Wednesday 10 July 2013

Hamlet is Jonathon Young writ large

First impressions : Contemporary troupes are all about making Shakespeare "accessible" to 21st century playgoers. Bard on the Beach director Kim Collier aces that concept in her version of Hamlet. Her staging exploits i-Phones and laptops and split-screen 40" t.v.'s as active devices, not just stage props. For its part the setting could be Abbotsford for all the gangster motifs in it, including myriad handguns. But conceiving and blocking and staging a play can be for nought if the players aren't equal to the challenge. No issue here. Because as Hamlet, Jonathon Young gives viewers endless scene after scene of breathtaking originality, imagination, creativity and kinesis.

Plot overview :  Make no mistake. This is Shakespeare. Serious WS. There may be two laughs in the entire performance. It's Hamlet's existential sizzle that sells the steak here. He's a Wittenberg campus frat-boy come home to Denmark. Only to find that his dad, King Hamlet, is dead. Worse, Mom Gertrude has up and married the new self-appointed king, his uncle Claudius, within a month or two of Hamlet pere's demise. And if all that weren't sufficiently Freudian and iffy in deed as well as thought, there're also rumours floating about of an agitated ghost who's haunting Elsinore nightly. Sure enough. Dad. And he wants revenge for the fratricide / regicide by little brother.

What happens, what doesn't : Whereas Macbeth has lots of plot activity, Hamlet is a thinker's play. He's a ditherer and a procrastinator and a morally-riven soul. He "wants" to revenge Dad's death, but he just "can't". Hamlet plots and schemes, but he just can't seem to bring himself to "do". Part of his scheming is to fake madness. In doing so he renounces his love for Ophelia and orders her to hie herself to a whorehouse (nunnery). And because Collier opens the play with Hamlet and Ophelia nuzzling horizontally downstage centre -- an original insertion and part of the "accessibility" piece -- the result is a boy-breaks-off-with-girlfriend speech that wounds grievously, viscerally. It was one of the most poignant and compelling scenes in the play (whereas the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy was done somewhat matter-of-factly, in a kind of "on the one hand this, on the other that" style that nevertheless quite worked.)

Fact is Hamlet's famed "antic disposition" -- the phony madness -- is a gambit he tries out mostly to buy time : to determine if Dad's ghost is for real and is to be trusted and not a Satanic trick; to see if he can find the "smoking gun" in Claudius's hand; to muster up the guts and energy to actually pull off the revenge-killing like a Tony Soprano or one of the Bacons. Ironically, the murder of Claudius occurs almost by accident in the play's final tumultuous moments.

Character strengths :  As noted, Jonathon Young commands the stage. Full-stop. But as the aging Lord Chamberlain Polonius, Richard Newman is still the delightful doddering blabberer always offering up "fruits of advice" in 10 words where two would do. [Ed. Note. Sort of like a typical BLR review.] Collier assigns the role of Hamlet's bosom buddy Horatio to Jennifer Lines, who early on has marvelous blocking and hand gesticulation to accompany her eager speeches. Rachel Cairns as Ophelia is a compelling ingenue. Her final soliloquy with brother Laertes (Todd Thomson) is the second-most poignant scene in the play, the two of them equal in that respect. Barbara Pollard as Queen Gertrude is convincing as a "Who me...?" person who never quite gets why Hamlet is upset with her. Bill Dow as the usurper Claudius is a steady kind of Nixonian evil with flashes of brilliant temper. Casting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as lovers (Naomi Wright and Craig Erickson) was a touch well executed. They were a delight playing off one another. Hard to decide whether Duncan Fraser as Ghost King was better than his gravedigger antics. 

Production values :  For all the "black" in the play, scenic designer Pam Johnson's strikingly white set projects the right images both visually and morally. The furniture sheets as shrouds in the opening scene were spot-on. Costume designer Nancy Bryant produced a clever blend of black, grey, and white suits, offset by more colourful and elegant togs for the royalty. The music and sound design by Torquil Campbell and Chris Dumont was superb, with Hamlet punching up background riffs off his i-Phone including the Beatles' "Revolution" and the cheeky "Is That All There Is?" when he confronts Mom Gertrude about her horrible, ugly duplicity in all of this. (Loved Dawn Upshaw's backdrop of Henryk Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" during the final Hamlet / Laertes fight scene.)

Who gonna like, who gonna not : Don't take Shakespeare newbies to this. It's for WS aficionados and Hamlet hand-wringers. It's l-l-l-long, 190 minutes with Int. It's w-w-w-w-wordy. But it's Jonathon Young doing whirlygig manic depressive shout-outs flipping to pained reflective ruminations in hair's breadth timing, one after another after yet another, each word and line and nuance with astonishing absorption and clarity and verve every time. For that alone, go! 


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