In your production, how are you exploring the political drama in Hamlet?

This play is about more than just two families imploding, and Hamlet is more than just a whinging boy who can’t get over his mother’s sexuality. Shakespeare housed this domestic drama within a political framework that is far more interesting. It allows Hamlet’s consciousness to be trapped inside something bigger than just his family – it’s trapped into a way of life that he simply can’t countenance.

Norway and Denmark have been in an enormous arms race – a real Cold War – that is beautifully described at the start of the play. Horatio and Marcellus talk about how the armament factories are building night and day (“…this sweaty haste doth make the night joint-labourer with the day”) and the endless endeavours of shipwrights and so you get this powerful Cold War and the strong government focus on border control.

Besides the external threat, there’s plenty of political intrigue within the Danish court isn’t there.

Absolutely. The play begins with a guard on border control but ironically he’s not seeing an external enemy, he’s seeing a ghost. And Horatio fears the ghost might be privy to his country’s fate.

What we learned from the Cold War and what we’re learning from Australia right now or from Edward Snowden or Julian Assange is that we’re in a world where governments feel they need to protect the citizenry from powerful perceived external threats. What happens is that the citizens become heavily seduced by the need to give up their personal freedoms – their freedom of speech, their freedom of thought. Their telephones are hacked and their lives are spied upon. It’s that very East German quality, which we thought we were safe from in a country like Australia but that we’ve quickly learned that we’re not.

So the Cold War, and war more generally in the sense of an external threat, is central to the true telling of the story of Hamlet. It gives a character like Polonius the permission to sneak inside bedrooms and inside the heads of everyone in Denmark.

What do you hope audiences take from that?

The ultimate point I try to make in the production is that the essence of tragedy is simply this: We spend our lives arming ourselves against what we perceive are our external threats – the things that we think are going to come across our borders – and Australia is extremely guilty of this. We fear what will happen to us if we let the wrong people in. Yet tragedy is there to teach us that we are actually the problem and the problem is already inside the fence. We are the greatest danger to ourselves and that’s what tragedy is trying to teach us. Denmark is arming itself for a giant external political threat but the threat is actually sitting on the throne. And the only person who can stop it [Hamlet] is too much of an enemy to himself to do anything about it.

This tension between the political and the personal is everywhere in the play isn’t it.

Yes it is. The play is about grief and suppression of grief and I think that there’s another very political thing that Shakespeare is saying. In Catholicism, funeral rites and grieving in England were very, very different. Under the Tudors, when the Church became Protestant and Catholicism was wiped out, all the rules were changed about how you were permitted to grieve. They pulled all the theatre and all of the ritual out of the grieving process. You can almost feel William Shakespeare’s anger about that in Hamlet.

The play is all about a group of young people who lose their parents, but not one of them is permitted to grieve. Hamlet’s first scene in the play has his mother and his uncle absolutely condemning him – quite brutally – for the fact that he’s still grieving his father a month after the death. Then Ophelia’s madness is entirely founded in the notion that her father disappears off the face of the earth; she had no funeral, no ritual at which she could offer her deep sadness. So her mind breaks and she conducts a funeral in her own imagination, handing out flowers and singing eulogies.

The play is a very powerful expression of how we are forced by society to bottle up our grief and not express ourselves.

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/

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