Don’t Delay: the Dark Dane Doesn’t Disappoint

gord rand
Hamlet is not generally a “blink and you miss it” type of play, especially when it is performed in five acts over three hours, the majority of which is spent waiting for the protagonist to make up his mind; to act or not to act. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Hamlet is a brilliant work of genius that does not nessicarily need a dramatic reworking or a creative contemporary concept to resonate fervently with its audience. But it was fascinating to get catapulted into Necessary Angel’s intense, fast-paced retelling, which found the perfect balance between capturing the urgent angst of a modern world and nurturing the poetry of Shakespeare’s language.
There is indeed something rotten in the state of this Denmark, and the mess, the disorder, and the disregard felt by all the characters for such a chaotic state is reflected nicely in Director Graham McLaren’s set where empty beer cans, ripped streamers and bottles are strewn around a large table and several chairs, which the actors wade through with habitude. Our Hamlet is dressed in black and wears Converse sneakers, while the severe militarism of Claudius, Polonius, Laertes and Guildencrantz suggests a civil unrest that goes beyond the Danish Prince’s own desolation. Indeed, the entire play seems to explore the consequences of using extreme force as a means to express one’s feelings of love. This becomes especially pertinent within the context of a military exerting its extreme control and power over its civilians through fear and terror, while churning out soldiers who exemplify a specific and traditional image of masculinity.
This concept is implicit in Shakespeare’s text, as he has created Claudius as a man who is willing to abandon all familial affection and responsibility, and to embrace violence as a means of fulfilling his own ambitions. In Necessary Angel’s production, Hamlet greets his father’s ghost like a child trying to tug him back into the world by the coattails, but the Ghost receives his son bitterly, pushing and threatening him. The audience is left to wonder whether this is how Hamlet was treated while his father was alive. Here Hamlet perpetuates this cycle of violence at nearly every occasion. As his frustration mounts, he aggressively attacks his dearest friend Horatio, Ophelia, the girl he loves, and his mother, in a way that suggests that he has not learned any other way to express his emotions. Polonius is similarly brutal with Ophelia, mistaking complete militaristic domination for paternal concern. Then Laertes bursts into the play on a shooting rampage like a soldier out of a Sarah Kane play. It is absolutely gripping to watch and this Elsinore leaves little wonder why its inhabitants eventually buckle and descend into madness and exhibit an utter disregard for human life.
The performances in this production mixed with Graham McLaren’s continually creative staging are mesmerizing. Tara Nicodemo gives a beautiful performance as Ophelia, continually searching for the approval of everyone until her quest to please proves dismally fruitless. Ophelia and Hamlet have a beautiful moment in this production where she reads a magazine as he draws a note for her as he slyly watches her like an enamored nine year old. They then share “Eskimo Kisses,” which alludes sweetly to the innocence of their love, but also suggests the undeveloped nature of Hamlet and Ophelia’s ability to connect in love amid their world of violence. Benedict Campbell gives a brilliant performance as Claudius, who on the one hand seems mostly irritated with his stepson/nephew because he is continually interrupting his sexcapades with Gertrude. Yet, in Claudius’ cold calm, he is contrasted strongly to the impetuous, passionate Hamlet. Hamlet proved that he could kill a man with his bare hands and using whatever objects he could find around him, a deed which ultimately creates a grisly and intense personal relationship between the killer and the victim. Claudius, on the other hand, sits calmly in his home and gives orders that prompt others to do his dark bidding for him. I saw in Campbell’s portrayal of Claudius the chilling image of many leaders and dictators of the 20th Century. Laura de Carteret was fascinating as Gertrude, a woman pulled between the love of a husband and a love for a son. Her Gertrude was obviously emotionally ravaged as she subtly downed pills followed by mouthfuls of booze. She and Ophelia provided two portraits of the same restrained female experience: the girl who belongs to her father, and the woman who belongs to her husband. For both, it seemed, the only means of escape was death. Eric Peterson magically turned the dotty, meddling, busybody Old Polonius into a terrifying force to be reckoned with who demanded that his words be heard and heeded. Gord Rand’s Hamlet, often stooped over shuffling through the mess or hanging in silent contemplation, captured both the sense of a despair so deep that even breathing requires too much energy, and all the manic bursts and flairs that unrestrained, mixed-up feelings evoke.
I heard aspects of Shakespeare’s language in this production that I had never heard before. I saw humor where I had previously only seen sadness. I was pulled into Elsinore as though I were watching a production of Festen or August: Osage County, and the most remarkable thing is: I don’t think Graham McLaren radically changed Shakespeare’s play, or drastically complicated his themes or intentions. After all, if the actors in their play are merely “holding up a mirror to nature,” surely the essence of that reflection will remain the same with time.

Necessary Angel’s Hamlet plays at the enwave theatre at the Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), as part of its World Stage 2009-10 Season. Hamlet runs until November 29th, 2009. For tickets or more information please call 416.973.4000 or visit www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

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