Shakespeare’s beloved Dane is savagely exploded in Mark Wilson’s Anti-Hamlet, appearing at Theatre Works.

Anti-Hamlet. Photo by Sarah Walker
Anti-Hamlet. Photo by Sarah Walker

The familiar warble of “Advance Australia Fair”, as well as abundant references to familiar tropes of contemporary Australian living, not-so-subtly situate this bygone Denmark significantly closer to home. It’s 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare and Denmark/Australia stands on the brink of a defining moment in its history: a referendum to determine its severance from the monarchy and establishment as an autonomous republic. Dark and powerful political forces are at play and resistance is rife.

Wilson’s Anti-Hamlet is a delicious mindful. The script is sharp, hilarious and disturbing, and the show as a whole is built of layer upon layer of intelligent analysis, reference, critique, and vicious satire – all of which is informed by a profound respect for Shakespeare’s original work.

Ghostly apparitions inciting vengeance are replaced by anarchic political radicalisation, and Hamlet’s overwrought angst is directed towards the rottenness that permeates Denmark/Australia’s political climate itself, namely in the form of corporate greed and capitalist dogma.

Hamlet’s hubristic inaction is translated from hesitant indecision into a rampant lust for activism that fatally lacks the insight or organisation to have any real impact. Blinded by his own privilege and fuelled by his royal (or simply, white male) entitlement, Hamlet sets about a long string of ill-informed, self-aggrandised acts of “hack-tivism” and posits himself as the mouthpiece of stories and struggles that do not belong to him.

Richly academic, the show is laden with sharp references to classical and contemporary treatments of Shakespeare’s texts. It questions the utility of art as a device for cultural and social change, takes meta-theatrical pot-shots at itself, and cheekily takes swings at the wider theatre community and the industry that it serves.

The cast is wholly dynamic and captivating as they serve Wilson’s vision with all the dexterity and self-referential cheek of traditional Shakespearean troupes of old.

Of particular note are Marco Chiappi as Claudius, a sleazy ignoramus and a mirror of Australia’s own blokiest prime ministers; Natasha Herbert’s Gertrude, who slips from callous monarch to emotional ruin with mesmerising humanity; and Charles Purcell as Edward Bernays, the fast-talking “all-American” propaganda prodigy and poster boy for consumer capitalism, who is at once charming and chilling.

At a point in cultural history in which every possible permutation or “radical” redressing of Shakespeare’s texts seems to have become a stale trend, this sort of post-dramatic demolition and reconstruction that Wilson so deftly articulates seems to be the next crucial stage of evolution for these stories, allowing them to take vital new life and continue to resonate with a contemporary legitimacy and authentic relevance.

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