A Prince of Denmark for 2022

Reviewed by Mary Alderson

At Stratford Festival’s 2022 opening night, you might have thought Hamlet is a comedy! Never has there been so much laughter at a tragedy. If you went by the audience’s amusement in the Festival Theatre, you would think there was nothing rotten in Denmark.

This year’s Hamlet is totally modernized, and the laughs come from hearing text messages ping on the characters’ cell phones and seeing the young people scrolling through their messages while ignoring their elders. When Hamlet sees his best bud Horatio, they do a fist bump, high five, elbow touch, hand slap greeting and the audience loves it.

It occurred to me that the only way to have more fun with Hamlet would be to make it a drinking game. Nowadays, the audience can take drinks into the theatre, so contenders could take a swig each time they hear a familiar saying that comes from Hamlet. Phrases commonly used today, such as sweets to the sweet, brevity is the soul of wit, to be or not to be –  that is the question, every dog will have his day, and there’s method in my madness could all be a reason to tip the cup.

But despite the fun early in the first act, things, of course, take a sombre turn. In the story that everyone knows, Hamlet, the young Prince of Denmark, returns home after learning of his father’s death, only to make it in time for his mother and uncle’s wedding. He has a hunch that indeed something is rotten in Denmark and his uncle is under suspicion. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet he was murdered, Hamlet’s worries are confirmed. He contemplates suicide and becomes very anxious. Then he fakes madness to find out more. His fiancée Ophelia is driven insane by Hamlet’s actions, and eventually, Hamlet’s fears are proven when a play is presented. In true tragic form, there is death in the end.

As we come out of the Covid lockdowns and return carefully to theatre, perhaps this may be just the Hamlet we need. A modern take on a well-known play that captures our imagination and convinces us we’re here for a reason.

What’s particularly interesting is that the character Hamlet is played by a Black woman – Amaka Umeh. Umeh handles the difficult role very well, and suits the part. Hamlet was a very young man and Umeh with her slim build, youthful appearance, and high energy fits. Her frequent gestures demonstrate Hamlet’s immaturity and she makes his growth apparent as the play progresses.  

Graham Abbey as Claudius has all the charm of a new king, and yet, he manages to somehow convey the feeling that he’s not honest and not likeable. Michael Spencer-Davis is perfect as the forgetful busy-body Polonius.

My only concern with this production was the loud and strange music or background noise, presumably to create tension and add to the unworldly atmosphere. Sometimes it was grating, other times it drowned out the speakers.

This is the fourth Hamlet I’ve seen at Stratford, plus two other productions, so I am impressed that director Peter Pasyk was able to give it a new twist.  

While Hamlet’s modern dress might cause a stir with some patrons, not wearing “pumpkin” pants seems to be the norm for Stratford’s Hamlets. Jonathan Goad’s Hamlet in 2015 wore modern clothes, while Ben Carlson’s Hamlet in 2008 wore Edwardian costume, looking like the cast of the Titanic. Paul Gross’s Hamlet in 2000 was in Victorian costume with ruffles and lace. I have yet to see a Hamlet dressed like my antique bookend which holds up my early 1900s complete works of Shakespeare.

Nonetheless, it’s worth it to see this season’s Hamlet, for the chuckles it creates in its modern setting, and for the purposeful presentation of a new Hamlet.

Hamlet continues in repertory until October 28 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca

Photos: 1. Amaka Umeh (centre) with Hilary Adams, Ngabo Nabea and members of the company in Hamlet. Photo by David Hou. 2. My photo of my Hamlet bookend.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Pasyk
Performed by Amaka Umeh, Graham Abbey, Maev Beaty, Austin Eckert, Jakob Ehman, Ijeoma Emesowum, Andrew Rankin, Michael Spencer-Davis, Norman Yeung, et al.
Produced by Stratford Festival
Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 14 to October 28, 2022
Reviewed by Mary Alderson


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