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Hamlet – Review of 2022 Stratford Festival Production

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Amaka Umeh (front) as Hamlet and Jakob Ehman as Horatio in Hamlet. Stratford Festival 2022. Photo by David Hou.

The red carpet was laid out, the trumpets sounded triumphantly, and the pipes played joyfully. It was a moment of celebration for the traditional opening of the Stratford Festival but this year it felt like a celebration for the return of civilization. The season was launched with a production of Hamlet and the audience showed enthusiasm for the production, but I dare say just as much for the resumption of the great Shakespeare Festival.
Peter Pasyk was given the pleasure and burden of directing the production of a play that is remarkably familiar to most theatre goers. That means he must fight with people’s memories of other productions and with managing a highly demanding play. For openers he must find a fresh approach that illustrates his imagination while being faithful to Shakespeare. It is no small task.
Pasyk directs a modern Hamlet complete with cell phones, guns, security systems and fast-paced action. Gender-blind casting has become a cliché and Pasyk has a woman, Amaka Umeh, in the title role. Guildenstern is also played by a woman (Ijeoma Emesowum) as are some minor roles, but nothing hangs by that.
Umeh’s gender is of little consequence because for most of her performance she acts like a man. Pasyk does not make her Princess Hamlet and her movements and her voice which is low enough to represent a man do not betray her gender for the most part. Her Hamlet is youthful, slim, and athletic. She reaches some emotional depths, and her overall performance is satisfactory without achieving star distinction.
For the rest of the cast Pasyk relies on dependable Stratford stalwarts. Maev Beaty and Graham Abbey give superb performance as Gertrude and Claudius. Michael Spencer-Davis plays the garrulous Polonius straight and Pasyk avoids the temptation to make him a figure of fun.
Andrea Rankin’s Ophelia is a modern woman torn between filial fidelity and love for a disturbed man that leads to her suicide. A solid performance by Rankin. Hamlet suffers from the same condition with the need to avenge his father’s murder and endure his mother’s infidelity and perhaps complicity in his father’s death.
Austin Eckert as Laertes and Jakob Ehrman as Horatio do highly polished work. We expect the Gravedigger to elicit a good deal of laughter, but Matthew Kabwe fell short of expectations and it is probably Pasyk’s approach to the character more than the actor’s natural ability. There is considerable humour in Hamlet but we only got a small taste of it.
The production opens with a glass covered mausoleum center-stage with a corpse in it. A person (turns out to be the guard), Francisco approaches it and he sets off an alarm system. Pasyk and Set Designer Patrick Lavender seem quite enamoured of the idea of using the centre of the stage as a place for a casket or a grave. We need the grave for Ophelia, but we also see a corpse that I was not sure whose it was. Must have been Polonius’s but I didn’t think his body was discovered and no one seemed to acknowledge it. In fact, Claudius walks over the glass-covered casket with no compunction.
When Hamlet greets his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the three of them start jumping up and down like giddy teenagers and fall on the ground. Good grief.
Claudius is aware of his offence and he confesses his guilt in his soliloquy that begins with “my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon it.” He is praying for forgiveness and Hamlet finds him in that position. In Pasyk’s version, Claudius is speaking with Polonius. I found it puzzling that he would open his soul to a courtier instead of God which I believe Shakespeare intended him to do. And Ophelia does not sing.
In every production of a Shakespeare play there are numerous excisions of lines and minor changes. Pasyk goes much further. He omits some memorable lines from the “To be or not to be” soliloquy and adding the line “All the world’s a stage” from As You Like It. But he goes much further. He omits the Ambassador, Cornelius, Voltimand, Fortinbras, Osric and some other minor characters. This deletes a subplot and changes the ending of the play.
Hamlet dies with the words “the rest is silence.” Horatio delivers a short eulogy: “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” In Pasyk’s version, the play ends there. In the text, the heroic Fortinbras appears and orders a soldier’s funeral for the Danish Prince. In other words, this production of Hamlet is Pasyk’s personal version of the play.
Lighting Designer Kimberly Purtell has lights flash on and off accompanied by blasts of music and they are quite effective.
The production does have many virtues in terms of acting, design and pace. A glass-enclosed area on the balcony of the Festival Theatre gives information about Claudius and Gertrude’s relationship. We see the dancing and embracing; we see Polonius watching Hamlet. Interesting additions to our understanding of the play.
But I confess to a puritanical bias. There are changes to the text that may be essential and approaches that make us want to see the play at every opportunity. But there are limits. When Polonius brags about enacting Julius Caesar and being killed in the Capitol he does not say “et tu, Brute” in Hamlet. Why are you putting it in?
Hamlet by William Shakespeare opened on June 2, and will run in repertory until October 28, 2022, at the Festival Theatre as part of the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

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