BRETT DEAN’S HAMLET

by jenniferlbryce

Australian composer Brett Dean has written an opera, Hamlet, which is being performed at the Adelaide Festival, following acclamation at Glyndebourne, UK.

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It is a brilliant collaboration between composer, librettist (Matthew Jocelyn) and director (Neil Armfield). I didn’t come away with the music running through my head; I came away thinking about the play, particularly Shakespeare’s language, which is used faithfully. There are no extraneous words, every word is from the play, although sometimes the sequence is changed, sometimes phrases are repeated. The very first words are, very effectively, ‘or not to be’, from ‘to be, or not to be’, which recurs as a motif later. The whole opera is captured in two acts. Inevitably some bits are cut (such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being sent to England), but the essence of the play remains and is indeed enhanced by this creation.

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At the conclusion of a forum about the opera it was noted that there is a wave of interest in new opera and it is becoming ‘a centre of contemporary theatrical practice’. I am not a lover of the classic operas by composers such as Puccini and Rossini. But I do like modern opera. I don’t know why this is, but I wonder whether one reason is because the traditional operas seem to use the story (often flimsy) as a vehicle for the music whereas with an opera such as Brett Dean’s Hamlet, if anything, the music enhances the story and everything is melded together to create drama. At the forum, Brett Dean commented on the frequent change of time signatures in the music: ‘the pulse of the entire story is one of unpredictability … the story is full of duplicity, doubt and danger’. He summed this up as an ‘arhythmia’. Brett Dean said that he tried to capture the music that is already in Shakespeare’s language, with a conscious desire to make sure that every moment counted.

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Brett Dean, composer

It was clear that librettist and composer had worked together very closely. Indeed, at the forum Brett Dean described how they and their partners worked together for several days individually, at first, noting what they thought to be the six essential elements in the play; these were then distilled down to the elements they all agreed on as essential.

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The time and place for this Hamlet was described by Brett Dean as ‘a kind of now’. Time and place don’t matter very much because the play is treated as a psychological drama: a son, obsessed with Ophelia, who ‘goes off the rails’ at the death of his father … his mother, a queen, ‘in a sandwich of political need and lust’ yet desperately wanting to help her son. Cheryl Barker said she played this role thinking of how she would react if it were her own son. Act I ends movingly; the one time when the music stops and the queen, alone, walks towards a dark back stage, sobbing.

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The production is brilliant. At the very beginning, a chorus is frozen around Hamlet at the grave of his father. In Act II, the ‘alas poor Yorick’ grave scene is done by means of a set that is lowered onto the stage enabling a hole that can be dug and actors can get into. When the ghost enters, everything is turned upside down or inside out.

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The ghost, Hamlet, Gertrude

Neil Armfield had directed a production of Hamlet at Belvoir Theatre, Sydney – he sees Hamlet as a manic depressive person – it is plausible for him to act violently. Matthew Jocelyn said that having ‘taken out’ the political context, Hamlet is seen more as a domestic drama, the chorus being witnesses and a lens through which the family is seen.

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I certainly took away an idea of the whole. But it is necessary to mention the excellent performances of Allan Clayton, as Hamlet, Lorina Gore, as Ophelia and Cheryl Barker as Gertrude.