Review: HAMLET

by Lynn on June 8, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Hamlet continues at the Stratford Festival.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Peter Pasyk

Set designed by Patrick Lavender

Costumes by Michelle Bohm

Lighting designed by Kimberly Purtell

Composer and sound designed by Richard Feren

Cast: Graham Abbey

Maev Beaty

Austin Eckert

Jakob Ehman

Ijeoma Emesowum

Matthew Kabwe

John Kirkpatrick

Kevin Kruchkywich

Josue Laboucane

Andrea Rankin

Anthony Santiago

Tyrone Savage

Michael Spencer-Davis

Norman Yeung

And others.

Interesting attempt by director Peter Pasik to freshen up Hamlet resulting in some less than helpful decisions for the play.  But at the centre is the assured, gripping performance of Amaka Umeh as Hamlet.

The Story. Prince Hamlet is in mourning. His beloved father Hamlet Sr. died suddenly two months ago and his mother, Queen Gertrude, married Claudius, Hamlet Sr’s brother, almost immediately. This swiftness adds to Hamlet’s concern. He has come home to Elsinore from school in Wittenberg to mourn his father’s death rather than celebrate his mother’s  marriage.

And strange things are happening in Elsinore. There is talk of the Ghost of Hamlet Sr. being spotted roaming by palace guards who are on duty at night. Hamlet is alerted. He ‘meets’ the Ghost who says he was poisoned by his brother, Claudius. This enrages Hamlet and he surges into action to cut himself off from his girlfriend Ophelia and plot the downfall of his uncle. It’s messy and ends badly for everybody except Horatio, Hamlet’s trusted school friend.

The Production and comment. The production was delayed for about two years because of COVID and then other blips and delays interfered, and finally, Hamlet  opened this 70th celebratory season of the Stratford Festival, with the gifted Amaka Umeh as Hamlet, as planned.

I can appreciate a young director, like Peter Pasyk, who is given a plum assignment such as Hamlet at a prestigious theatre festival such as Stratford, and he wants to flex his creative muscles and breathe new life into the piece, add a modern component that speaks to a different audience. I get it. But as Pasyk cut the play and added and melded scenes, I had to wonder what the point was if the power of the play was diminished. After all, the reason we are in the room is the play.

Pasyk has set the play in modern times. Michelle Bohen’s costumes for the men are stylish suits, understated but fashionable clothes for Gertrude (Maev Beaty), and hip clothes for Hamlet’s school friends and Ophelia (Andrea Rankin). Horatio (Jakob Ehman) is in casual wear. Hamlet, as befitting a grieving son, wears a black doublet, skinny black pants and boots. Considering  our  technical age, cell phones are used, especially by Polonius to see what messages Hamlet sent Ophelia for any incriminating comments. When Polonius (Michael Spencer-Davis) and Claudius (Graham Abbey) eavesdrop on a conversation Ophelia is to have with Hamlet, the Palace tech-guy puts a ‘wire’ on her so they could over hear the comments. Lots of security people in that palace talk into their wrist watches to communicate with each other. I didn’t see any ear wires for the same purpose, but perhaps I just didn’t see such a device in the darkness of certain scenes in Kimberly Purtell’s  lighting design.

As the audience files into the theatre, an imposing man in a suit and wearing a dark face mask, surveys the audience from edge of the stage. Behind him is a see through rectangle and in it is the body of Hamlet Sr. laying in state. When the production starts proper, the man is now at the top of the balcony overlooking the audience and the body of the dead king. The man carefully takes off his mask and moves his mouth around in pronounced movements as if his face and mouth have been encased in that mask for two years. The audience laughs because they get the joke—they all have been wearing that confining mask for two years and this is perhaps the first time for many people to be in a theatre with others.

Then the guard looks down on the body of the late king laying in state and he goes down to stage level, looks over into the box of the king and puts his hands on the sides of the box for a closer look,  which sets off the alarm that indicates someone is touching the box. A double laugh here too.  

