Thursday, June 11, 2015

To Be: The Stratford Festival's Hamlet

Some people say William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is his best play. Some say it is the best play in the English language. Personally, I’d lean toward the latter. The Bard’s great tragedy has it all, wrapped in one poetic, dramatic package: politics, family and political intrigue, jealousy, revenge, incest, madness, a ghost – all are integral parts of the work. Hamlet also contains several meaty, challenging roles, most especially the protagonist and title character, which may be the most demanding part in theatre, and is certainly one against which great actors define themselves. And whatever else you say about it, Hamlet is undeniably the most quoted work in the English language, and includes the single most quoted line: “To be or not to be.” The text is extraordinary. It seems as though every other line has entered our everyday language, in whole or in part: “To thine own self be true”; “To sleep, perchance to dream”; “Brevity is the soul of wit”; “Sweets to the sweet”; “Good-night, sweet prince”; “The lady doth protest too much”; “The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape”; and, of course, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” The list is nearly endless.

Take an excellent play and give it an excellent production, fill the stage with excellent actors, and you get excellence squared, if not cubed. The Stratford Festival’s Hamlet, directed by festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, is one such excellent show, easily in my top three, and I've seen a lot of Hamlets (and variations/spin-offs/excerpts/etc.) over the years, more than I can count. In the lead, Jonathan Goad was superb, a young talent giving a veteran-savvy performance. Adrienne Gould is convincing and heart-breaking as the lovelorn Ophelia, Geraint Wyn Davies effortlessly commands attention as a slick, glad-handing Claudius (and doubles as the Ghost), and Seana McKenna portrayal of a Gertrude torn between lust and guilt is impeccable. Tom Rooney is the funniest Polonius in memory, playing the counselor with an earnest loquaciousness that strikes just the right note of humour in a play not deep in laughs. Mike Shara turns in a finely tuned performance as the troubled Laertes, a court fixture whose life suddenly goes to hell as a result of Hamlet’s machinations. In fact, the cast is outstanding from top to bottom. All of the readings are clear and easy to follow, almost conversational, which paradoxically allows the poetry of the text to glow. Everyone in the cast speaks Shakespeare beautifully.

The Stratford play’s early scenes, featuring the Ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, are among the most dramatic I’ve witnessed, if perhaps more anguished than scary (though the Ghost’s echoing “Swear … swear … swear” raised my hackles). This is a relatively stripped-down production. The set and the costumes, from veteran designer Teresa Przybylski, are mostly in black or dark earth tones, with bright-coloured accents – most notably Gertrude and Claudius’s costumes in the opening scenes, a decidedly unfunereal red gown and a white uniform, respectively. Scene changes are marked by shifting the monolithic black boxes of the set and Michael Walton’s subtle, clever lighting designs. All of which, incidentally, puts the emphasis back on the words. This bold production not only respects the text, it allows the script to carry the show, which is not always the case.

Hamlet is at Stratford’s Festival Theatre until Oct. 11. If you have to pick one Shakespeare play to see this year, there’s no contest: See this one.

 - Jack Kirchhoff is a writer and editor in Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant and beautifully written review! Can't wait to see the play!