by William Shakespeare
Bard on the Beach
Vanier Park
June 30-September 23
604-739-0559 www.bardonthebeach.org

Everyone knows that Hamlet is one of the all-time great plays. But when you’re lucky enough to get a production of it this good, you realize just how superior it is to whatever might be in second place.

Director Dean Paul Gibson goes for a clean, unadorned look and style, and a formidable pace. He stages the play in the round in the intimacy of Bard’s small tent with seating only three rows deep. There’s no scenery on Kevin McAllister’s bare oval platform stage, painted the red and white of the Danish flag, over and around which the action flows non-stop.

Mara Gottler dresses the actors in contemporary business suits or combat gear with everyone in black or gray but Ophelia, who wears white. Apart from Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe’s electronic sound effects, there are no attempts to play up the modern angle—nobody says “dude” or uses a cellphone.

Gibson and his sterling cast resist every temptation to showboat. Andrew Wheeler’s Claudius, for instance, is not a monster, just a man. There’s nothing lascivious in his relationship with Gertrude (Colleen Wheeler). The most they do is hold hands, which is enough to send Hamlet reeling. Nor does Hamlet’s relationship with his mother need any oedipal overtones to make their physical confrontation after the Mousetrap play astonishingly powerful. Even David Marr’s Polonius, tip-toeing along the edge of funny-voiced caricature, manages to maintain a realistic, foolish dignity.

This straightforward approach accentuates the effectiveness of the stylized elements. When the Ghost first appears on the ramparts he’s invisible to us, making his leap out of the grave to confront Hamlet doubly intense. As Ghost and Player, Russell Roberts is superb. As the Gravedigger, he’s involved in the show’s most visually exciting moment when Ophelia, in the wedding dress she might have worn to marry Hamlet, walks into her grave in a beautiful ghoulish ballet. The stunning Moya O’Connell may be the best Ophelia I’ve yet seen.

Then there’s Bob Frazer’s marvelous Hamlet. Frazer’s boy-next-door good looks and sweet-natured manner make him immediately sympathetic. He’s young, this Prince, not especially brooding or deep. In fact he barely scratches the surface of some of his early soliloquies—“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,” “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I.”

But like Hamlet, Frazer grows into his tragic role. He’s brilliant when he lets himself go: the “nunnery” scene with Ophelia, like the closet scene with Gertrude, is breathtaking, almost unbearable. But he also learns to find a contained dignity in his bitter baiting of ex-friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Stephen Holmes and Haig Sutherland) and his apology to Laertes (Michael Scholar, Jr.) shortly before they kill each other in Nick Harrison’s magnificently choreographed duel.

If you see only one play this summer, be sure to make it Bard on the Beach’s Hamlet.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Friday, July 8, 2005 4:30 PM
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