Here’s the problem, with acknowledging that joke of the mask and the inadvertent setting off of the alarm,  it upstages one of the most gripping first scenes of any play, never mind Shakespeare, that something is terrifying the people on guard at that palace and it’s the ghost of Hamlet Sr. (Matthew Kabwe). The guards are so spooked that even when they don’t hear something in the gloom, they yell: “Who’s there!” The actors have to work awfully hard to get the audience back into the play with that ‘original’ first scene and truth to tell, as it was played on that small balcony with a mirrored wall behind them, the scene is confusing and muddy.  

I wonder why director Peter Pasyk did that to the play, upstage it with ‘business?’ I  wonder where the body is in the palace in such a clear box/coffin/casket ? Is he still laying in state two months after his death and just after Gertrude and Claudus got married? Why? Is that a custom in Denmark to have the body visible like Lenin’s tomb? And really, the guard wouldn’t know that the casket was ‘armed’ if someone touched it?  I don’t think so, not even if he just got the guarding-gig. Logic does have to enter into a director’s choices, it’s not just on a whim.

Hamlet is delighted when he’s told the Players have arrived. He’s loved their work in the past and is familiar with their abilities, especially with the Player King (Anthony Santiago). So again it’s puzzling why Peter Pasyk inserted a scene in which the Players sing a lilting song to a ukulele accompaniment, which diminishes them to the level of a ‘hippy group’ of troubadours. Again it diminishes their importance.

The Mousetrap Scene where Hamlet will catch the conscience of the king and trap him in his deceit is effective when Claudius gradually sees what is happening there—he’s faced with how he managed to kill his brother—yells for  “Light!! Give me some light!” and the whole auditorium snaps up with light for intermission. Very effective.

Claudius has a scene after this in which he faces his darkness at what he’s done. He usually is at prayer trying to find solace, but also to acknowledge what he’s done. Pasyk has decided to have Claudius offer part of his confession to Polonius, telling him what he did. I suck air really slowly here. Why on earth would you do that—share this information with another member of court? It makes no sense. Is this improving on Shakespeare? I think not. Is this trying to show that Polonius is also complicit in what is going on there? We know that. It’s in the words of the play! Look how he treats his daughter. We don’t need the obvious underlined. Again this is a mystifying decision by the director, that again weakens the play.

Graham Abbey is a fascinating, charming Claudius, so convincing as a caring step-father, and Michael Spencer-Davis is a lively Polonius, Maev Beaty seems almost understated as Gertrude and Andrea Rankin is fragile-minded as Ophelia. So much of this production seems half-baked. It’s cut so much that often the reasons for lines are removed. I don’t think it’s enough to know that Laertes (Austin Eckert)  has a powerful poison that he will use to win his sword-fight with Hamlet, we have to know that he bought it from ‘a mountebank’ in France. That’s a fascinating look into the kind of man Laertes is, and that he purposefully bought it is cut from his speech. Mystifying. So much of this production requires further, deeper thought so that choices make sense. Up to a point it’s “Hamlet-Lite” = Hamlite.

But  the play rests on the shoulders of Amaka Umeh as Hamlet. This is a performance brimming with intelligence, energy, dazzling wit, confidence in the language and how to speak it, and a bracing, compelling  presence. The performance is fearless, quixotic, moving and heart-breaking. At one point Hamlet removes his doublet to reveal a kind of undershirt. What we see are protuberances that are either small breasts or pectoral muscles. It’s the first time there is even a thought to the gender of the actor playing the lead because the performance is so assured in realizing the depth of the character. Talent will all. Talent removes even the thought of knowing the gender of the actor playing Hamlet.

At the bow, a beaming Amaka Umeh leads the company in a unified bow from the waist. Then Amaka Umeh steps forward for the ‘star-bow’ and with a flourish performs the most elaborate theatrical courtesy you ever saw, informing one and all that one gifted woman played one of the hardest parts in literature, and she was brilliant.    

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Continues at the Stratford Festival.

Running time: 3 hours, 1 intermission.


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