Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hamlet (Toronto)

For an English major who only took one course on Shakespeare, I have very strong ideas about Hamlet. Usually these keep me from enjoying any production because the director's choices will inevitably fail to line up with my expectations.

I thought the same would happen when I attended Tarragon Theatre's 2018 production. Instead, I found myself captivated by a minimalist production of Hamlet set to live music.

Richard Rose and Thomas Ryder Payne's Hamlet begins as soon as the lights go down. There is no context, no preamble or pre-show speech, but suddenly the lights change. The light blasts at the audience through an opaque fog, two characters appear, and it begins.

Throughout the play, sound and lighting creates another character--the atmosphere of Denmark. With the set of a rock concert, only a few feet were left at the front of the stage for the playing space. But as the actors move between making the music behind the play and stepping into the playing space, it never feels like a limit. Or at least, it feels like one that makes sense in the "prison" of Denmark.

Hamlet ensemble. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The rock and roll setting leans into Hamlet's teenage angst. Hamlet (Noah Reid) wears a hole-y hoodie the entire time and the cast passes microphones back and forth, a la Spring Awakening. Leaning into this, instead of away from it, focuses the production on the big dramatic gestures and the lyric images woven into all of Hamlet's language instead of the psychological motivations of each character.

I must credit the audience on the night I saw the show with some of the teenage angst. A group of young adults sitting next to me reacted in such noisy and big ways to the action on stage that I could not ignore them. They laughed and pointed throughout the show, even crying audibly when Hamlet gave his big act three "To be or not to be" soliloquy. I could have been annoyed, but they enhanced my experience instead of detracting from it. I hope more teenagers feel that much when they go to the theatre, for the Bard or new plays.

All of the performances impressed me, from Nigel Shawn Williams and Tantoo Cardinal's delusional royal couple to the folksy rendering of the Players, but I was most pleased with Ophelia and her final scene. In every other production of Hamlet that I have seen, Ophelia is always played as if there is no reason for her to be acting unstable. Oddly enough, this production's penchant for teenage angst did not render Ophelia a silly little girl, but a woman lost and obviously grieving her father as she dances with and hugs Polonius's empty blazer.

When I have read Hamlet or seen it in the past, I have left considering the deep ethical questions it brings up. I thought that's what this great Shakespearean tragedy was supposed to do. Experiencing Richard Rose's latest production reminded me that I don't have to fall into Hamlet's existential crisis; I can appreciate the emotional fireworks as art.

*Community Night preview, complimentary ticket for volunteer work.

No comments: