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HAMLET
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Rose. At Tarragon. January 10-February 11, 2018
LEAR
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Graham Abbey

A Groundling Theatre Production at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre,
January 12-28, 2018

(L-R) Noah Reid (Hamlet), Tiffany Ayalik (Ophelia), Jack Nicholsen (Player King),
Beau Dixon (Player Queen), Nigel Shawn Williams (Claudius), Tantoo Cardinal (Gertrude),
and Cliff Saunders (Polonius) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Every strong theatre version of a classic play is, in a fundamental sense, a new interpretation. This is particularly true of Shakespearean productions and is very much in keeping with the experiments of Shakespeare himself in each of his own plays, in which he continued experimenting with content and form. Modern directors are especially eager to find new ways of presenting the world’s most versatile, most brilliant playwright. The question is not why experiment, but what are the aim and results of their experiments.

Toronto has two Shakespearean productions that opened this month. At Tarragon, Richard Rose has decided to change the form of Hamlet radically, whereas at Harbourfront, Graham Abbey has focussed on a gender change for King Lear, thereby altering a central dynamic. Both experiments have value but with significant limitations, and therein lies a tale of critical and cultural instruction. For one thing, Canadian Shakespeare (and there is certainly such a thing) cannot function without pre-existing special pleading: as Shakespeare has never been at the crucial nexus of our culture, our schools still see the need to justify including Shakespeare in the curriculum, and directors still have to find “relevance” in the world’s greatest, wisest, most versatile playwright.

The cancellation sign in the very title of Rose’s production (Hamlet) indicates that what a spectator is seeing is not any traditional Hamlet, not even a purely theatrical one. As every production is a revision or re-visioning of what has already existed, this isn’t exactly world-shaking news. I appreciate Richard Rose’s deliberate attempt to create a new grain, a new tone for a world classic, but he has mixed rock’n’roll with radio play, concert recital, and stage play, without finding a way in which they could merge into a satisfying whole. There are free-standing microphones on stage, backup musicians, a piano, and a few chairs. The production is overly “miked,” with actors forced to react into their microphones rather than to fellow actors. Costuming by Kathleen Johnston is chiefly contemporary with jackets, long coats, boots, and caps pronounced, though she does present Claudius as a lounge-lizard or oily emcee, Horatio as a priest, Laertes as a 60s war vet in army green jacket and an angry guitar, and the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a neat, well-groomed vaudevillian pair with a jazz spirit, though Rosencrantz has apparently undergone a sex change. Not only is there no Elsinore, there is no specific period. You could be anywhere and either now or then, though possibly not much farther back than the earliest punk rock band or when Inuit throat-singing became familiar to Canadian audiences. Jason Hand’s stunning lighting is the best technical resource, although Thomas Ryder Payne’s obsessive sound design wishes to share that distinction, against critical discrimination. Payne never seems to know when to let well enough alone. He supplies sound when silence would do very nicely, frequently interrupting the dialogue and forgetting that Shakespeare’s own verbal music is symphonic in its own right—though you wouldn’t necessarily think so from the verse-speaking in the production.

Seana McKenna (Lear) and Jim Mezon (Gloucester) (photo: Michael Cooper)

Over fifty years ago in England, David Warner performed the title role as a self-disgusted adolescent, unfitted for “mature magnificence and ruthlessness.” Noah Reid plays Hamlet like an angry musician (on piano, ukele, accordion) performing on what could be called “Denmark’s Got Talent,” speaking his first aside and soliloquy into a mic on a piano, tearing into many other speeches, coarsening tone, losing many colours and levels of meaning, flattening or yelling important speeches, and generally harassing the role, though he relishes the black humour in the arras scene and then has a deliciously comic sequence when he acts like an amateur drama coach instructing the professional strolling players. Having to play almost throughout with a hand-held mic, he is curtailed in his gestures, and certainly is no prince, though there are shreds and patches of melancholy, spite, and mind games. In other words, he lacks status and eventual luminosity of spirit. His Ophelia is Tiffany Ayalik, who is a wonderful singer (she brings in moments of Inuit throat-singing) but an inadequate actress who is totally unconvincing in many scenes. Like her, Brandon McGibbon offers little substance in his weird performance as her brother. Perhaps his Laertes is suffering from PTSD, though it is hard to know why, other than the director’s generalized concept of a world of lies and deceptions.

