Melbourne theatre-maker (and chronic Shakespeare tinkerer) Mark Wilson steps into the shoes of a very different Dane than you’re used to
Theatre maker Mark Wilson has gone mountain climbing on the genius of William Shakespeare before; his new work marks the final in a trilogy of plays that tackle and chip away at the Bard’s work – after 2013’s riff on Lady Macbeth, Unsex Me, and 2014’s Rudd–Gillard take on Richard II. This time Wilson attempts to scale the Everest in the canon with Anti-Hamlet. It’s the act of a foolhardy thrill seeker – especially given that he writes, directs and plays the Dane himself – and it ends in predictable catastrophe.
Wilson’s central image is inspired: what if instead of Polonius hiding behind the arras in the infamous ‘closet scene’ of Hamlet, it was Sigmund Freud? Freud was arguably the first person to suggest an Oedipal motivation behind Hamlet’s psycho-sexual berating of his mother, so it only seems natural to slide him into the action as an enabler and provocateur.
The play opens with an extraordinary monologue from Wilson about Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings pilot who deliberately crashed his commercial plane into the French Alps. Wilson claims to have had a friend on board whose last Facebook post said “All my heroes are dead and all my enemies are in power”. This is impossible to corroborate in the context of this highly satirical performance, but it is a masterful way of elucidating Hamlet’s predicament.
Things get complicated as soon as Ophelia (Natascha Flowers) arrives – in this incarnation a nerdy idealist fresh from Oxford who wants to fix the nation’s refugee crisis. Her exchange with Hamlet sets the tone for all that follows: cynicism and buffoonery frequently undermining engagement with monumental themes. Ophelia’s swift corruption by Claudius (Marco Chiappi) and Freud’s real-life nephew Edward Bernays (Charles Purcell) loosely follows Shakespeare’s prototype, but lacks any of the pathos. Pathos often seems impossible in the context of this constantly winking play.
Gertrude fairs better, largely due to the outrageously ripe performance by Natasha Herbert, but also to Wilson’s – not to mention Freud’s – preference for the mother/son relationship over any other. Lots of very naughty things occur on that analyst’s couch, and it isn’t only Gertrude who seems willing to “post with such haste to incestuous sheets”. The result is a first act finale that is as bloody as it is hilarious. Sadly, the play’s fall from this peak is precipitous; nothing in the second act comes close to the sublime lunacy of this scene.
The rest of the cast are as committed as you’d hope, particularly Chiappi as an increasingly hangdog presidential nominee and Purcell as a gleaming capitalist puppet master. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns means that even these performances tend to grate after a while. Brian Lipson’s Freud is brilliantly realised in the first half but blustery and superfluous in the second. Flowers is utterly lost as Ophelia, due as much to her muted playing style as the poorly conceived part.
Romanie Harper’s set design effortlessly underscores the notion of Hamlet as play maker – the raised platform enclosed in red curtain functions as his personal theatrette – and her costumes are witty signifiers of character and motive. Amelia Lever-Davidson’s often dynamic lighting design helps augment the simplicity of the staging.
There are many ideas pinging around this play – most notably the struggle between an individual’s personal motivations and their impulse to affect social change – but Wilson’s scattergun approach to his satire means that these ideas tend to crash into one another and fizzle out, rather than explode like fireworks in the minds of the audience. Laboured references to contemporary Australian issues abound but mostly fail to illuminate the central conceit, and a finale that deliberately evokes the Jonestown massacre seems gratuitous in the extreme.
It’s always better to see theatre makers fail nobly than cling to base camp, but Wilson’s most ambitious undertaking so far is rather a hard slog.
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