Review: Pop-up Globe’s polished Hamlet a spectacular feast

If there was ever any doubt surrounding William Shakespeare’s relevance and popularity in the 21st Century, it was thoroughly put to bed with Pop-up Globe New Zealand’s performance of Hamlet at the TSB Showplace.

A larger audience greeted our troupe than the previous night, perhaps a testament to the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s tragic tale of lies and treason.

Pop-Up Globe
TSB Showplace
Reviewed by Martin Quicke

The multi-purpose set loomed over the few brave souls who dared to venture to the seating laid out on stage, as mist poured on to the stage and quickly enveloped the front rows. Beautifully rendered portraits of the recently deceased King and his newly crowned brother hung on the walls, as we awaited the night watch to begin. 

Once again, a visual delight greeted us in the perfectly crafted costumes. A particularly beautiful treat was Ophelia’s floral dress, a gorgeous nod to the John Everett Millias painting. In fact, the costume department deserve special mention for their exceptional work across both shows. 

It is an unenviable task, tackling a play so well known and thoroughly dissected. Throughout history, Hamlet has been performed by many of the greats of theatre, it would seem an insurmountable task to live up to those expectations. Stray too far from expectations and risk the ire of a rabid fan base. Fail to take enough risks and perhaps be relegated to the ranks of just another average performance lost in the endless number of average performances.

Once again, the Pop-up Globe New Zealand has faced the challenge head on and has, for the most part, succeeded in creating something fresh yet familiar.

Continuing the theme of inserting modern technology and colloquialisms in to 17th Century settings, iPhones, soft drink bottles and even references to modern masterpiece, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton made cameos.

However, the modernity of the lovable rogues Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, along with the usually dark humour of the grave diggers being replaced with street slang and cursing more akin to Devon St than Denmark, were perhaps a little too overdone. In scenes where we would hope to see light comic relief amongst the brooding and angst, we were instead beaten over the head with cheap gags and sitcom style slapstick. A more measured approach would have sufficed, instead we quickly forgot the seriousness of the story unfolding and focused instead on what crazy antics the friends would get up to next. 

However, for the most part the tale was delivered with clarity and care. The supporting cast each gave colour and character to larger scenes, while the eponymous tragic hero was superbly portrayed by Adrian Hooke.

It is no small feat to attempt to make Hamlet ones own, but Hooke truly did an admirable job. Even casual fans of The Bard have their own interpretation of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, indeed more than one hushed version could be heard from surrounding seats as our cynical protagonist delivered perhaps the most famous soliloquy in literature.

However, in a true testament to the skill of both the actor and director, the muttered renditions melted away to nothingness as one and all were swept away in the profound concepts of Hamlet’s musings. Thoughtful and considered, Hooke’s delivery of what surely must be one of the hardest pieces of literature to perform on stage, captured the philosophical essence and angst brilliantly. He was brooding and uncertain, equal parts anxious and angered. Pathetic and whining one moment, he would be caught up in a whirlwind of emotion the next, carried away by his single minded hatred. 

The violent, tragic ending was a spectacular feast for the eyes with the climatic swordfight leaving all and sundry breathless. How the costume department can bear to see their gorgeous creations covered with blood each performance, I’ll never know. But it is a testament to all that the fight and inevitable deaths were handled with exceptional precision. 

As the Pop-up Globe tour comes to a close, we can feel truly privileged to have had a troupe of such professionalism and skill grace our stage.

Shakespeare’s works can often be overacted, or worse, underacted. Too many times have his words been butchered by lesser actors and directors. Here we have been treated to slick, polished and entertaining performances of two giants of theatre.

Reviewed by Martin Quicke