REVIEW: Hamlet + Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Silvan Rus as Hamlet. Imagery via Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble are currently performing Hamlet and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead in ‘rep’ – alternating shows each night with actors playing the same role in both plays. The plays are staged in the Roma Street Parklands’ Amphitheatre with the audience seated on the stage, providing a unique atmosphere and closeness to the action. Characters enter and leave the stage from many different points, and the amphitheatre is used as an extension of the stage to denote distance or detachment, when characters are watching something happen from further away, or to show action occurring in the background. Both shows also feature live music, performed by the incredibly multitalented Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble. 

Horatio (Dudley Powell), Hamlet (Silvan Rus) and Gertrude (Liliana Macarone). Imagery via Queensland Shakesepeare Ensemble.
Hamlet
One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime and long after, Hamlet tells the tragic tale of the titular Danish prince seeking revenge on his uncle, who has murdered his father and married his mother to seize the throne of Denmark.

Silvan Rus plays the role of Hamlet in this production with intense, varying emotion, and delivers Hamlet’s many long and demanding monologues with precision and sincerity. Sarah Doyle portrays Ophelia as sweet but sensible, and her “madness” as a deep grief for her father Polonius (Frances Marrington) after Hamlet kills him. 

Frances Marrington as Polonius. Imagery via Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

Ben Prindable’s Claudius transforms from a loving, concerned Uncle to an increasingly discontented King as the play progresses, alongside Liliana Macarone’s Gertrude, who is far more a concerned, compassionate mother than a political schemer. Swordplay between Laertes (Nick Rijs) and Hamlet is thrilling to watch; Dudley Powell is judicious as Hamlet’s confidante Horatio; and Frances Marrington and Rebecca Murphy give wonderfully comedic performances as the Grave Diggers.

Rebecca Murphy as a Grave Digger. Imagery via Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

I think having seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead the night before called me to pay closer attention to the play’s minor characters, and this was compounded by the artist Q&A which took place after the performance. The actors discussed the rehearsal process and uncovering the full depth of their characters for themselves, sometimes leading to a different form than academic analysis might direct. Director Rob Pensalfini also spoke about adapting Hamlet as a text (I didn’t realise that an unabridged version would run for over four hours!) while maintaining the integrity of the original meter and poetry, as well as keeping more of the macro politics that so heavily influence the actions of most characters.

Laertes (Nick Rijs) and Hamlet (Silvan Rus) fencing. Imagery via Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
A classic in its own right, Tom Stoppard’s absurdist metadrama Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead turns the spotlight on to two minor characters from Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark’s childhood friends. Halfway between a comedy and an existential crisis, the play imagines the actions and philosophical reflections of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern while they are offstage during Hamlet. Directed by Rebecca Murphy, the play highlights how little information Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are privy to, how indirectly involved in the action of Hamlet they are, and how little they understand the forces at play and the things at stake. Who are they when they are not with Hamlet? What is their purpose, in Elsinore and in general?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Imagery via Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

The major characters of Hamlet make brief appearances throughout, when their worlds collide with those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but the work is primarily fast-paced banter, wordplay, and philosophical pondering between the two eponymous characters as well as plays-within-the-play from the troupe of Players.

Paige Poulier as Guildenstern (L) and Ellen Hardisty as Rosencrantz (R). Imagery via Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

Ellen Hardisty has a nervous energy as Rosencrantz, balanced by Paige Poulier’s more grounded and cynical Guildenstern; the two bounce off each other and keep the audience engaged through stretches of tense silence as much as with their quick-paced banter. Colin Smith is also captivating as the First Player, articulating every word clearly and with a casual confidence that catches and holds the attention of the audience.

It was recommended to me that this work would make sense provided I had a basic grasp of Hamlet, and I think that is sound advice – if you’ve seen or read Hamlet and recall the key points it will all make sense, but if you can see QSE’s Hamlet first (and when else will you have the opportunity to do both in quick succession?) then I would recommend it.

Colin Smith as the First Player. Imagery via Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.
The Tragedians/Players (Josh Lyons, Riley McNamara, Nick Rijs, Rebekah Schmidt, Samuel Valentine), led by the dynamic Colin Smith, are a well-oiled machine and this camaraderie and ease with one another translates to their more minor roles in Hamlet. This permeates both performances across the whole cast – from onstage interactions to playing music together, the Ensemble seems to have a sense of mutual trust and comfortability.

The Tragedians. Imagery via Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

In both productions, costumes designed by Kaylee Gannaway and lighting design by Steven Tibbits set the scene and the mood, complemented by music composed by Rob Pensalfini, Silvan Rus, and Liliana Macarone. Sets constructed by James Elliot and Alex Wood were simple and effective, providing enough spatial context without cluttering the stage.

Claudius (Ben Prindable), Ophelia (Sarah Doyle) and Gertrude (Liliana Macarone) mourn Polonius. Imagery via Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble.

Queensland Shakespeare’s season of Hamlet + Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead will be playing at the Roma Street Parklands until September 9, 2018. Dress warmly – even in Brisbane’s mild winter it gets chilly in the park at night. The Mana Coffee van is open before the show and during interval, which is great – you can enjoy a coffee and warm up your hands as well. For ticketing and further information, visit the QSE website.