Playing the iconic part of Hamlet is considered by many to be a theatrical marathon. In Hope and Hell Theatre’s Production of Hamlet (Solo), playing at the Neptune Studio Theatre until October 21st 2012, Raoul Bhaneja doesn’t just play Hamlet, he plays everyone else as well. Here the Toronto-based actor has seventeen parts and 15,000 words to impart on an audience in two hours in likely one of the most intensely intimate productions of Shakespeare one could hope to find.
It is clear from the onset that Bhaneja’s production is not a gimmicky parlour trick. He gives each character as much depth, complexity and thoughtful consideration as an actor would in preparing to play any one single role. What is most remarkable about Hamlet (Solo) is that it is so technically sparse, harkening back to Shakespeare’s own time when plays were performed in natural light. This production goes even further. Without costume pieces, fancy lighting, stage mechanics, or a multitude of props to rely on, the focus is entirely fixed on Bhaneja’s performance and Shakespeare’s words.
The line that immediately jumped out at me in this production was one that Hamlet says referring to Claudius, “My father’s brother, but no more like my father/ Than I to Hercules.” Shakespeare usually adhered to the Aristotelian Theory of Tragedy in his plays, and more specifically, the belief that the higher the protagonist’s station in life, or position of power, the greater and more dramatic their fall to misery would be for an audience. Hamlet is, of course, a Prince, which fulfills part of Aristotle’s Theory. Yet, one of the first things that Hamlet tells us about himself is that he is as far from being a hero filled with strength as his father is from being a murderous villain. Bhaneja’s Hamlet fits this description ardently. He is young and almost sheepish, still teary when he thinks of his father, at times sulky, often rude, disrespectful and indignant, and it is clear that he is about as far from having all the answers as one can get. There is much talk of Hamlet’s delay, both in theatrical and scholarly interpretations of the text, but in Bhaneja’s performance the answer is clear: Hamlet is very unsure of himself. He has never been the Hercules capable of bravely seeking revenge. In fact, he often doubts himself and sometimes he pieces his ideas (and his words) together slowly, and sometimes the right words don’t seem to come to him at all.
Bhaneja plays all seventeen characters as though they could be your friends or your neighbours, living in your town. Yet, he still manages to keep the intensely high stakes of the murderous plot in tact while rooting all the players firmly in a lovely sense of humanity. It is typical for one-person shows to have characters that are cartoonish or stylized to keep a dramatic disparity between each one, but here, often you are able to see how these people are similar to one another. Hamlet and his friend Horatio have similar vocal timbres, as best friends of the same age would. Polonius and Claudius are similar in their means of enforcing their paternal law on their children, yet radically different overall. Bhaneja keeps a nice balance between the characterizations being subtle, but still easy to distinguish. Beyond Hamlet, my favourites were dithering, long winded, “Old Country” Polonius, Queen Gertrude who you believe unequivocally loves and cares about her son, the glazed-eyed Ghost King, Guildenstern, who could have come from Coronation Street, and the singing gravedigger.
Through it all, it is Bhaneja’s impressive command of Shakespeare’s language and his ability to make it sound entirely conversational, and the ease at which he seems to do it, that brings this four hundred year old story to vivid life. While I was watching the story unfold I kept thinking to myself, “This is how teenagers should learn about Shakespeare: from actors who can make the words make sense, can draw the jokes and the wit and the sarcasm out of obscurity and allow Hamlet to connect intimately with the Post Post Modern World.”
Director Robert Ross Parker makes some great use of physicality and space in the staging of the piece. I particularly loved the use of Bhaneja’s breath to announce the presence of the Ghost and how often characters would melt in and out of each other’s physicality. The swordfight scene, and all the moments where one character is physically assaulted by another are very precise and evocatively staged. In a whirlwind one-person show like this one the danger is that the audience will become too caught up in the concept that they become distant from the emotional journey of the play. This is not the case here. I found the more the plot thickened and Bhaneja was dying a rapid succession of deaths, the more captivated and emotionally invested I became. Also, the mirroring of the relationship of Hamlet and Claudius to the Players with the relationship between Bhaneja and the audience as he hopped on and off stage was very effective to bring the audience even deeper into the story.
One challenge of this production in the Neptune Studio Theatre is that without the blanketing of a darkened stage in a single spot of light, the stage can feel very large and wide for a single actor to inhabit. I was sitting extremely close to the stage, so I felt the sense of intimacy and extreme connection that this play thrives on, but I wondered if this experience was a little lost for those sitting farther back.
Hamlet (Solo) seems really simple, but achieving that allusion of smooth effortlessness is a remarkable feat. In Raoul Bhaneja’s dexterous hands we are encouraged to fall in love with Shakespeare’s language and understand it at the same time.
Hope and Hell Theatre in Association with Richard Jordan Productions Ltd’s Hamlet (Solo) plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) until October 21st, 2012. Shows Tuesday to Friday at 7:30pm, shows Saturdays at 4:00pm and 8:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets $17.00-$37.00. For more information please visit www.neptunetheatre.com.