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HAMLET: Unexpected Elsinore

by | Jun 25, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

Clarity is both the blessing and the curse of director Stephen Drover’s production of Hamlet — mostly the blessing. I was grateful to have some parts of the story more clearly defined than they’ve ever been for me. But it’s also important to remember that the play is about introspection — and doubt — so an excess of certainty can become a problem.

The fundamental gift of Drover’s reading is his vivid evocation of the weight of the state. When I heard Mary Jane Coomber’s preshow music, Strauss waltzes, and saw Pam Johnson’s set, an enormous, ostentatious library, I thought, “Even allegorically, what does this have to do with the Danish royal seat of Elsinore in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, when Hamlet takes place?” But the answer soon became obvious: Drover’s production is set in the current day, but a defining force in Hamlet, whenever it’s set, is the systemic oppressiveness of the court, the authority, supported by wealth, that all the characters must contend with.

If you’re not familiar with the plot, here’s a quick review. The title character, the Prince of Denmark, is troubled by the suspicious death of his father, King Hamlet, and the “o’er hasty marriage” of his mother Queen Gertrude to his uncle, who has become King Claudius. Encouraged by a ghost that takes the form of his dead dad and confirms his suspicions that Claudius murdered Hamlet Sr., Hamlet Jr. becomes obsessed with revenge but, because he overthinks everything, he is unable to act. Nonetheless, disturbed by Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, Claudius and Gertrude enlist Hamlet’s university friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to inform on him. Along with Ophelia’s father Polonius, they also force Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia to spurn him so they can observe his response and figure out if he’s simply lovesick or perhaps more dangerously mad. (Claudius is worried that he might be threateningly so, and Gertrude may share that fear.)

As directed by Drover, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Aiden Correia and Ivy Charles) can’t believe they’ve been invited to Elsinore. They’re dazzled by the status and the opulence. They like Hamlet, but they do Claudius’s bidding because he’s the King and he’s loaded.

Crucially, I’ve never seen Ophelia’s entrapment in this hierarchy more clearly — or felt it more deeply. The text doesn’t do a great job of setting up the affection between Hamlet and Ophelia, but Drover finds ways to allow them an easy, affectionate physicality and unheard, whispered conferences. As a result, we’re more deeply invested in Ophelia’s dilemma when her brother Laertes and father Polonius both advise her to back away from the relationship. She’s not of his class, they warn her, and that makes this courtship dangerous.

In this production, there’s a diamond-sharp moment of clarity when Ophelia betrays Hamlet by going along with the spurning, he figures it out, and instantly rejects her. When Hamlet names Ophelia as a traitor, it destroys her: she didn’t want to betray him, but she has no power in the court, she’s an obedient daughter, and she doesn’t fully understand her boyfriend’s recent agitation. Because Kate Besworth, who’s playing Ophelia, is so thorough in her portrait and brings such vulnerability to her performance, when Ophelia’s heart breaks, our hearts break too.

This is all in the context of the most fully developed treatment of Ophelia I’ve seen. In the family scene in which Laertes is heading back to his life in France, for instance, and their dad, Polonious, is pontificating — “To thine own self be true”, etcetera — Drover allows the siblings to catch one another’s eyes behind his back and smile affectionately about their goofy dad.

Director Drover doesn’t just refuse to back away from the story’s melodrama, he runs toward it. There’s a ghost, remember, and, on more than one occasion, that ghostly presence gave me goosebumps, and brought tears to my eyes.

The goosebumps are because it’s scary. When Hamlet sees the apparition for the first time, Hamlet is standing on the tippy-top of the very tall ladder that slides along the teetering bookshelves, and staring out at the audience where the ghost (Marcus Youssef) is creeping his way down one of the aisles. Physically, as well as emotionally, Hamlet’s position is precarious.

Hamlet’s love for his father is highlighted in this telling, more than his love for his mother. Hamlet is clearly terrified of the vision, afraid it might be a demon. But, desperately hoping it’s the spirit of the man who raised him, Hamlet reaches out his hand, tentatively, to touch the ghost’s and, when he comes into contact with the feeling of familiar flesh, he falls into the ghost’s arms and sobs. It’s the most moving moment of the evening.

