— Jonathon Young. Photo by David Cooper
Hamlet has my vote as the greatest play ever written, and even a half-decent production will provide many reminders of why it is such an amazing feat of theatrical writing. An excellent production, like Bard’s current one, directed by Kim Collier and starring Jonathon Young, brings out the finer details of this beautifully complex, astonishingly rich and intelligent study of a sensitive young man’s initiation into the corrupted, corrupting world of adulthood.
It’s easy to forget that Hamlet is a student, called away—reluctantly—from his university studies in Wittenberg to return to Denmark upon his father’s death. When his father’s ghost commands him to “revenge my foul and most unnatural murder,” Hamlet doesn’t go right out and do it—and not because he can’t make up his mind. It’s the word of a ghost, for godsake, and Hamlet has certainly never killed a man. He’s already depressed about his mother’s “o’erhasty” marriage to his sleazy Uncle Claudius, who is now the King he has been told to murder. Then he learns that his girlfriend Ophelia is betraying him on behalf of her father, Polonius, Claudius’ First Minister. Then he discovers that his good friends from college, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are also betraying him to Claudius. How could this super-smart kid not be a mess: confused, paralyzed. Everything seems rotten in the state of Denmark.
Then he accidentally (or accidentally on purpose) kills Polonius, and Ophelia kills herself. Yikes. Thankfully, Hamlet has the friendship and loyalty of Horatio. And he’s a theatre-lover (and a pretty good actor himself), so the Players prove a distraction. But ultimately, Hamlet is on his own. He has to process by himself this complete overturning of the world he has known. He does so mainly in the brilliant series of soliloquies Shakespeare gives him, and in his great dramatic scenes with Ophelia (“Get thee to a nunnery”), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (“What a piece of work is a man”), and the gravediggers (“Alas, poor Yorick”). He has revelation after revelation about the ways of the world, the difficulties of moral action, and the meanings of being a (hu)man.
The challenge for the director and actor is how to handle this beast of a play—Shakespeare’s longest—without getting mired in Hamlet’s introspection; and at the same time, how to keep the action rolling towards its bloody conclusion without bulldozing the rich, subtle details of Hamlet’s internal struggles.
Collier has opted to cut the script significantly, play everything at a terrific pace and high dramatic level, and have Hamlet externalize his introspection. This didn’t work for the first soliloquy on opening night, when Young virtually shouted Hamlet’s “Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt” speech, no doubt boosted by a little too much opening night adrenaline. But he quickly settled in—no, that’s not right; Young’s Hamlet never settles—he quickly adjusted his volume, but kept up his energy, sweating right through his costume by the midpoint of the first act. This Hamlet drives the play with his athletic energy—Young’s lean, lithe, dynamic physicality is one of the things that makes his stage presence so magnetic—but Young also maintains a strong grasp of Hamlet’s through-line and a clear articulation of Shakespeare’s verse as Hamlet systematically unravels the play’s murder mystery and the mysteries of his own mortality.
Collier has chosen to give the play a contemporary setting, allowing for some clever, if relatively low-tech, Electric Company-style staging devices. Hamlet constantly holds a cellphone/remote with which he takes photos and switches on and off a soundtrack of hard rock, punk, or whatever suits his mood (good work by sound designers Torquil Campbell and Chris Dumont). The Players’ dumb show, The Mousetrap by which Hamlet “catch[es] the conscience of the King,” is done with live video that combines actors and stick figures (borrowing freely from the Puppet Theatre of Ali & Ali and the aXes of Evil). This is big fun.
Other devices don’t work so well: a TV screen that shows surveillance video is too small and buried way upstage left; and the use of iPads by Hamlet and Polonius is too awkwardly self-conscious. Ironically, the play’s strongest visual device is a bizarre happy face Hamlet draws in pencil and uses to great effect in a number of scenes.
There’s a lot of very good work here by a veteran cast. I especially liked Richard Newman’s stern Polonius—this guy is no fool. Duncan Fraser is impressive as Ghost and Gravedigger, and Jennifer Lines utterly convincing as a female Horatio. Bill Dow’s big, angry Claudius and Barbara Pollard’s down-to-earth Gertrude are worthy foils for Hamlet. Collier makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a wired, druggy, heterosexual couple of college kids, and Naomi Wright and Craig Erickson fully commit to the roles.
Rachel Cairns does a nice job of showing Ophelia’s anguish, and Todd Thomson is his usual solid self as Laertes. Kudos to Thomson and Young, and fight director Nick Harrison, for their complex, exciting sword fight at the end. Andrew McNee and Allan Zinyk shine in the small and usually thankless roles of Player King and Player Queen. One of my favourite moments in this production is Hamlet’s scene with the players, often a throwaway, which Collier and her actors have managed to make dramatic and profound.
I don’t understand some of Nancy Bryant’s costume choices. Claudius and Polonius in the opening scene look like they’re dressed for Las Vegas. And what’s with the ascots? There’s also a definite falling off of dramatic energy and momentum after intermission, especially when Hamlet is not on stage. But there’s little reason to carp over relatively minor details when this great play gets a treatment so worthy of it.