float between us and the action, to share our space somehow because he simply can't go on with the story until he has gotten something off his chest.

We have conceived of our Denmark as an interconnected and ornate circle – reflecting the great cycle of life and family and power and collapse described above. Cycles of fathers leaving terrible debts upon their sons (Hamlet sacrificing his life to his father's debt, Laertes' to his, Fortinbras' his, Pyrrhus' his, and in this production, even Yorick's son, still pulling his father's storytelling cart across Europe teaching old stories to anyone willing to heed them). Cycles of regeneration gone stale – parents, who should be sewing health and virtue and goodness into the fabric of their children, but instead breed distrust, anxiety and deceit. The play's timescale even suggests a cycle of regeneration – beginning in winter and leaping several months ahead on two occasions. In nature, the seasons evolve in order to seed new life even as things die, again the fabric of the old stitched into the new. In this rotten state though, we have imagined seasons that cycle around to an eternal winter for this place called Denmark.

Lucilla, our set designer and Nick, our builder, have created an ancient dynastic floor (using 3,746 separate pieces of wood!) to carry the story of this place. As Marcellus says, it is “the platform where we watch”, a simple stage within a stage that leads these characters roundabout to their own destruction. Onto it comes another stage, in keeping with the play's central metaphor of the power of theatre. With the arrival of the Players, (and indeed with the sources of most of his plays), Shakespeare shows us how old stories can describe a new world; just as his own play, Hamlet, has now become the quintessential old story for our new world. And the very concept of a story is his final gift to us in this play. As Denmark breathes its last and the stage is littered with corpses, Hamlet leaves Horatio with the duty to draw his “breathin pain to tell my story”, to explain what he died for, what he lived for. The double meaning for Shakespeare is that we, the audience, are Horatio in that moment. All the pointless futility of these deaths and the total collapse of the world order in front of us, teaches us something and we leave the theatre carrying Hamlet's story with us, continuing its cycle of life and thereby its lessons.

Director's Note

(No director's note available for this production)

Behind the Scenes

Production Reviews

Production Gallery

Photography by Seiya Taguchi

  • Christopher Stalley | Laertes / Guildenstern

  • Christopher Tomkinson | Ghost / Player / Gravedigger

  • Danielle King | Gertrude

  • Eloise Winestock | Ophelia 2012

  • George Banders | Rosencrantz / Marcellus

  • James Lugton | Claudius

  • John Turnbull | Polonius / Gravedigger / Nor...

  • Lindsay Farris | Hamlet

  • Sabryna Te'o | Ophelia 2013

  • Takaya Honda | Horatio

  • Anna Gardiner | Costume Designer

  • Caitlin Porter | Sound Designer

  • Damien Ryan | Director

  • Danielle King | Production Manager

  • David Stalley | Sound Design / Videography

  • James Lugton | Business Manager

  • Katherine Holmes | Assistant Stage Manager

  • Lauren Holmes | Assistant Stage Manager

  • Lija Simpson | Assistant Stage Manager

  • Lincoln Hall | Assistant Director

  • Lucilla Smith | Set Designer

  • Lynne Stalley | Production Manager

  • Matt Edgerton | Assistant Director

  • Nick Catran | Set Construction

  • Ruth Horsfall | Stage Manager

  • Scott Witt | Fight Director / Movement

  • Sian James-Holland | Lighting Designer

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