january 2019 | Volume 175
Photography by Bronwen Sharp.
Adapted by Ravi Jain
Why Not Theatre
PuSh International Performing Arts Festival
Frederic Theatre UBC
Ravi Jain’s Why Not Theatre production of Prince Hamlet at the PuSh Festival is remarkable and unique, even if it tries to sustain its uniqueness for a little too long.
All Shakespeare’s characters but Claudius (Rick Roberts) and Gertrude (Karen Robinson) are cross-gendered, and there are only two men in the very fine cast. Jain has cut the script and chopped it up so that some scenes are intercut and some soliloquies appear out of order.
He stages it in stylized modern dress on a mostly bare platform stage backed with mirrors and surrounded by small piles of dirt (credit Lorenzo Savoini for the excellent set and costume design). Andre Du Toit’s stark lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s startling, if overused, electronic sound score help carve out the tragedy.
But the central, most startling production device is the extensive use of American Sign Language (ASL). Horatio, played by the remarkable Dawn Jani Birley, never speaks except in ASL, and remains onstage signing all the other characters’ dialogue. She even “stages” the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes using only her hands.
The other actors also use ASL in addition to their oral speech, especially Christine Horne’s wonderful Hamlet in her scenes with Horatio.
Who knew how dramatic, melodramatic and funny sign language could be? Well, obviously, the many deaf audience members who attended Wednesday’s opening night performance, laughing in places where ASL-illiterates like me saw nothing particularly funny.
What I saw was a Hamlet that both honours Shakespeare’s brilliant play and extraordinary use of English, and projects the story in two languages simultaneously.
Horne does excellent work as Hamlet, making great sense of the Prince’s antic disposition in scenes with Claudius, Polonius (Barbara Gordon), Ophelia (Jeff Ho), and Rosenkranz (Miriam Fernandes) and Guildenstern (Hannah Miller).
She also very nicely shows us the somewhat histrionic “real” Hamlet in interactions with Horatio and Laertes (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah). And she signs with a vengeance.
The signing is impressive and often fun, especially when Hamlet starts speaking a famous speech—“The play’s the thing …”—only to complete it in ASL. But midway through some of the play’s less exciting scenes in act two, I was wishing that long sections of signed, unspoken dialogue could have been cut or at least shortened. The play runs officially only 2:30, but the second act feels long.
Jain has cut the character of Fortinbras. So when Hamlet in his death throes gasps his last line, “The rest is silence,” Horatio literally ends the play conveying his coda silently, in eloquent ASL.
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