The reason I started this blog was to archive productions of Shakespeare that made me think or inspired exciting thoughts, so when I saw Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet, I knew that I needed to write about it. I have seen four productions of Hamlet in my life so far and many other productions of Shakespeare, but this was by far the best Canadian production of a Shakespeare show I have been seen. The reason that I study theatre and, specifically adapted Shakespeare performances such as this one, is because of the power I believe it has to not only show respect to the original material but to create a more inclusive and diverse theatrical experience. This show did that and it took risks and it is exactly the type of theatre that makes my heart sing. I applaud director Ravi Jain for being such a risk-taker because it was such a breath of fresh air.
The show began with each actor going down the line they formed and signing their name and their character’s name. Prince Hamlet was a gender-bent production with several actors playing characters of the opposite sex. The text did not change the pronouns of the characters so I will primarily refer to characters by their scripted pronouns. However, this was an adapted work so the play was edited and moved pieces of the plot and dialogue around. For example, the immediate opening of the show begins with “what a rogue and peasant slave am I” with Christine Horne as Hamlet standing center stage. Andre du Toit’s lighting design cuts and shapes each scene beautifully creating statuesque bodies. The light illuminates Hamlet as he describes the incestuous relationship between Gertrude and Claudius as jovial Claudius (played by Rick Roberts) saunters over to Gertrude (played by the always magnificent Karen Robinson).
It is at this point that I should note the set design by Lorenzo Savoini and the staging. In the middle of the playing space sits a large wooden platform with two chandeliers hanging above it. Surrounding it are tarps laid down with piles of dirt scattered around the platform with one giant pile upstage center. Sidenote: I loooove dirt onstage. It was like being in the grave with the characters from the beginning. Moving on, there are chairs placed around the platform against the walls where each character remains when they are not actively participating in the scene. Finally, there are three giant mirrors placed on the back wall facing the audience. The first row of the audience is visible in these tilted mirrors and implicates them in the action that unfolds. It was also useful as actors could monologue facing the center mirror while standing on the giant dirt pile and the audience could still see them. So simple but immensely effective with continuous possibilities.
I have so much to talk about but I have to start with Horatio. The entire production was bilingual combining ASL and English. The incredible Dawn Jani Birley filled the role and it was so wonderful to see a deaf actor playing a role that is not defined by disability. Horatio is essential to this production. Storyteller, narrator, and active player. Horatio explains the dialogue through ASL and the ASL becomes just as poetic as the words. One of the most moving moments for me was the description of Ophelia’s death narrated through Horatio’s body. So still and so silent but amazingly powerful. What I loved about this incorporation of Horatio into the broader narrative was it showed how character goes on to tell the story just as Hamlet instructs him to at the end of the play. It also shows how intelligent Horatio is because he understands the whole story better than anyone else.
Speaking of Ophelia, let’s talk about Ophelia. Played by delicate and sweet Jeff Ho, Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship was even harder than usual to watch break down. This demanding role was played so earnestly that you couldn’t help but feel just as broken watching her sink further and further into the plot until it overcame her. Ophelia loves her father, and brother, and Hamlet, which ultimately is what leads to Ophelia’s downfall in this production. She wants to trust and support everyone but ends up alone. She actively attempts to do her father’s bidding regarding Hamlet in the hopes of being in service to Hamlet and help him. But in the process Hamlet sees Ophelia as removed and feels betrayed. The most heartbreaking scene was “get thee to a nunnery” because Hamlet enters that scene completely in love with Ophelia but from the second they begin to talk, he knows something has changed. It was watching two people who love each other know there is something wrong but neither having any idea of how to fix it. Hamlet lashes out and performs for the audience of adults hiding in the wings listening in and storms off. The adults including Polonius and Claudius follow suit. And then there is poor Ophelia who is left alone on the floor and crying. She clutches onto the folded words of love from Hamlet and weeps. Ultimately, it is being alone and the loneliness that drives Ophelia to madness.
I’m going to discuss the Claudius/Gertrude dynamic because it was an interesting one. Claudius in this production comes off as a silly fool in the beginning. He dances around with Gertrude, flirting with her and laughing, and just being generally sexual toward her. They look like a bunch of horny teenagers who just started having sex. But this dynamic slowly begins to change. Claudius becomes increasingly more paranoid and vengeful towards Hamlet and Gertrude becomes increasingly more skeptical of her husband and his good nature. She may not trust Hamlet but she certainly doesn’t trust Claudius. There is also a completely disruptive scene in the middle of the show of how Hamlet pictures his mother and uncle having sex. Sound and lighting grow to uncomfortable levels as Gertrude and Claudius have sex on the giant dirt pile. But the monstrous side of Claudius doesn’t appear like this in his daily life, only in Hamlet’s dream. The scary thing about Claudius is that he is charming and funny and his villainy hides in plain sight, which makes him even more threatening.
Since the play is called Prince Hamlet, I’m going to talk about Hamlet. But I would argue this production does not make it Hamlet’s story but makes it everyone’s which was very refreshing. Horne’s Hamlet was an anxious Hamlet who talks quickly and saves the depressive episodes for the privacy of soliloquy until it seeps into relationships and action. It represents a person on the verge of a breakdown but who keeps it together and smiles believably like they are fine. He laughs with Horatio and loves Ophelia but there is something … missing. One cool thing I would like to mention is that there was no representation of a physical ghost. Instead, Hamlet’s father actually possesses Hamlet, forcing Horne to act as both father and son. It sort-of reminded me of Order of the Phoenix when Harry gets possessed by Voldemort with Horne writhing on the floor, but not in a bad way, if that makes sense? I was into it. Thought that was a cool choice.
Now for the ending. The climatic, famous, Hamlet ending where everything goes to poop and everyone dies. I should throw in a shout out to Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah for her performance as Laertes who had some heartbreakingly beautiful moments leading up to the finale. Laertes is a tough, tough role by she did it with such passion and sensitivity and strength. The final scene is the fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes which usually features some kind of stage fight whether using swords or some other weapon. But this show didn’t do that. Clever Ravi Jain did something so different. Horatio stood in the center of the platform while Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius sat in four piles of dirt in front of him. Horatio narrated the sword fight through ASL and the character speaking would raise their hands to indicate they were talking. So it was four people sitting on the floor, facing away from the audience, and that was the fight scene. I am a big fan of the bloody ending but I have to admit that the tension within the scene remained throughout even with the lack of physical action. It was only released after Hamlet finally chokes Claudius to death and instigates movement again. Horne delivers “and the rest of silence” and then it is silent. Horatio stands there and delivers the final moments of the play in ASL while grieving and crying over the loss of his friend. Incredibly emotional.
While my thoughts on this play are incredibly longwinded, I would honestly be so mad at myself if I didn’t record every thought and feeling I had about this play. Sometimes you see something and know immediately that you will think about it for years to come and that is how I feel about this production. I don’t want to forget anything so I had to write it all down. All the different forms of adaptation from textual edits, to its bilingualism, to the gender-bent performances, to the diverse casting, I loved it all. This is exactly the type of risk-taking Shakespeare that I love and wish I saw more of in Canada. But for now, I have this show to keep me inspired for a long, long time. I am so thankful.