Review: HAMLET

by Lynn on January 14, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer


Noah Reid
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann


At the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Richard Rose

Sound design and music director, Thomas Ryder Payne

Lighting by Jason Hand

Costumes by Kathleen Johnston

Cast: Tiffany Ayalik

Rachel Cairns

Tantoo Cardinal

Beau Dixon

Greg Gale

Jesse LaVercombe

Brandon McGibbon

Jack Nicholsen

Noah Reid

Cliff Saunders

Nigel Shawn Williams

Hamlet presented as a rock concert with the text being the ‘lyrics’. The question is why? What is to be revealed with this concept when almost all subtlety, nuance and detail are ignored. 

 The Story. You know the story unless you’ve been in a cave in Antarctica for 500 years.

 The Production. The production is wild. Director Richard Rose has conceived this as an old fashioned rock concert with the text of Hamlet  being the lyrics. Every character holds an old-fashioned wireless microphone that they speak into when they talk to one another.  Sometimes they lean forward as rock singers do when singing to other singers.

Often they speak in various styles of music—rap, hip hop (Imagine it, Shakespeare’s words presented like a rap song).

Often speeches are sung—all the music was composed and arranged by the ensemble. Many actors in the production also play musical instruments during the production: piano, guitar, drums, ukulele and accordion. Most of the band is composed of the actors in the production. But occasionally the band is so loud that you can’t make out what the actor is singing—I try to hear if it was by any chance Shakespeare’s words, but could not tell.

Brandon McGibbon is impressive playing various guitars. And he is an interesting as a long-haired, lanky, musician as Laertes. Beau Dixon is fabulous on the drums, whacking out complex percussive patterns, providing atmospheric sound and rhythm and effective in his small roles of Bernardo and the Player Queen.

There always seems to be an underscore of music or sound (Thomas Ryder Payne) that is very atmospheric, but I wonder why Shakespeare needs added sound effects to heighten emotion or tension that should be created by the words and proper acting.

This production is very spare: four or five metal chairs, a piano over there and an expensive drum-kit at the centre of way up stage. Indeed there is no credit for a stage designer.

Often the very loud band is a blessing because it drowns out the many actors on that stage who don’t have much of an idea of how to speak Shakespeare’s language, or understand his poetry, or just get the nuances. In many instances lines are cut making the play seem spare as well, even at three hours.

For example, much of the speeches of Polonius (Cliff Saunders) are cut (especially in his advice to Laertes) thus making him seem like a superficial buffoon instead of a wily politician.

There are so many layers to this play and too many of them are not explored. For example: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude married Claudius, her brother-in-law, just two months after her husband Hamlet Sr. died.  This has so many implications and possibilities for character development and none more than in the Mousetrap scene.

This is a scene that Hamlet has the visiting players play out: the murder of a king by a man who marries the dead man’s wife. This therefore echoes the murder Hamlet Sr. by his brother Claudius, and Hamlet has it played out in front of Claudius and Gertrude.

Yet there is Tantoo Cardinal as Gertrude, listening and watching the scene without a hint that she realizes how similar that story is to what happened in her life. Not a hint. Claudius certainly gets it.  Was Cardinal directed to act uninvolved? Why? What a waste of an opportunity to make Gertrude into a complex woman, instead of this uninvolved person. Makes no sense.

Richard Rose’s staging of the final scene further robs the production of nuance. Gertrude is way over here and drinks from the poisoned cup. Claudius is way over there and tells her not to drink from it (because he knows it’s poisoned). Hamlet and Laertes are sword fighting in the middle. Where does the audience look? I’m looking at Gertrude to see if she twigs that Claudius has poisoned the drink meant for her son. Nope, she just staggers and says: “No, no, the cup, the cup….” and collapses. The scene is so scattered we can’t get the full sense of whether she pins Claudius with a stare or not before she collapses. Frustrating.

The one solid saving grace is Noah Reid as Hamlet. He is a thoughtful, emotional Hamlet. He’s brooding, heartsick, and a bit of a hot-head.  And he plays the ukulele and accordion with aplomb. He more than any other actor in the production captures the essence of his character.

I don’t doubt the commitment of the ensemble of this pared down production. All that rock music creates a production that ‘flattens’ the play into this deadly dull lump.

Comment. What’s the point of all this? Well, beats me.  Director Richard Rose is a smart man. He loves Shakespeare. I can appreciate that a director gets an idea for a concept and then runs with it. And honestly I tried to parse out the various directorial choices to see what Mr. Rose wanted us to see. Why does Hamlet say the “To be, or not to be” speech without any kind of amplification and the rest is said with a microphone? Why is Ophelia’s first speech said without a hand held microphone but she wears a body microphone to amplify her voice and then uses the hand held mic thereafter? Why is there a cross-out stroke through the title in the program and on the posters? How does using the rock concert setting illuminate the play? Questions, questions, and I’m no closer to any answers in this frustrating, unsatisfying production.

Produced by Tarragon Theatre

Opened: Jan. 10, 2018.

Closes: Feb. 11, 2018.

Running Time: 3 hours.



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