By William Shakespeare
Performed by Ben Carlson, Maria Ricossa, Scott Wentworth, Geraint Wyn Davies, James Blendick, Victor Ertmanis, Bruce Godfree, Adrienne Gould, Tom Rooney.
Directed by Adrian Noble
Stratford Shakespeare Festival Production
Festival Theatre, Stratford
April 23 to October 26, 2008
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Shakespeare’s best known story back in Stratford

Shakespeare’s most quoted and most often performed tragedy, Hamlet, is back on stage in Stratford this summer. Renamed the Stratford “Shakespeare” Festival by new management, one might think that the Festival would put the emphasis on recreating a true Shakespearean/Elizabethan experience. But compared to the traditional version that was presented in 2000, this year’s production is modernized.

Costumes are Edwardian style – instead of ancient Denmark, it feels like an English parlour in the early 1900s. In fact, the suits and gowns look like they just stepped on the upper class section of the Titanic. Other little things remind the audience that they are not in ancient times – Hamlet’s famous play within a play is performed through a scrim in silhouette, using electric lights to make the shadows.

But more noticeably updated are the spoken words. Ben Carlson as Hamlet does not speak in the traditional Shakespearean iambic pentameter – the usual ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum rhythm. Somehow Carlson has made the lines sound like modern English, even though he is saying the Elizabethan words. He also glosses over the rhyming couplets at the ends of the scenes, making them sound like prose. The recent preview performance I attended was filled with high school students – I suspect their English teachers told them to watch for the rhyme to know when to applaud. As it was, they hesitated, then overreacted with wild cheers.

Young Prince Hamlet (Carlson) returns home only to find that something is rotten in Denmark. He’s terribly upset to learn that his father is dead and his uncle Claudius (Scott Wentworth) is now king and hastily married his mother, Gertrude (Maria Ricossa). (If you’re not familiar with Hamlet, and yet this storyline seems familiar, perhaps you know it from Disney’s The Lion King.) Hamlet immediately has his suspicions, but when the ghost of his father, Old Hamlet (James Blendick) appears, Hamlet heeds the ghost’s request to avenge his murder.

In order to find out what’s been going on, Hamlet pretends to be crazy. Shakespearean scholars sometimes argue whether Hamlet’s madness is feigned or real, but in this production, it seems to be faked. In fact, Carlson actually makes Hamlet funny while he’s feigning madness, adding levity and comic relief to this tragedy. Carlson plays the role less angrily than most. Many Hamlets are embittered and beleaguered, but when Carlson utters the famous “to be or not to be”, it’s impossible to think that he is at all serious about suicide. Even Paul Gross (of TV’s Due South and the movie Men with Brooms fame) played a more sober Hamlet at the Festival in 2000.

Hamlet realizes that someone is hiding behind a curtain, thinks it’s his opportunity to kill Claudius, but unfortunately stabs the Lord Chamberlain, Polonius (Geraint Wyn-Davies of TV’s 24). Wyn-Davies is not quite as annoying as the chatty Polonius should be. I think Shakespeare wanted Polonius to be a nosy gossip, so that the audience doesn’t feel bad when he dies. Wyn-Davies doesn’t make Polonius’ busybody nature apparent enough.

Unfortunately, Hamlet’s madness drives his girlfriend Ophelia (Adrienne Gould) mad and sadly, she commits suicide. Gould is a delightful Ophelia, a little perkier than others. She, too, has a couple of comedic moments.

Polonius’ son Laertes (Bruce Godfree) wants a duel with Hamlet when he learns his father is dead and poisons the tip of his sword. Eventually, all the key players are dead, and thus ends this great tragedy.

The set does not use the typical Shakespearean thrust stage and balcony, but it seems to work with the extended floor.

While most of the cast adapts to the modern cadence, Wentworth as Claudius prefers the traditional style of speaking. Not only is it difficult to understand him at times, but whenever he turns his back, it is also difficult to hear him.

The fun in seeing Hamlet is noticing all the everyday clichés in it. Amazing to think that those phrases you hear all the time, were actually coined and written in 1599.

Whether or not you like this production of Hamlet will depend on your tastes. If you are a Shakespearean purist, you may not enjoy the language, set and costumes. However, you believe that Shakespeare wrote for all times, then you’ll enjoy hearing the rhythm of the language made understandable today.

Hamlet continues at the Festival Theatre, Stratford until October 26. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-567-1600 or check www.stratfordfestival.ca.


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