Prince Hamlet: I have words to speak in thine ear that will make thee dumb
by DREW ROWSOME -Photos by Bronwen Sharp
Leaving the walls of Elsinore/the Theatre Centre after Prince Hamlet is like coming out of a trance. The broken spell is replaced by dizziness as one tries to process what one has just seen. And it is designed to be discussed and mulled over. Director/adapter Ravi Jain (Salt-Water Moon, Gimme Shelter) has done a remarkable job of rearranging Hamlet into a plot-driven and coherently motivated thriller using cinematic and theatrical language that didn't exist in Shakespeare's time. And may only just have been mashed into existence in our time.
While the narrative is crystal clear and gripping, the deeper the audience is pulled into the world created, the more unsettling it becomes. Firstly Jain has cast colour and gender blind, perhaps even exaggeratedly so, to prove a point. The important thing, as it should be, is the talent, the fit or the exploration or explosion of the role, not the colour or gender of the actor. As ridiculous and frustrating as that discussion has become, Prince Hamlet should, in a better world alas, be the last nail in that coffin: the actors are so skilled and dedicated that they transcend any labels and are simply the embodiment of these particular characters. And for the time that Prince Hamlet takes to play out, a theatre stage becomes much like what our ideal daily life is like.
But Prince Hamlet has other issues to tackle. Hamlet has been reconfigured to make Horatio the narrator, moral conscience and perhaps a hallucination or ghost. Dawn Jani Birley, a deaf actor, is cast as Horatio and after the cast has introduced themselves, we suddenly realize that Birley is the only one to not verbalize her name. The rest of the cast has awkwardly used ASL as well as their speaking voice - the production is promoted as "bilingual" - but Birley has not.
The cast scatters to their first position in the staging and Birley strides the perimeter of the raised platform centrestage, trading thumbs up, an ASL sign of approval (I googled), and direct eye contact with each cast member. Only then does Birley begin the opening monologue, the only time she is simultaneously verbally subtitled. Birley is an astonishingly expressive performer - her ASL is a vivid mix of mime, dance, silent film-esque mugging, and telepathy - but Shakespeare is word-heavy and the disorientation is a blunt statement: this is how it feels to be an other, to for once be denied one of our usual casual privileges.
Though Birley is the de facto star player, she has amiable competition from Hamlet the nominal star. Christine Horne (Tom at the Farm) is fragile, then steely, then wan, as she moves from nasty to bonkers to passionate without ever letting her formidable technique show. The directorial choice to make the father's ghost a non-apparition but rather either Hamlet possessed or schizophrenic or attuned to the netherworld, is a brave one, and Horne makes it work, without the need of prosthetics or Mercedes McCambridge.
Maria Vacratsis (Late Night, Cake and Dirt) plays Polonius as a befuddled pompous bureaucrat and, as is her wont, walks away with every scene she is in. She is so amusing that I found myself hoping that Polonius would take ghostly form after being dispatched much too early on. Jeff Ho's Ophelia is coquettish butch in a slyly sexy way that becomes brutal when she snaps. Rick Roberts (An Enemy of the People) is an amoral lusty Claudius who is just a little too obsessed with his mane of flowing hair. The Gertrude of his affection is Karen Robinson (Schitt's Creek) who matches the lust with giddy glee and ups it with heartbreak that dives full tilt into madness. Robinson's eyes have the remarkable ability to project emotion as effectively as Birley signs, when the words fail, the soul soars.
Prince Hamlet is presented to celebrate Why Not Theatre's 10th anniversary. Their first offering a decade ago was an ambitious and attention-receiving Hamlet. I suspect that when Why Not Theatre offers a 20th anniversary variation on the venerable classic, we'll look back and marvel at the ambitious and attention-receiving Prince Hamlet as we settle in to see where Jain's journey will take us next.