How would you explain Hamlet to someone who is new to the play?

If you enjoy a thriller and you want a sense of a ticking clock then Hamlet is a time bomb! You will recognise the structure of this story from many things that you’ve seen since Shakespeare’s time: everything is going down and one guy is trying to hold it all together.

Also, this is a play about politics and a play about government and a play about state and a play about succession. It’s about the biggest issues possible – and yet it’s also just about a lad who has got a grudge against his mum and that’s kind of where the play begins: “I can’t believe you’ve done this mum and I don’t know what this means for our relationship and actually I don’t want to see you right now”. To say that to your mum is not the kind of thing you expect, but everybody has felt a bit like that in family domestic relationships at some point. It’s just a case of how high the stakes are when you feel that.

Why does Hamlet still have such universal appeal?

Hamlet can speak to us all about what it is like to face some of the hardest decisions that you could ever have to face in life. Whether you like it or not, in your own life you will find yourself in Hamlet’s position. It probably won’t be because your father is killed by his brother! But you will be confronted with situations that you don’t know how to get out of; where you can’t see the wood for the trees but the pressure is on. Something will happen and you will work out what you are going to do, and through that you will discover what sort of person you are. And who knows how you will feel about that?

Hamlet is faced with a terrible dilemma: Is it right or wrong to kill the man who murdered his father? And he asks the audience: “What would you do?” Everyone in the room is on that journey with him, aren’t they.

Big time! Hamlet really puts the audience up in the driving seat with him. It feels like Hamlet’s signature tune is questions, questions, questions. Every question deserves an answer but the answer is in the audience. So you as the audience have got to respond: “Am I a villain? Am I a coward?”

And I think Hamlet is brilliantly constructed because you know how high the stakes are. If my dead father had just told me that he is in torment in this burning prison and that if ever I loved him – which of course I did – then I’d do something about it… well, you know, no pressure!

Hamlet is full of expressions that people commonly say today. “Woe is me” “Shuffle off this mortal coil” “That it should come to this!” “To thine own self be true” etc. Why do you think these are still so popular?

Part of the reason is that Shakespeare just finds a really economic way of expressing situations that we’ve all been in at some point in our lives. We’ve all felt embittered, we’ve all felt angry, we’ve all felt misunderstood. But the way that we’ve probably expressed it wouldn’t be poetic and wouldn’t have been in a way that you can say to yourself, “Yeah, that puts it in a nutshell”. Shakespeare does that and actually it’s good to know that we share that with other people. And it’s good to know that you can kind of take an objective glance at your feelings and hear them described in that way.

The Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet is touring regional centres, before being staged at the Canberra Theatre Centre (13 – 24 October) and Sydney Opera House (27 October – 6 December). Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

 Dr Nick Walton is Shakespeare Courses Development Director at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. Details at


 Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist. Twitter: @1andymclean


CUPID KILLS IT IN 2016 – A season preview with Artistic Director Peter Evans


This will be your first season as Bell Shakespeare’s sole Artistic Director. What can audiences expect?

I’m inviting the audience to come on a journey with me into the various corners you can explore with Shakespeare and the classics.

For the 2016 season I wanted to present an early Shakespeare play, Romeo And Juliet, and a late play, Othello. This means that, at the start and end of the year, people will see two unmistakably Shakespearean plays that are also very different from each other. And then The Literati is the chewy, sugary centre of the season. I’m really excited about that – it’s a contemporary Australian translation of Moliere’s comedy Les Femmes Savantes.

How are you approaching Romeo And Juliet?

With me taking over, lots of people are expecting our productions to be even more fiercely contemporary and modern. So I think some will be surprised that Romeo & Juliet is going to be rich and romantic and period inspired. We’re going to make some beautiful period Italian-style frocks and have some fun. It will be like going down the rabbit hole into an imaginary 16th century production. That’s what I really want people to experience.

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a museum piece. Far from it.  The production will still be contemporary, but when you see Romeo And Juliet in 16th century inspired costume, then you can fully go into the romance of the story. It will help us highlight aspects of the script such as the poetry and the sense of night and day. In Shakespeare’s time, there was no electric light so it was pitch black after nightfall. Romeo climbing over walls and breaking into someone’s house is incredibly dangerous. And new mornings are really important too in this play. Shakespeare describes the night and day so brilliantly and evocatively.

Listen to a podcast interview with Peter Evans about Romeo And Juliet here. 

And with Othello, what can you share with us about that?

That came about because, quite simply, I had an actor who was absolutely ready – right now – for the role of Othello. Ray Chong Nee was in our Players group touring schools in 2013. Then he was wonderful in our mainstage production of The Dream last year. I’m really excited to announce that he will be our Othello in 2016.

Othello will be absolutely contemporary and absolutely Australian. This year has been really interesting because we’ve seen the latent racism that can sit behind the Australian culture and then rear its ugly head. The play has got nothing to do with race and yet at the same time it has everything to do with race. I think it’s really interesting the way it filters through.

The play is also interesting because it focuses on men and this military mentality. The characters are about to go war but it never happens. They’re all in this sort of waiting game. In a way, the play is about a heroic solider who is particularly confident and at ease on a war footing but when in leisure, and particularly in love, he’s more out of his depth. I’m interested in that part of the play.

Listen to a podcast interview with Peter Evans about Othello here.

People might not know The Literati so well. What can you tell us about it?

One of the things I love about Moliere is the way that he tears into pretension. In this case he really lampoons people with literary pretensions. There’s a love story right in the middle of it, where two people just love each other and want to be together. The young woman, who is the real hero of it, is so streetwise and down to earth. But she’s up against her literary, social climbing mother and sister, who want her to marry someone else.

Where did the idea to stage The Literati come from?

It came slightly from left field. Lee Lewis [Artistic Director at the Griffin Theatre] contacted us about a partnership and we were so excited about it. The idea was to work with Justin Fleming’s new Australian translation of Moliere’s Les Femmes Savantes, and stage the play at the SBW Stables Theatre.

I loved the idea for practical reasons because it’s such a small cast and it has such strong female characters in it. Just like Moliere’s Tartuffe [Bell Shakespeare 2014] when we had so much fun with the maid, the stepmum and the daughter. In a way this play pushes that even further.

I think that Lee will have a ball directing this because she’s doing really extreme doubling of roles; the farcical aspects of the production will be heightened I think. And then on top of that to see this kind of play in the SBW Stables Theatre – I can’t wait to hear all of Justin’s words tumbling around that intimate venue.

Listen to a podcast interview with Peter Evans about The Literati here. 

What else will be keeping you busy in 2016?

We’ll be touring a schools production again. James Evans [Bell Shakespeare Associate Artist & Resident Artist in Education] is going to reimagine and redirect The Dream starring our Players in Sydney, Melbourne and – for the first time – Perth. The Dream is a wonderful introduction for younger students because it’s such a beautiful play and a bit of a wild ride. And our Actors At Work will do Romeo & Juliet plus we’re working on a new primary schools show that is really exciting. I can’t wait to see it all take shape.

For more details about Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 Season, and to book tickets, visit https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Interview by Andy McLean, freelance journalist and writer @1andymclean