Prince Hamlet: the play’s the thing—sometimes

Bronwen-SharpDawn Jani Birley makes a compelling Horatio in Prince Hamlet. (Photo by Bronwen Sharp)

This Hamlet is like a priceless fabric with a lot of holes in it.

Director Ravi Jain has conceived and cast this production with refreshing inclusivity: the players are racially diverse, seven out of nine performers are women, there are multiple gender reversals in the casting, and the production is bilingual: Dawn Jani Birley, who is deaf, plays Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, and the story unfolds in both English and American Sign Language.

In many instances, the results are revelatory. Christine Horne’s Prince is the most original, the most mentally unstable, and by far the wittiest Hamlet I’ve seen. Jain and Horne establish the edge of craziness early: near the top of the show, when Hamlet sees his father’s ghost on the ramparts, Hamlet speaks the ghost’s lines, possessed by a kind of ecstasy. (I’m using male pronouns because the characters maintain their original gender identities.)

Horne has a marvelous ability to appear to discover the text as she pronounces it. The fact that she speaks Hamlet’s lines with contemporary inflection not only increases this sense of immediacy, it also brings the force of Hamlet’s wit into this century. When Horne’s Hamlet is toying with Polonius or mocking his mother Gertrude for her lasciviousness, the culturally familiar edge of sarcastic playfulness allows his jokes to land fresh—and makes it clear that he’s the smartest person in the castle.

Because both Horne as Hamlet and Jeff Ho as Ophelia play their scenes together with such vulnerability, the centrality of the romance between these two characters has never been clearer to me. Horne’s Hamlet, already traumatized his mother’s hasty remarriage after his father’s death, is palpably devastated by what he sees as Ophelia’s betrayal. And Ho’s Ophelia is heartbreakingly powerless, an innocent who hastens multiple tragedies because she obeys her father. More than once, Ho’s work brought me to tears.

The third extraordinary performance in this production is Birley’s Horatio. Birley is a constant presence onstage and her signing as well as the signing of other actors grounds the evening in expressive physicality. Early on, when King Hamlet’s ghost was speaking through his son, Birley’s entire body captured the spectre’s quavering tone. And, in Horatio’s final speech, which is soundless—“Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to they rest”, Birley left me breathless.

As I said, however, there are holes.

Rick Roberts’s Claudius is disappointing. This Claudius is appropriately louche, but he’s also a featherweight: not for a minute did I believe that he was capable of murder—and, without a credible antagonist, the story loses shape.

Casting a woman as Hamlet blunts the oedipal edge of the scene in which the Prince confronts his mother Gertrude about having sex with his father’s brother, and the relative superficiality of Karen Robinson’s Gertrude doesn’t help.

The gravedigger scene is even more problematic and the fault here lies squarely with Jain’s direction rather than Miriam Fernandes’s sprightly performance as the workman. Jain has the gravedigger sing repeated rounds of what sounds like a Danish folk song and make little piles of dirt that will serve as seats in an ensuing scene. Virtually all of the shtick is pointless.

Unfortunately, this cavalier attitude towards pace is typical of the evening. Almost every time his production starts to gain momentum, Jain fritters it away.

On opening night, it felt like the company wasn’t vocally prepared to play the size of the Frederic Wood Theatre. Scenes played upstage were often inaudible—even from my seat in the fourth row. Though the final duel is imaginatively presented, with Birnley miming the swordplay with her fingers, the speakers in that scene have their backs to the audience and only some of them know how to make themselves heard in that position.

Although it’s effectively spooky sometimes and there’s a consistent elegance to it, Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design never shuts up. Several times, I just wanted to turn off the radio and listen to what the characters were saying.

In terms of inclusivity and innovation, Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet is a landmark production. In terms of theatrical engagement, it comes and—too often— goes.

PRINCE HAMLET William Shakespeare’s Hamletadapted and directed by Ravi Jain. A Why Not Theatre production. At the Frederic Wood Theatre as part of the PuSh Festival on Wednesday, January 23.  Continues until January 27.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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