Monday, 20 July 2015

Hamlet - Just for the Words

Went to see director Damien Ryan's production of Hamlet for Bell Shakespeare at Melbourne Arts Centre on Saturday, with Josh McConville as the prince himself. You wouldn't want to be daunted by those who've come before to play this most celebrated role: John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson, Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes, David Tennant and recently the fascinating Benedict Cumberbatch, to name but a few. My favourite still, despite his sometime bizarre behaviours since, has to be Mel Gibson in Franco Zeffirelli's sublime film. Gibson was just the right age, fabulous to watch and with those mad eyes, just right for Hamlet's wild wrestlings with love, grief, suspicion, revenge, rage and despair.
But Josh McConville did a fine job and I found his performance riveting as the questionably reliable narrator. There were a few weak characters in my ever-so-humble opinion - Claudius in particular was unsatisfactory and Ophelia didn't come near to what Ophelia should be - far too flouncy and pert to be a figure of such tragedy and though she handled her descent into madness very well, no-one but Hamlet seemed to care very much when she died (Gertrude especially recovered with amazing speed). And I too was unmoved. (This was also the verdict of those around me in our little post-play exchange in the foyer afterwards). She had one of those universal accents acquired from television and I expected her at any moment to say "OMG! That's awesome!"
Costuming was odd, a mixture of small suburban office types and the Brunswick Street breakfast crowd.
But the costuming is largely irrelevant. It's the words we go for, isn't it? Those oh-so-famous speeches that half the audience knows by heart - what pressure to deliver those and hope to satisfy! For me the rhyming couplets at the end of many of the scenes are the milestones that make me catch my breath, waiting -

Foul deeds will rise, Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes. 

The play's the thing, Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king!

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!

But the pinnacle of words in Hamlet brought tears to my eyes, as ever, and made the lady beside me suck in her breath and clutch both hands to her mouth and yes, I saw tears glistening there too.

Poor Horatio, to have to deliver these exquisite, heartbreaking lines -

"Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"

Read them aloud, and weep.
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Saturday, 4 July 2015

Review: Sofie Laguna, The Eye of the Sheep

I feel a very presumptuous, setting out to write a review of Sofie Laguna's Miles Franklin winner, The Eye of the Sheep, but The Resident Songwriter* in this household once told me that I represent 'the average ear' so my opinion must be of some value after all.
But there I was, having selected A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, to read next, and wading slowly through the first 50 mostly incomprehensible pages, when the Miles Franklin was announced and lo - I already had the book! So with this excellent excuse to abandon A.S. Byatt for the time being I straight away set to reading the one everyone was talking about. As you do.
What to say? It's brilliant, important, original, heart wrenching, harrowing, un-put-downable. Is it fun to read? No. Was I glad when it was over? Too right. Am I glad I read it? Without a doubt.
The narrator is Jimmy Flick, a quirky, desperately needy, 'special needs' boy whose voice and language we soon adapt to even though his words are usually not those of a boy his age. Jimmy is well-intentioned and kind but his world requires different coping strategies which don't always work out well in the eye of others around him.
But this whole family has special needs and each of them is drawn with such accuracy and such compassion that we ache for each of them along the way. Jimmy's mother Paula is a chronic asthmatic with a compulsive eating disorder that makes her obese and physically compromised. She is full of love for Jimmy, for his brother Robby and even for Gavin, her alcoholic husband who beats her up from time to time to vent his frustration at his own powerlessness. And despite his despicable actions, Gavin too elicits some sympathy with his dirty, dead-end job at the Altona refinery and the absence of any better prospects for the future. Gavin doesn't have the kind of patience that living with Jimmy demands so he takes his refuge in whiskey and the mournful songs of Merle Haggard. His wife Paula pays the price. Despite all the burdens they face, there is still a mutual tenderness between these two which surfaces from time to time and we lean into it with them in the vain hope that it might last.
We've all known families like this, especially those who've worked in health, education or welfare, and Sophie Laguna has drawn each of her characters with astonishing insight and empathy. Which didn't make the journey any less harrowing. Thank heavens for the dog, the comparatively stable uncle, and for the return of Robby who is absent for far too long.
And there are some joyous highlights - Jimmy's first fishing trip out to sea, the fabulous go-cart episode with his father.
So I read it very quickly. It's not the kind of story to loll around with on the couch and savour but as a portrait of all the families out there who struggle with disadvantage and personal issues too great to manage, this is a record to read and keep. It waves a red flag against quick judgements about the obese woman, the drunken man and the irritating kid, all of whom cross our paths, and all of whom run as deep and as complex as anyone - as Sophie Laguna has so cleverly shown.
(Sophie Laguna, by the way, is another on the dauntingly impressive list of graduates of the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT.)
For now though, it's back to A. S. Byatt for me in the hope that it might soon become even marginally as gripping as The Eye of the Sheep.
Watch this space.

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