'Hamlet-911' by Ann-Marie MacDonald
World Premiere at The Stratford Festival
Cylla von Tiedemann
Updated and revised September 20, 2022.
(Please note: The production I reviewed was a preview performance. There may be changes in the show after the opening.)
‘Hamlet-911’ might appear initially a tad quixotic as it looks as if it’s trying to appeal to many elements as possible. Stick with it, though, as Ann-Marie MacDonald’s highly original script cleverly mirrors the state of our ‘woke’ culture and the world right now. ‘Hamlet-911’ begs to be discussed over coffee or drinks after seeing it.
A few times in my articles I’ve quoted a favourite satirical question my late brother used to pose when something confused him:
“What da hell was ‘dat?”
This exactly was my initial sentiment upon leaving the Studio Theatre the other night.
But not anymore.
Although it may appeal to the theatre aficionado (from ‘Slings and Arrows’ to ‘Dear Evan Hansen’), there are some appropriate jabs at our woke culture where I’m sure many have shaken their heads in puzzlement. Although I’m not certain, I wondered if some of the characters are also perhaps loosely based on stalwart Stratford Festival artists from long ago who have passed on. Out of respect for their memory, I will not name these individuals.
For the non-theatre person, at one point, the character Rex according to the Program Notes: “rails against the United Nations feel-goodery; where everything is unicorns and rainbows, and hyphens and pronouns.” (Confession: I laughed out loud at this statement because it hits the mark of point-blank truth in our world right now.)
We meet actor Guinness Menzies (Mike Shara) best known for his appearance as a modern-day vampire in a TV series. (Side note – I’m wondering if this ‘beer’ name is also a play on words as there is an assumption, whether right or wrong, that actors love their beer? Or is this perhaps too much of a stretch?)
Guinness has landed the role of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival. This news is something of a family affair as we also learn Guinness’ father, Rex (Scott Wentworth), an old-school actor and founding member of the Stratford Festival, has been cast as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in the same production. Guinness asks his mother, Jessica (Sarah Dodd) to play Gertrude and she says no to his disappointment. It is Guinness's wife Sue (Amelia Sargisson) who is cast as Gertrude which he finds ridiculous as he thinks she is too young for the role.
Running parallel to this storyline is that of a young shy, impressionable student, Jeremy, (Andrew Illes) who will attend a Wednesday matinee performance of ‘Hamlet’. The young people at the matinee are excited to hear their idol will speak at the talkback following the performance but Guinness does not do student talkbacks. Jeremy has also emailed Guinness and asked to speak to him about an upcoming project on ‘Hamlet’ for school either via email or at the talkback. Guinness just avoids responding to Jeremy’s request.
On the morning of the Wednesday matinee, Guinness experiences a series of surreal and extremely odd circumstances of disorientation that he wonders if he is dreaming all this or in a coma after falling off his bicycle, or even if he might be dead. Then there is the appearance of the ‘usher’ and court jester Yorick (Gordon Patrick White) who adds even more possible confusion to the situation.
And what about adding 911 to one of the most famous tragic Shakespearean plays? 911 signifies someone needing help and we are to come directly to the aid of that individual.
It took me 24 hours later to realize just how timely and appropriate ‘Hamlet-911’ remains in our ‘wobbly’ woke culture with credit to Director Alisa Palmer for deftly weaving how ‘Hamlet-911’ “lives in a world where to quote Shakespeare, “the truth will out” ’ I’m reminded how Hamlet will use the play as a “thing to catch the conscience of the King.”
MacDonald’s script with Palmer’s clear-sighted direction builds on the characters and the outing of their consciences to capture many truths of the moment.
Mike Shara as the central character Guinness Menzies is a believable new father regarding his child. When suspicions arise from his actress wife, Sue (a heartfelt performance moment by Amelia Sargisson after Guinness does the unthinkable to his wife) about a possible affair with another actress playing Ophelia (Eva Foote), we are then introduced to the marvelous work by Gordon Patrick White as Yorick. A garishly whacky looking usher cum court jester cum truth teller for Guinness, Yorick utilizes a pseudo ‘Groundhog Day’/’It’s a Wonderful Life’ approach to bring Guinness to his own self-truth.
Scott Wentworth and Sarah Dodd are relishing their moments with their own weird idiosyncrasies as Guinness’s parents Rex and Jessica.
The choral work of the young artists remained beguiling and haunting. Ming Wong’s decision to incorporate a lot of blacks and greys just reinforced the weirdness of this underbelly of the world that we think we know.
Where this production clicked and made sense for me was in connecting Andrew Illes’ precisely definitive performance as the impressionable teenager Jeremy who reaches out to Guinness via email to ask questions about an upcoming school project based on ‘Hamlet’. Guinness’s initial aloofness in ignoring Jeremy’s request sets a frightening course of events into what I call the ‘computer underworld’ of questionable places where I dare not go for fear of unlocking and seeing how horrific and sickening some websites can do to lonely youth. Guinness also ventures into his own underworld of questionable places which sets him off on his own discovery just like Jeremy’s and even like Hamlet’s.
Chris Ross-Ewart’s Composer/Sound Design and HAUI’s projection and video design sensationally take the audience down into the underworld/rabbit hole of Guinness and Jeremy. Hearing the eerily synthesized music at the top of the show took me to a creepy world where I did not want to stay. The timing of sound cues and HAUI’s projections involving the actors was mesmerizing as I heard many audience members around me ooing and aaahhing at the surprises.
Final Comments: Surprisingly relevant and hauntingly humourous, ‘Hamlet-911’ was an extremely wise choice to premiere this season especially since the Bard’s work is part of this Season’s work. It might be rather fun for future audiences to see ‘Hamlet’ one night and MacDonald’s soon following if other connections can be gleaned.
Running Time: approximately one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
‘Hamlet-911’ runs to October 2 at the Studio Theatre, 34 George Street, Stratford. For tickets, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.
HAMLET-911 by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Directed by Alisa Palmer
Set Designer: Jung-Hye Kim
Costume Designer: Ming Wong
Lighting Designer: Leigh Ann Vardy
Composer and Sound Designer: Chris Ross-Ewart
Projection and Video Designer: HAUI
Performers: Tat Austrie, Richard Comeau, Wahsonti:io Kirby, Gordon Patrick White, Dhanish Kumar Chinniah, Caitlin Kelly, Qianna MacGilchrist, Antonette Rudder, Jacklyn Francis, Andrew Illes, Mike Shara, Eva Foote, Micah Woods, Amelia Sargisson, Sarah Dodd, Scott Wentworth, Chris Mejaki, Emily Birrell, Quinlan Bolton, Brooke Browne, Samantha Guzzo, Micah Kalap, Beatrice McBoyle, Abby Renner, Lucas Way