Director: Neil Armfield
Composer: Brett Dean
Librettist: Matthew Jocelyn
Reviewer: Helen Tope
Hamlet seems tailor-made for opera. A story of loyalty and revenge, it has all the core components. To amplify Shakespeare’s play into the larger-than-life dynamics needed for opera, nerves of steel are required. Too little, and the opera falls flat. Too much, and you lose the subtlety of the original.
The answer, it seems, is to throw out the rulebook. By making substantial changes to the narrative and editing out the politics of the play, what composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn have created is a Hamlet that places the characters front and centre.
Starting at Gertrude and Claudius’ wedding feast, this Hamlet plunges straight into the domestic drama. We meet our Hamlet immediately; David Butt Philip stalks across the stage, the black crow among the silk dresses and bow ties. His anger at his mother’s remarriage to his Uncle Claudius smoulders. It needs a supernatural encounter to make it combust.
What is immediately noticeable about this production is how sound is used. This Hamlet is polyphonous. By creating a multi-layered sound landscape, Dean allows the characters to sing over each other, meaning colliding with meaning. It creates moments, such as Gertrude relaying the death of Ophelia. The voice of Ophelia (Jennifer France) trails alongside Gertrude; an audible ghost.
The discordant notes and dying falls of Dean’s score are a perfect match for Shakespeare’s most nihilistic drama. The sound blends so well with what’s happening on stage, that it almost melts into the background. Like the best cinematic scores, we are barely aware of it as the action unfolds, but its role in creating atmosphere is integral.
The densely-textured score – rife with sharp, shrieking percussive elements – brilliantly evokes the claustrophobic world Hamlet finds himself in. There is no escape from the slow build of tension and menace.
The decision to go with a more naturalistic vocal, too, captures a reality in the characters that takes this production to next-level status. Hamlet, seeing his father’s ghost, is a scene of tremendous power. David Butt Philip’s earlier swagger ebbs away, as Brian Bannatyne-Scott’s bass fills and commands the stage and its players. The terror Hamlet feels becomes all the more real.
Ophelia’s breakdown is also delivered with a psychological clarity. Jennifer France’s voice fractures and blisters; it is a very honest depiction of emotional crisis. No prettiness here, just pain. The character of Ophelia is also fleshed out in this production. She is not a cipher of femininity here, but a woman ill-used and all too aware of it.
Already heaped with praise, this Hamlet certainly doesn’t need another five-star review, but it’s getting one anyway. The central performance of David Butt Philip is phenomenal; he creates a Hamlet that is very recognisable, but at the same time, still channelling that wealth of tradition.
This production of Hamlet can boast several great performances; Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts creates a Polonius that is deeply unedifying; pawing at his daughter and bullying his son. With Shakespeare’s villains, you can always find another layer and Lloyd-Roberts taps into the vileness beneath the veneer.
In matching outfits that owe a great debt to Gilbert and George, Rupert Enticknap and James Hall as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a much-needed comic foil. Here, they are not the hapless victims of political machinations. They are more polished, their smooth counter-tenor voices nervously fluttering away, as they struggle to stay ahead of the game.
What Glyndebourne’s Hamlet understands is that Shakespeare demands emotion with the edges rubbed off. This is a world away from the posturing and worthiness of every bad Shakespeare production you may have seen. This is bold, brave and heady with purpose. Accept no substitutes – this Hamlet is the real thing.
Reviewed on 1 December 2017 | Image: Richard Hubert Smith