by Lynn on April 27, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed and Adapted by Ravi Jain
Set and costumes designed by Lorenzo Savoini
Lighting by Andre du Toit
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Cast: Dawn Jani Birley
Miriam Fernandes
Jeff Ho
Christine Horne
Hannah Miller
Rick Roberts
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah
Karen Robinson
Maria Vacratsis

A fearless, imaginative reimagining of Hamlet that consistently challenges our perceptions.

The Story. You know the story. Prince Hamlet grieving for his dead father; furious at his mother who married his uncle (his late father’s brother) two months after the funeral; sees his father’s ghost who says he was murdered, and then Hamlet goes into action plotting to prove the ghost right. It works out badly for everybody. It is a murder mystery, a psychological thriller, a political jockeying for power and an examination of what love, power, jealousy, deception and grief can do to people and relationships. Among many other things.

The Production. Director Ravi Jain turns all out preconceptions and perceptions about Hamlet on its ear.

The cast enters and fans out along the stage. They introduce themselves by name, signing (American Sign Language) their names as say who they are playing. When Dawn Jani Birley signs her name and character, what she is saying is vocally interpreted by someone else in the cast. Ms Birley is deaf and signs her part and others.

The name of his theatre company is invoked at every turn. Why not cast a woman (Christine Horne) as Prince Hamlet? Why not cast a man (Jeff Ho) as Ophelia? Why not cast women as Polonius (Maria Vacratsis), Laertes (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, and Horatio (Dawn Jani Birley)?

Lorenzo Savoini has designed a spare set. A rectangular with a stylish wood design is the playing area. Mounds of dark earth are strategically placed around the playing area that will later represent the gravedigger’s work. Andre du Toit’s lighting is arresting and evocative.

Ravi Jain has adapted the play as well as directs it. The first atmospheric scene that illustrates that there is something spooky going on in Denmark, as well as something rotten, has been cut. We are plunged right into the play proper with Hamlet (Christine Horne) showing all the signs of grief and anger. Horne seems gaunt in her black loose fitting sweater and black pants. Her long hair is unkempt. This is a person who does not care about appearance because she is over-come with grief. It’s almost debilitating. (Horne is not playing Hamlet as a woman…she is playing Hamlet as written. We can imagine her as him.). There is deep mourning here. There is also anger when she confronts Claudius (Rick Roberts) and Gertrude (Karen Robinson).

From the physical playing it’s obvious that Claudius and Gertrude are sexually charged with each other. He is randy, boyish, and stylishly hip with his long hair, cream coloured suit and shoes with no socks. Gertrude is frisky in her skirt bursting with bright colours, ready to follow Claudius anywhere for a romp in the sheets. Hamlet Senior we are told was killed while he took a nap in his garden. One gets the impression that Claudius, as played by the take-charge-Rick Roberts never took a nap in his life. You assume Claudius and Gertrude were having an affair for a while.

Ophelia has a lot to contend with. Her beloved brother Laertes has left for France. Her father spies on her when she talks to Hamlet. Hamlet rebukes her and says he never loved her. And her father is killed by her boyfriend. No wonder the young woman is fragile-minded. Jeff Ho portrays a delicate, graceful young woman who is trying to hang on to the love of her troubled man. We see the extent that Ophelia suffers because of the exquisite playing by Jeff Ho and the clarity of Ravi Jain’s direction. Ophelia is alone after Hamlet leaves her and she just collapses in despair, leaning against a wall and sliding down it to the floor. In a way this is a missing link to Ophelia going to the river and drowning herself. We witness the total despair of that character in her solitary moment.

Dawn Jani Birley plays Horatio with energy and watchfulness. Birley also signs her part because she is deaf. She also acts as an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter for the other parts of the play. When she is playing (signing) her part there is a vocal rendering from ‘the wings’ of what Horatio is saying. On some occasions there is no vocal interpretation and it’s those moments when I think one must be familiar with the play to know what is missing. It happens a few times, but not enough to be problematic.

Maria Vacratsis is a matter-of-fact Polonius. She wears a dark suit and plays him as a confident, political animal. Polonius is wily. He is manipulative and he has little tenderness for Ophelia. You sense with this performance that it is all politically charged, to play the game of being in that sinister world and making sure to play all the angles.

In a change of convention we watch Polonius from behind the arras as he listens to the unseen Gertrude and Hamlet (they do their scene down the trap beneath the stage) and when Polonius cries out when he thinks Gertrude is in trouble it’s assumed/mimed that he’s been stabbed. Suspension of disbelief. Love it.

In the final scene in which Hamlet and Laertes have their sword fight, it’s all verbalized as those characters involved kneel on the stage facing up stage, as the dialogue gets slower and slower. In its way tension builds but in a different way from watching a fast, furious sword fight.

Comment. In the theatre we are asked to suspend our disbelief in so many ways. Prince Hamlet gives that suspension of disbelief a work-out and why not. You never get the impression with this re-thinking of Hamlet that Ravi Jain is trying to be provocative for its own sake. He is making us think in a different way. I also get the sense that this radical interpretation gets more people into the theatre that might not have come. I note many people in the lobby who are ‘talking’ to each other by signing. That one of the actors is deaf and signs her part has attracted people who are hearing impaired to the theatre. A couple in the audience spend the time before the show in deep conversation. Both are signing. She is very energetic with her hands and facial expressions. He is more ‘subdued’ in his expression. When the production begins they hold hands. Occasionally they comment on what is going on; hands ‘quietly’ signing. When they finish their comments they go back to holding hands. I can cope with this kind of ‘talking’ during a play for ever.

The place is packed with an audience eager for this kind of challenge. I believe the run is sold out. Fabulous.

A Why Not Theatre production in association with Soulpepper Theatre Company.

First Performance: April 17, 2017.
Saw it: April 22, 2017.
Closes: April 29, 2017.
Cast: 9
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.