With his actors and design team, Drover keeps swinging for the stylistic fences. Before Hamlet launches into his key soliloquies, lighting designer Gerald King creates swirling, prismatic effects that come into focus on the young prince, and actor Nadeem Phillip Umar Khitab delivers those speeches with almost raving intensity. Throughout, composer and sound designer Coomber provides a rich and varied score: symphonic music, military music, dance music, and the heart-quickening pulses of TV cop shows.

Yes, this storytelling is big and, until intermission at least, I was fully onboard for the ride.

But I had noticed a couple of odd choices: the show starts with the “to be or not to be” monologue, which usually comes at the beginning of the third of five acts; and, in Drover’s variation of The Mousetrap sequence, in which Hamlet has traveling actors perform Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father “to catch the conscience of a king”, Gertrude shows no sign that she understands what’s going on, which radically restricts our ability to speculate on the possibility that she’s complicit in the murder. Drover has cut Gertrude’s line, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, which can be used to indicate the Queen’s culpability. These details turned out to be warnings of the less fruitful side of Drover’s taste for clarity.

At its core, Hamlet is about profound uncertainty. In its original position in Act 3, “To be or not to be” is an important marker in the protagonist’s unraveling. He has been betrayed by his mother, he’s seen a ghost, his friends are spying on him, he’s been feigning madness, and he’s tipping towards it. In “to be or not to be”, Hamlet asks if staying alive is worth it, and he gets hamstrung: he’d kill himself, he reasons, if he weren’t afraid of the eternal consequences. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” Placed in Act 3, this speech expresses an existential despair that’s the result of accumulating psychological injuries. Placed at the beginning of Act 1, it seems motivated solely by Hamlet’s grief about his father’s death and mother’s remarriage. That’s a lot, but it’s not as complicated or cumulative.

Drover’s choice here highlights this production’s lack of reflectiveness. Khitab’s Hamlet mostly seems pissed off, a fighter, albeit an incompetent one, rather than a philosopher. After intermission, the limitations of this approach become more apparent. In the scene in which Hamlet comes across Claudius while the King is praying and decides to stab him to death, only to be deterred by the religious concern that he might be sending Claudius to heaven because he is engaged in a pious act, this Hamlet’s wild physicality feels at odds with his philosophical musings. And, because Khitab’s Hamlet feels smart, but neither emotionally vulnerable (other than the hug) nor especially concerned with existential issues, the scene in which he contemplates the skull of the jester Yorick, who was a father figure — “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” — feels empty.

There’s a lot of yelling after intermission, notably in the scene in which Hamlet confronts his mother about his father’s murder and her “incestuous” remarriage. As written, this scene in one of the richest in the play, ripe with Oedipal overtones: potentially, Claudius hasn’t just usurped Hamlet’s place on the throne, he has also usurped Hamlet’s place in his mother’s affections — and, metaphorically, her bed. This scene has considerably more spin if we go into it with stronger suspicions about Gertrude’s culpability. It’s also stronger if it’s more intimate but, directed by Drover, both Khitab and Jennifer Clement (Gertrude) holler their way through it.

It feels like, having established a melodramatic tone before intermission, Drover feels obliged to keep upping the ante, but that has a damaging effect, even in Ophelia’s storyline. After intermission, she goes so batshit crazy that the character loses credibility.

I will say, though, that Drover makes an interesting choice about the manner of Ophelia’s death. I’ll leave that for you to discover.

And there are other riches. In the Yorick scene, Anton Lipovetsky’s Gravedigger is hilarious. Playing Horatio, Hamlet’s one loyal friend, Matthew Ip Shaw, is a much-needed Steady Eddy. Andrew Wheeler finds the right, restrained balance of earnestness and pomposity as Polonius. And Marcus Youssef’s heartfelt stillness as King Hamlet is a large part of what makes those ghost scenes work.

Barbara Clayden’s costumes reveal the characters. I’m thinking of the rosy containment of a pink dress that Gertrude wears, for instance. It reminded me of the imprisoning niceness of Elizabeth II’s wardrobe.

So, I don’t think this production’s perfect, but it’s pretty damn good. Drover’s vision is bold and, in important ways, revelatory.

 

HAMLET by William Shakespeare. Directed Stephen Drover. On Sunday, June 23. A Bard on the Beach production running on the BMO Mainstage Tent until September 20. Tickets and information

 

PHOTO CREDIT: Marcus Youssef as the Ghost and Nadeem Phillip Umar Khitab as Hamlet (Photo by Tim Matheson)

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