This is a revised version of a piece written for artsHub.
When I was twelve, my parents took me to see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and even though I didn’t get all the jokes and references, I fell in love with the craziness, the silliness, and the sheer fun that the show revelled in and celebrated. To this day, I still maintain that your first serious exposure to Shakespeare (sometimes as a child) is how you see him and his work throughout life. Over the past number of years, there have been various productions which have come close to embracing the same sort of silliness and irreverence which the Reduced Shakespeare Company ushered in, and it is always a delight to revel in each production’s new take on the Bard.
While the rest of the world tries to out-do each other in the Most Reverent Homage To Shakespeare’s Legacy award to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th death-day, The Listies – along with their friends at Sydney Theatre Company – have mounted a production entitled Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark no less, which somehow manages to embrace Shakespeare’s play (and all its variants) and the kind of mindset often found in children aged five to ten, and pulls it off with enough fart jokes and theatrical magic (as well as a healthy dose of chaos) to make you feel like a kid again.
The Listies – Richard Higgins & Matt Kelly – are a formidable duo of clowns and goofballs. While Higgins plays the straight-man, the purist intent on performing Hamlet as it was written, Kelly is hell-bent on derailing that plan and seizes every opportunity for mayhem with relish and almost-too-much delight. We first see them as ushers, in blue and gold uniforms, chaotically directing people to their seats before ushering each other onto the stage, where it is revealed the cast of the intended production of Hamlet have got food-poisoning from a four-hundred year old block of mouldy cheese, and it is up to them (and to the delight of the younger members of the audience) to save the day. Higgins plays Hamlet, while Kelly plays almost everyone else, with the help of quick-change costumes (at one point he wears a dress around his neck, with the coat hanger still attached)!
Cavorting around Renée Mulder’s cardboard-box-esque set with costumes that traverse everything from Elizabethan doublet-and-hose to fluoro plastic ponchos and fake beards, director Declan Greene (of Sisters Grimm fame) keeps the drama and the humour developing in a suitably Shakespearean fashion, and makes sure the production is more than simply a set of loosely connected sketches. Enlisting the help of the formidable Olga Miller, the (now) trio set off through Shakespeare’s Hamlet cutting it up into the big speeches and big moments, cutting out the minor characters (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relegated to a brief appearance as croissants), and cutting straight to the audience participation, big laughs, and even bigger messes. Yet, despite the silliness, there are still enough poignant moments here so you don’t truly miss the Shakespearean original, even if they are (ever-so-slightly) undermined by Egyptian cotton sheets and dry-ice cannons.
If you’ve ever wished Hamlet – and indeed Shakespeare – had more ninjas, zombies, Nunjas (ninja-nuns), space-pirates, exploding ears, fart and poo jokes, intergalactic adventures, and dinosaurs; if you’ve ever wished Ophelia had more to do and say; if you’ve ever wished Shakespeare’s plays made sense in the way a ten-year-old’s mind does, then this is most certainly the play for you.
Before too long, the stage is covered in goo, silly-string, aliens, fluorescent vomit, and all manner of chaos, and the some of the audience have to be prevented from joining in on-stage. Adults will find it hard not to laugh; kids will find it hard not to laugh; the actors find it hard not to laugh. In short, if you’re not laughing, you soon will be.
Reminiscent at times of Andy Griffiths’ Just Macbeth! for Bell Shakespeare in 2010, this is Hamlet with everything you could have wanted and more, and it’s the perfect way to introduce a young person to the magic and chaos of theatre, as well as to the work of Shakespeare. Perhaps the next generation of theatre-chaoticians are sitting in these audiences waiting for that lightbulb moment…