Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival 2022
Despite a few puzzling choices, there are moments where this ‘Hamlet’ shines; however, it’s not what it could be.
When ‘Hamlet’ was taught at the school where I worked, teachers of English used to call the play a tragedy. Director Peter Pasyk makes an interesting comment about this production which he helmed:
“The play is arguably Shakespeare’s most experimental and metatheatrical work, but what is it?...one thing is certain, at its core it is an existential work. The play puts our mortality into stark focus.”
Two things about Pasyk’s comment. First, I think it’s an important one that should be definitely shared with high school teachers of English in understanding ‘Hamlet’. Too often, the trap is to fall into whether ‘Hamlet’ is the proverbial tragedy or not.
Next, did Pasyk’s production reflect what he says?
Well, yes and no. I know I used to tell the students whom I taught that one can’t sit on the proverbial fence post and agree with both sides. Make up your mind when you defend something. Well, this is arguably one of these yes and no times where it’s important to see what worked well and what requires some polishing.
How so? When we remember Pasyk’s comment about ‘Hamlet’ as existential and then consider Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino’s comment the theme for 2022 is New Beginnings and ways to start a new journey, sometimes the connective task isn’t as clear as it could be.
Hamlet (Amaka Umeh) is clearly mourning the death of his father (a powering and towering Matthew Kabwe). He is disgusted and abhorred by how quickly his mother, Gertrude (Maev Beaty) quickly remarried her late husband’s brother, Claudius (Graham Abbey) who now wears the crown of Denmark. In turn, Hamlet sees his father’s ghost and vows revenge against Claudius while pretending to be mad until the crown can be rightfully restored. Herein lies the downward spiral where Hamlet’s actions affect Lord Chamberlain Polonius (Michael Spencer-Davis), Laertes (Austin Eckert) and Ophelia (Andrea Rankin) for whom Hamlet pines, but whether he is serious about it or not becomes an important element of the story.
The story is set modern so we have guns instead of knives. Michelle Bohn’s costume designs are chic looking on the ladies and nicely fitted suits on the men which help delineate the characteristics of the individuals. Umeh is dressed appropriately in black for most of the play which reflects the mood of Hamlet.
Upon entering the auditorium, Patrick Lavender’s stark set design immediately grabbed my attention as the body of the deceased king lies in state under glass. It looks as if there is preparation for the viewing by the family and then the public. Kimberley Purtell’s lighting design effectively reflects the majesty of this moment. The blackouts in some of the scenes did not distract my attention. Richard Feren’s sound design throughout remains solid.
One thing about the set design which puzzles me is the upper level of the stage. It looks like a mirror is on top and then I wondered if it was an indication of holding a reflection up to the audience to show how these lives on stage are similar to our own. Then the upper area becomes a moment where Hamlet refers to Gertrude and Claudius and we see them dancing. I was confused because I couldn’t decipher if the dancing was occurring in the moment OR if this was occurring in Hamlet’s mind. Then the mirror is used to announce the arrival of the Players and we see them enter.
There was some laughter from the audience at certain moments that made me think something was missing. For example, at the top of the show we know the sentries on guard have twice seen the ghost of the dead king. It’s one of the greatest moments where tension is established immediately to grab the audience’s attention. The sentry guard dressed in a dark-coloured suit wearing a dark-coloured mask gets to the top level, looks around and then removed his mask.
The audience roared in approval with laughter but I didn’t.
Was Pasyk perhaps giving a knowing wink to the audience about mask removals, hopefully very soon? If he made that choice, yes it’s clever BUT it didn’t set what was supposed to be a tension-filled scene of seeing ghostly images to pique my interest. The same thing occurred just before the ‘play’ of the travelling troupe performs for Claudius and Gertrude. The humorous musical ditty and the swaying of the players reminded me if this story for the king was taking place in Hawaii or Maui? As the audience is in the know about the ‘play’, we are waiting intently for how the king might respond. Didn’t feel any of that.
There are some hearty performances all around. Amaka Umeh’s Hamlet remains grounded in reality with the various emotional swings given the heated moment. This was strongly evident in the Grave Digger’s scene. Andrea Rankin’s doe-eyed Ophelia poignantly runs the gamut of emotions when the reality of the situation hits her full on which struck my heart. Maev Beaty and Graham Abbey are regal as Gertrude and Claudius but also reveal their insecurities and fears with believable intent and focus.
Michael Spencer-Davis is a warm-hearted Polonius. Austin Eckert is a feisty and fiery Laertes especially when he learns what happens to his father and seeks revenge. As Horatio, Jakob Ehman’s loyalty Hamlet is steady. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Norman Yeung and Ijeoma Emesowum are dutiful friends to Hamlet while also showing they can be easily swayed through their interactions by the powers at hand who are in charge.
Final Comments: I do hope that future audiences will not continue laughing at inopportune moments that appear incongruous with the emotional level and intensity of the moment. Peter Pasyk is a gifted director who has worked with so many talented and gifted actors in this ‘Hamlet’ that I am hoping to see on stage in future.
Running time: Three hours with one intermission.
As of the publication of this article, Covid protocols are in place at the theatre.
‘Hamlet’ runs to October 28 at the Festival Theatre. For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.
‘Hamlet’ by William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Pasyk
Producer: Dave Auster
Set Designer: Patrick Lavender
Costume Designer: Michelle Bohn
Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell
Composer and Sound Designer: Richard Feren
Performers: Amaka Umeh, Matthew Kabwe, Maev Beaty, Graham Abbey, Michael Spencer-Davis, Andrea Rankin, Austin Eckert, Jakob Ehman, Norman Yeung, Ijeoma Emesowum, John Kirkpatrick, Tyrone Savage, Kevin Kruchkywich, Josue Laboucane, Anthony Santiago, Celia Aloma, isi bhakhomen, Rachel Jones, Ngabo Nabea, Hilary Adams, Mary Jay, Janice Owens, David Campion