To Be? Bevan-John Is.

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rhys bevan-john as hamlet

William Shakespeare was, undoubtedly, a literary genius. One need look no further than his masterpiece, Hamlet, for evidence of his masterful ability to write ardent emotion and gorgeous imagery, while propelling action and delving deep with prying scrutiny and wise insights into the heart of the human condition. Hamlet can be timeless, but it takes a company of actors who are similarly masterful to successfully take all that Shakespeare has intricately and subtlety woven into this text and make it both easy and enjoyable for a contemporary audience. The cast of Shakespeare By the Sea’s production of Hamlet does just that.

The centrepiece of this production, directed by Jesse MacLean, is Rhys Bevan-John’s performance as the Danish Prince. Although it is clear from the onset that he is sullen and bitter towards his mother-aunt and father-uncle, one of the first impressions the audience is given of this Hamlet is his unbridled joy in seeing his best friend Horatio (played with lovely devotion by Sébastien Labelle). Here, we are given a brief glimpse into what this man was like before Denmark became his prison. In fact, there are glimmers of Hamlet’s former joie de vivre throughout the play that remind us that he is young and that part of his mourning is for the loss of the carefree days he used to spend at school with his friends, blithely loving Ophelia, and being entirely naive to the corruption and the injustice of the world. As the gravity of his mission becomes more apparent, the audience sees Bevan-John’s Hamlet realize that he must sacrifice the people he loves the most, which includes alienating himself from Horatio, from Ophelia and from his mother. Yet, of course, Hamlet’s resolve waivers, and here Bevan-John’s pent up anger and sadness mixed with the confusion of his intellect, his conscience and his doubt overwhelm him causing him to lash out irrationally at everyone, including himself. Bevan-John’s madness is very performative, and very playful, which makes the audience feel complicit in his trickery of Polonius and Claudius. We can also see it as his way of using rudeness and mockery under the pretense of feigned madness to express emotions that he feels otherwise unable or unwilling to communicate. This is a very human Hamlet, often deeply genuine, and obviously tormented to the soul, that an audience will likely feel compelled to identify with.

Bevan-John is countered by Ian Deakin’s Claudius, who is not at all the melodramatic evil villain that one might expect. On the contrary, this Claudius, for most of the play, draws very little attention to himself. His job, as King and as Hamlet’s uncle, is to keep the Kingdom calmly under control. As a situation arises, Deakin’s Claudius seems shrewd in fixing it, but with a lack of ego and pomp and showing kindness toward all the others in the play. When he tells Laertes, “I loved your father,” we are tempted to believe him. In fact, it is only near the end, when he coldly admits to his foul deeds, with almost a shrug as though it were the least an ambitious younger brother could be expected to do, that we see for certain that the ghost’s words were truth. Marty Burt gives a hilarious performance as the bumbling busybody Polonius, who delights in the sound of his own voice and considers himself the authority on everything. The clashes between Burt’s Polonius and Bevan-John’s Hamlet, really capture the disdain that the melancholy Prince feels toward the falseness and rigidity of his life at Elsinore. It is then even more evocative when Hamlet kills Polonius accidently. The old man becomes a surrogate, his death representative of killing all in humanity that Hamlet has come to hold in contempt.

Kimberley Cody, although not old enough to be Bevan-John’s mother, makes bold and interesting choices as Queen Gertrude, as she oscillates between a clear attachment to Claudius and a genuine maternal care for Hamlet. I also liked the lovely sibling relationships between Jeremy Hutton’s Laertes and Emma Laishram’s Ophelia and their respective relationships with their father. There is a wonderful moment where Burt’s Polonius stamps out Ophelia’s happy dreams of her future with Hamlet out of “patriarchal concern,” which is heartbreaking.

The one thing that is strange in this production is Cathleen McCormack’s costume design, which doesn’t seem to have one unifying concept, let alone time period, to root the production in. The performances in this Hamlet are strong enough that director Jesse MacLean does not need a clever concept for the audience to see the play’s relevance. In fact, if they were all wearing neutral clothes, it would suggest that this play could be taking place in the present, or indeed, in any time. Yet, the costumes made me wonder in what time in history the characters were “supposed to be in,” and what effect MacLean’s choice of whatever setting that is was supposed to have on the way we interacted with the piece. At the same time, because so many of the relationships between the characters seemed modern, Hamlet’s friendship with Horatio, for example, I wanted Ophelia to be less weepy and to show a little more strength and ownership, even as the world seems to conspire against her. I wanted Ophelia to fight more for her life the way that Hamlet fights for his.

In all, however, Shakespeare by the Sea has a strong production of Hamlet here filled with some incredibly powerful performances and showcasing some Halifax-based actors who deserve national attention.

Hamlet plays in repertory with Snow White and Much Ado About Nothing until August 31st, 2013 at the Cambridge Battery in Point Pleasant Park. Tickets are PWYC (with a suggested donation price of $20.00 per person) and seating is first come, first serve beginning 30 minutes before the performance. Chairs can be rented for $2.00 and there is blanket space available for you to bring your own seat. New this year, the best seats in the house can now be reserved for $25.00 as part of the Sweet Seats Program. For more information please visit this website.

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