I love going to Theatre 3. There is magic in the place. I don’t care that the decor is old and tired, I only ever notice it for a moment, because before long you feel the atmosphere of genuine theatre lovers mingling and engaging, like Liberals in the Press Club or bikies in a pub. This was what it was like at Theatre 3 last night, especially straight after the curtain went down on the opening performance of I Hate Hamlet.
The plot revolves around Andrew, a successful television soap actor from Los Angeles, who relocates to New York after having agreed to play Hamlet in a non-profit production in Central Park. Problems arise when he reveals that he hates Hamlet, and mainly agreed to play the role because of his girlfriend’s love for the play. Fortuitously, the ghost of the late, great actor Barrymore, who once occupied Andrew’s gothic apartment and played Hamlet, can return to mentor Andrew through the process of preparing for the most important role of his life.
A couple of the people I spoke to afterwards expressed the same surprise I had; why had I not heard of this play? It was written way back in 1991, and is such an astute and passionate exploration of our attitudes towards Shakespeare that it shocks me to think that it isn’t part of the curriculum of every university’s theatre department. It looks quite deeply into the psyche of the greatest play of all time while still retaining a modern view that is unencumbered by social expectations about how we should view the bard. In short, it is respectful without being reverential. It treats the way society hallows Shakespeare with ridicule, while still holding a deep and profound respect for the man’s humanity, wisdom and power.
When I first started my academic career—after dropping out of high school and bumming around dead end jobs for a few years—one of the first pieces of literature from the English Canon that I encountered was Hamlet. I struggled with it, and came to some kind of understanding of it, rudimentary as it was. Over the years my love for the play has deepened. In the twelve years since first reading it I have seen more than ten stage productions and every film I could clap my eyes on, and I have never been disappointed by modern theatre practitioners’ capacity to glean some new kernel of wisdom from the pages. Just like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I Hate Hamlet further unpacks Shakespeare’s story, treating it as a living, breathing work of art rather than a museum piece.
Canberra Repertory’s production is simply brilliant, with the considerable talents and experience of Ian Croker in the role of Barrymore admirably matched by my old university classmate Glenn Brown as Andrew. Their swordfight was so much fun that I found found it difficult to resist the urge to get up and join in! The entire cast carries off the production brilliantly, with excellent comic timing (perhaps with a couple of hiccups that I am putting down to opening night), brilliant wit, and impeccable characterisation.
Now all I need is a show I can audition for with a sword fight…