Ronald Bryden famously asserted that “the key to every Hamlet is its ghost.” The only ghost in Rose’s production is a voice-over and an all-lights effect, so it is difficult to gauge the extent of its prince’s active heroism or his brainsick, nerveless, Oedipal nature. This deficiency extends to other cases of incomplete characterization. Greg Gale’s Horatio is wan and not much more, while Cliff Saunders does a comic double act—one as a buttoned-down Polonius, conventional in verse-speaking and comic acting, but without anything sinister; the other (much more interestingly) as the Gravedigger in a warmly funny Newfie way, interacting with the audience at one point. Tantoo Cardinal’s Gertrude has more than a touch of heyday in the blood, as she boogies with Nigel Shawn Williams’s Claudius, before drowning herself in drink and ending up in a bad way, indeed. But her boudoir scene with Hamlet goes almost for naught because she is flat and dry tonally. She is dominated by her Claudius, a control freak who even cues or silences the musicians. Williams can be offensively rank when he overacts, but here his performance is vivid and well calibrated to the musical score, especially in its jazz or rock phases. He uses his voice as nicely as he does his body movement, so his Claudius is the most interesting performance, though it never really ignites in the play-within-the-play scene. Ironically, The Mousetrap is the most innovatively staged episode, though in an un-Shakespearean manner, literally sung throughout by Jack Nicholsen (Player King) and Beau Dixon (Player Queen), with special virtuosity by Dixon whose high notes vibrate with terrific colour.

Graham Abbey’s Lear has more matter and art than Rose’s Hamlet. Staged in a rectangular grey space within the natural brick walls of Harbourfront Theatre, it scants on décor, uses a mix of contemporary and period costuming, live musicians, and tells its story without fuss but with admirable clarity. It re-versions the Shakespearean original most significantly in the title role, but losing and gaining in the process. As the female Lear, Seana McKenna has dignity and authority stamped on her in voice and manner, and her apportioning of the kingdom is not based on any fact of mental infirmity or eccentricity. She commands flattery as a sign of her societal power, startling Deborah Hay’s Goneril into a reasonable disgust. Diana Donnelly’s Regan, taller and more artificially composed than her sisters, hardly ever lets her own mask of false deference crack through the early formality, but that mask seems glued to her face and her performance lacks dimension and depth. Mercedes Morris as Cordelia is over-parted, as are some of the supporting players, including Colin Mochrie as the Fool (with red rooster coxcomb), who has superficial humour while lacking dramatic weight, mood, and depth to show the soul-destroyed cynic under the skin of the facile jester. There are other deficiencies. Alex McCooeye’s Edmund, whose excessively lanky height may be the only towering thing in his performance, turns Gloucester’s bastard-son into little more than a comic villain, just as young Augusto Bitter plays Oswald stiffly on a single note of careless arrogance. Karl Ang makes an earnest Albany, while Alex Poch-Godin is versatile in his triple roles as Cornwall, Knight, and Messenger, playing each with distinctive vocal and emotional registers. Kevin Hanchard depicts Kent’s stalwart passion but his strong vocal performance doesn’t progress into a multi-layered one. Antoine Yared takes the role of France literally, adopting a French accent for characterization, but his benign Edgar is far better. In his mad Tom scenes and the devastating reunion with his blind father, Yared makes a good foil for Jim Mezon’s Gloucester. Mezon who can bluster with the best hams of the world fortunately forsakes noise for truthful, accomplished acting, and his Gloucester is the most moving version I have yet seen as his cold authority and careless irony crumble and expose an excruciatingly violated and abused humanity.

Ultimately, however, everything rests on the central performance, and this is where I return to my initial feeling that something has been gained while something else has been lost. Seana McKenna almost manages to make you forget that the play is about an aging titan, a shattered oak, a piteously self-deluded being whose distemper is worse than any literal storm. Almost but not quite. She begins with clear, precise enunciation of her royal authority rather than acting like some aging figure-head with early dementia. This matriarch knows which lines may be crossed and which may not, and all her passions have human size. However, the actress is underpowered in the storm scene, and Lear’s descent into madness and ascent to serene wisdom are less than convincing as McKenna seems to run out of emotional and vocal steam. The role demands a technical musculature through the character’s existential journey into wisdom. It cannot be played for containment. McKenna is no ordinary actress, and what she achieves in this instance is far from ordinary. The actress’s thin nasality returns in the most traumatic scenes, and though the performance is always intelligent and rooted in psychological truth, it falls short of being truly moving or deeply cathartic.

 

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