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Raoul Bhaneja

“Hard to know what lies ahead…but the best plan is what Hamlet himself says in Act 5: “the readiness is all.”

Joe Szekeres

Here’s the link to my first conversation with Raoul Bhaneja:

Raoul Bhaneja is one incredibly busy man at the moment.

He’s currently in Los Angeles, where he has spent much of his time over the last twenty years, almost none of it doing theatre. He’s played in more Los Angeles bars, nightclubs, and recording studios than in theatres.
Even though Bhaneja has had to step away from the theatre periodically, he states it will always be a vibrant, vital place to spend time both as an artist and an audience member. He has been lucky to have a few spiritual homes with the theatre in Toronto. He recognized Tarragon Theatre for new plays, particularly between 2003 and 2010, when he had the chance to work on several productions there.

Bhaneja also credits Theatre Passe Muraille, where he used to live almost next door to the building. He also credits one of his mentors, Paul Thompson, who shaped part of what theatre would become. It was at Passe Muraille, Bhaneja’s upcoming Soulpepper ‘Hamlet (solo)’ production was workshopped and first premiered.

What important lessons has he learned from the last four years as an artist and as a person, husband, father, sibling, and friend?

Raoul has become ever more appreciative of an audience that takes the time to spend their money and leave the comforts (and, in some cases, safety) of home to share in a live experience. Raoul has always felt the relationship between performer and audience is a (semi) sacred one, and he has felt that even more these last four years.

‘Hamlet (solo)’ will run for only three performances this month at Soulpepper. Artistic Director Weyni Mengesha is striving to write a new chapter and reshape the company but is holding on to core elements that Raoul thinks will be put in good stead for a long time in Toronto. He believes Soulpepper deserves support from those who once stood by it and new donors and advocates who can appreciate the challenging mission Weyni has undertaken to bring Soulpepper into this decade renewed and reclaimed.
After this informative conversation with Weyni, Raoul realized he wanted to help be a part of her vision at Soulpepper. The opportunity to present ‘Hamlet (solo)’ back in Toronto after over a decade felt like the right fit.

The late Daniel Brooks asked Raoul to step into Soulpepper’s recent ‘The Seagull’. When he returned to perform, Bhaneja returned to the company for the first time in 23 years, and he was reminded of just how special of a place Soulpepper truly is.

Given that feeling, he felt it was also the right time to bring ‘Hamlet (solo)’ to the Distillery District’s Young Centre.

Solo shows have been part of the theatre culture for a while: Diane Flacks and Rick Miller come to mind.
The Soulpepper website states that this Hamlet (with the collaboration of longtime show director Robert Ross Parker and original designer Deeter Schurig) is a two-hour bare-bones performance in which Bhaneja plays 17 parts using Shakespeare’s text. The decisions around the sparseness of this solo production were not arbitrary or due to budget constraints but rather very much on purpose.

Raoul stated:

“I have been very encouraged by a lot of the theatre I have seen in Toronto as of late, particularly in the acting which I think has become more visceral than it had been for most of my time watching theatre in the city. There was often solid, thoughtful acting onstage, but I find it has an emotional urgency now that both the actor and audience demand from the experience.”

I recall Rick Miller’s MACHOMER: THE SIMPSONS DO MACBETH, in which he voiced the characters in telling the story. Raoul is a huge admirer of Miller’s talent and calls him a prolific producer and person of the theatre.

According to Raoul: “Both productions share a certain audacity, one I think Eric Woolfe also engaged in earlier this season when he presented his solo ‘Macbeth’ at Red Sandcastle. You have to be a bit crazy to do this.”

When Bhaneja was in New York a few months ago watching Eddie (Suzy) Izzard perform her solo Hamlet, Raoul said, “It’s wild to see how different that ‘Hamlet’ is from our production even though the essential impulse is the very nature of it, similar.”

Raoul says Shakespeare is getting a bit of a bad rap at the moment for being so heavily used in education and so prolifically presented in the theatre when other voices have been ignored and underappreciated. Perhaps it might be our fault, not Shakespeare’s, how little writing from different cultures and parts of the world we have seen our stages, particularly in the ‘classical’ period. That speaks to our hyper-focus on Western drama and thought.

Bhaneja offers a critical thought to consider:

“Let’s expand our field of reference, not obsess about Shakespeare by turning him into some kind of Confederate statue that must be pulled down. Use him to inspire or transform or adapt stories and ideas NOW. That’s the whole point.

What about ‘Hamlet’ still speaks to the audience today for Bhaneja?

It is the concept of ‘isolation’.

Isolation is something everyone collectively understands at the moment in a way that we perhaps have not for a long time. It’s an unfortunate experience in the last few years everyone has had to deal with and come to terms.

When Raoul started working on this project, his friend and gifted filmmaker, Jeff Stephenson, followed him around with a camera and made a documentary, ‘Hamlet (solo),’ which he hopes to find a way to screen or include in the upcoming Soulpepper run. In that documentary, Raoul interviews many actors who had played Hamlet up to 2007.

When he was in his twenties, Raoul remembered something the late John Neville (who was in his seventies) told him about ‘Hamlet.’ It’s a play about the disillusionment of youth. Back then, Bhaneja found Neville’s comments interesting but didn’t really get it. Now that Raoul approaches his fifties (you’re still a young man, ya know), he looks at the world today, his children and the world they will inherit from us, and now understands Neville’s point of view:

“To me, that is the essence of any ‘classic’ work from any period – its longevity comes from the ability to continue to reflect and refract life back to the audience, like the mirror Hamlet speaks of in the play.”

Bhaneja leaves it to the audience to come away with any specific messages. He can only present what he and the creative team have envisioned with their interpretation and leave the rest to the audience. What he hopes to achieve with this ‘Hamlet (solo)’ is a unique and provocative experience combined with the viewers’ imaginations within an intimate setting.

The life of an actor and performance artist is always in constant flux and motion. What’s next for Raoul once the three-date performance run of ‘Hamlet (solo)’ concludes:

With two of his cast members from Soulpepper’s production of ‘The Seagull’ Frank Cox-O’Connell and Hailey Gillis, they are developing a project that they hope one day to present to Soulpepper. They are also working on producing a solo show for Raoul’s wife, Birgitte Solem (Hope and Hell co-founder) who will act in the piece.

Outside of that, Raoul continues the roulette wheel of film and television.

He hopes to make another season of ‘The Trades’ for Crave TV. Bhaneja called it a crazy TV show that was so much fun, but the cast and crew have to receive formal word. It has been a difficult year in the on-camera world with multiple labour disruptions, tech company contractions and the introduction of A.I.

‘Hamlet (solo)’ runs May 23-25 in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane.

For tickets:

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