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'The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark' World Premiere, directed by Robert Lepage and
choreographed by Guillaume Côté.

Live and Onstage at Toronto's Elgin Theatre. The production has now closed. Presented by Show One Productions. Created by Côté Danse.

Courtesy of Show One Productions Facebook page

Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, adjudicator, arts educator

"A new dance version of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of friendship, madness, and revenge makes it world premiere. Although there’s much to enjoy in the production, this re-telling of the melancholy Dane is disappointingly conventional."

This new version of “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” stripped of its text and performed as ballet is a co-creation of two Canadian theatre luminaries. Director Robert Lepage is a prolific and highly respected visionary, known worldwide for his unique theatrical fusion of arts and technology. His 2018 production of ‘Coriolanus’ at the Stratford Festival combined projected imagery and moving dioramas with live actors to create an impressive and critically acclaimed “live film”. Guillaume Côté is an award-winning, highly respected, and accomplished choreographer and dancer with a long list of collaborations with some of the world’s most prestigious dance companies.

Yet, despite their impressive individual artistic achievements, their collaboration doesn’t hit the intended heights. Departing from his customary high-tech approach to the work, Lepage instead stages the narrative on an almost bare stage, with basic lighting, costumes, hints of furniture and props and innovative use of black and red curtains to optimal effect. It boasts a wonderful original score which nicely supports the cast of nine dancers, clearly meant to be the showcase of the piece, and they most definitely are.

This 100-minute rendering utilizes surtitles on a digital sign atop the stage, providing quotes from the play, setting up scenes and identifying who’s who. Côté’s choreography (he also plays Hamlet) is athletic enough – his solo work and pas-de deux is quite lovely but rather nothing to rave about. He doesn’t push the envelope or take risks in forwarding the narrative, opting for repeating standard ballet steps mixed with a few other styles. The opening banquet scene, celebrating the coronation of the new king, creates wonderful shapes and different, non-traditional moves.

I was hoping for more of this edgy work throughout the show.

Yes, the dancers are athletic and graceful. One would expect that. They’re all well-trained and accomplished. But there’s nothing inspiring or innovative here, no new ground chartered. As a narrative, you really need to know the plot going in. My companion, who wasn’t familiar with the details of the show, was lost in many scenes. This lack of connection to key characters made their motives dubious and unclear. Interestingly Lepage proclaims in a promotional video for the production that this is the first time most of the dancers have had to act as well as dance. Shouldn’t the two go hand-in-hand anyway? As characters most of the performers weren’t invested enough in their individual plights

Let me be completely clear, the dancers are incredibly talented. They master the choreography with aplomb. As Hamlet, Côté leaps, and spins with strength and grace but its largely superficial.

What I was missing was the levels of emotions and personal journey Hamlet experiences – from melancholy to fear, rage to madness. Every character should embark on a journey and be a changed person by play’s end. This Hamlet had no journey.

As Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, National Ballet alum Greta Hodgkinson has beautiful lines and a lithe suppleness to her every move. As her husband King Claudius, Robert Glumbeck displays strength, agility, and a commanding physical presence. As Polonius, father to Ophelia and Laertes, Bernard Meney, plays more of an acting than dancing role, an appropriately comedic and stuffy busybody. Carleen Zouboules dances a sweet and fragile Ophelia while phenomenal energy radiates from Lukas Malkowski as Laertes. In one of the few departures from the balletic style, he showcases his breathtaking breakdance ability, creating dynamic levels of expression. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Connor Mitton and Willem Sadler respectively, have a jolly, jaunty time playing the mischievous fun-loving compadres of the Danish prince. They leap and bound with supernatural synchronicity. As Hamlet’s best friend, here cast as a woman, Natasha Poon Woo is a powerhouse of technique, the most expressive performer in the cast. Her whirling solo as the sole survivor at the end of the play, while superbly executed, is an inexplicably odd end to the narrative, however.

At times there are moments of brilliant stagecraft and true theatricality. Lepage’s simple set is functional and clever. A large slow-moving red curtain transitions us like a film wipe as sets magically appear and disappear behind it as it slowly travels from one side of the stage to the other. The curtains move, swoop and tuck to denote a definitive change of time and location. The explanation of Hamlet’s father’s murder is told by the ghost himself, where the foul proceedings are acted out in silhouette behind his unravelled grave sheets. Ophelia’s drowning scene was another use of simplistic imagery with maximum impact. She dances in front of a large rippling blue sheet and is lifted into the air by unseen hands that move and cover her as if being enveloped by water. Equally clever is the play within the play scene.

Lacking enough cast members to play the troupe of actors, Hamlet and Horatio depict the murder of Hamlet’s father using oversized masks placed over the backs of their heads, their backward facing bodies appearing to dance face forward. Three simple chandeliers and red velvet chairs add regal elegance to the castle scenes while tables with removeable legs are innovatively transformed into, closets, beds, coffins, and desks.

Composer John Gzowski’s brilliant and original score is both evocative and eclectic. He fuses neo-classical strings with techno and even mixes in some funky baroque. Drums and percussion accentuate each scene, from the bellicose fight scenes to the tender pas de deux. I’d love to find that score soon on Spotify!

Costume designer Michael Gianfrancesco gives us a mixed bag. I wasn’t always sure what era or style he was aiming for. Gertrude is often wearing unmistakeably Elizabethan dresses, complete with frilly collar, while King Claudius is adorned with a sparkly purple T shirt and tight-fitting doublet that gave him an almost Tudor rock star persona. Hamlet’s simple ensemble of black doublet, black T-shirt, black spandex pants, and knee-high black boots made me think of him as the Biker of Denmark. Rosencranz and Guildenstern and Horatio were adorned in grey hoodies, baggy pants and caps that reminded me of a modern take on Russian Cossack peasants of the revolution.

Lighting designer Simon Rossiter provides understated moody lighting, warm flickering lights in the castle and harsh and shadowy lights during the solos and small group numbers. Light spilled out from the wings or directly above the stage. No fixtures from the auditorium were used. Overall, this worked well, but there were times on stage right when harsh light created contrasting shadows cloaking nuanced expressions and important reactions.

This show looks good overall and was enthusiastically received by the audience the night I attended. But I wanted to be taken in more. I wanted clearer storytelling through movement rather than steps for steps sake.

I wanted to be more than just an observer on the sidelines. I wanted to be moved.

What I got was routine.

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